How do you respond when an organization you love is in crisis? My initial reaction was deep rooted disappointment paired with a real sense of helplessness. “How did the organization get to this place? Maybe it deserves to go under if it can’t find a sustainable business model,” I thought. I’ve been around the non-profit block. I could tell devastating stories of dysfunction, ignorance, and poor business deals that prevent organizations from achieving their mission. When I heard that my alma mater, The King’s College, might be closing its doors, I was devastated. Somehow, despite my disappointment, I was unfazed.
As an alum and prospective donor, when I heard the news I was already disgruntled. How did we get here and what’s the school doing about it? Furthermore, the only communication I received from the school was an email. “Help save your college. We need millions of dollars to stay open.” This only added fuel to the fire of resentment burning inside me.
Over the past two years, I have orchestrated donor development trainings for more than 350 leaders of K-12 schools. From an external perspective, everything King’s was doing to raise money was exactly what we teach our leaders not to do at the Herzog Foundation. Fundraising is about asking people for money to meet a need. Donor development is about inviting donors and prospective donors on a journey with your organization. One makes you feel used - it’s transactional. One makes you feel uniquely part of something bigger than yourself - it’s transformational. It’s all about the language of the leadership. When fundraising is the solution to our problems it is a fool’s errand, a never ending game of getting the next person to write the next check. But I would suggest that all our problems are in fact people problems, and the solution is relational.1 It's invitational, and the alumni of The King’s College have invited ourselves into this messy situation with the institution we love.
Nearly 5 weeks after the announcement of possible closure of King’s and the generic email asking for money, some fellow alumni coordinated an unofficial call to explore ways to get involved. I was sitting at a wine shop in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, when I jumped on the call. I don’t know if it was the very strong Uruguayan wine or the beckoning of the Holy Spirit but something in me changed. There we were, more than 40 alumni, on a zoom call exploring ways to help the institution we love. Do we have questions? Yes. Do we expect answers? Yes. Is there hesitation to stick our necks out for a sinking ship? Yes. But what covered all of that was a sense that now is the time for action, and if this ship is going down, we’re going to do all we can to try and save it.
Time might not be on King’s side, but for what it’s worth, the alumni are.
As Herzog’s lead coach for donor development said to me, “in leadership there’s a time for recovery, a time for planning and improvement, and there is a time for massive action.” The alumni are taking massive action. Our goal is to raise $1 million in a week. This won’t save the institution by any means. The school may still close. But, $1 million will quite literally buy King’s time. Time to serve the current class well. Time to save the charter if it does close. Time to cultivate transformational gifts. Time to answer the questions the alumni and potential donors have.
This world needs a place like King’s. My deep hope is that the power of philanthropy will not only patch the leaks in this sinking ship but steer it in a more sustainable direction (with better donor practices!).
1 Zach Clark; Herzog Foundation Lead Coach: Donor Development; Leadership and Development Coaching LLC.