What Can Fundraising Professionals Learn from L.L. Bean?

I recently had a personal experience that illustrates what I mean when I speak of “donor-centered” fundraising. Sadly, my recent experience is a cautionary tale rather than a happy story.

My experience brought to mind the L.L. Bean Company philosophy as described by Jay Conrad Levinson in his book Guerilla Marketing Excellence (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993). Unfortunately, my recent encounter demonstrated the exact opposite point of view. At L.L. Bean, the successful retailer, the customer is the center of the universe. One way the company has maintained its customer-first culture is that it has developed a list of statements about customers that are shared with each employee as a reminder. In my own book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing (John Wiley and Sons, 2011), I adapted the L.L. Bean list for the nonprofit world because it is a good idea to remind ourselves and our colleagues, from time to time, of the importance of the donor:

  • The donor is the most important person ever in this office, in person, by mail, or on the telephone.
  • The donor is not dependent on us; we are dependent on the donor.
  • A donor is not an interruption of our work; she is the purpose of it.
  • We are not doing a favor by serving her; she is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.
  • A donor is not someone to argue or match wits with. Nobody ever won an argument with a donor.
  • A donor is a person who brings us his wants. It is our job to handle them in a way that is beneficial to him and our organization.

Unfortunately, my recent experience involves an organization that is not donor-centered. A couple of weeks ago, I returned to my alma mater to be interviewed by National Public Radio. NPR did the interview remotely while I was in a studio at my old college radio station. It was fun to be interviewed by NPR even though I knew there was a superb chance I’d end up on whatever the digital version of the editing room floor is which, by the way, is exactly what happened. But, I was also excited to be back on my old stomping grounds. While just a 15 minute cab ride away from my home and office, I don’t get to that part of the city very often. And, I was particularly happy to be returning to the radio station, now in a far more sophisticated facility than when I worked for it in my student days.

My interview went quickly and well. So, with the extra time I had, I thought I would try to meet someone on the development staff, get a quick tour of the station, and become a “member” as a gesture of appreciation for them hosting me. Upon my request, the receptionist found a membership staff person to come out and speak with me. So far, so good.

I explained that I was an alumnus. I had been at the station to be interviewed by NPR. I found it exciting to be back since I had once worked long hours at the station’s old location while a student. And, I was interested in a quick tour. The membership person told me, with an officious tone, that I could not have a tour. When I expressed puzzlement over this, she further coldly explained that tours were available at set times and that I was welcome to come back at any of the designated tour dates and times. I shared that I don’t get to this particular neighborhood very often and, since I’m already present, would like just a quick peek around. She then began to get belligerent. She stated, “We can’t have people just showing up wanting tours!” I re-explained that I was not just anyone, that I was an alumnus and someone who had worked at the station. She said I’d still have to come back. I pointed out, with some annoyance, that this is not a very donor-centered approach. That simply confused her. So, I told her that doing things on my schedule is donor-centered while doing things on her schedule is organization-centered. At that point, she really looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

I waved-off the membership person. I thanked her for her time. And, I said good-bye. As I was putting on my coat, the station manager came out to greet me. The membership person had very wisely and very quickly briefed him. While I’d like to believe she did this for my benefit, I suspect it was really more about protecting herself from what she rightly expected would be a future complaint letter from me.

The station manager graciously apologized. He said staff was very busy as they were in the middle of the pledge drive and, therefore, could not be flexible regarding the tour policy. It was a case of bad timing. And, he, too, suggested I come back for a scheduled tour. We parted ways with handshakes and smiles. A couple of weeks have now passed, and I have yet to receive a “Gee, it was nice meeting you” email or letter. Nor, have I received a personal note inviting me back for a tour. In short, I have heard nothing more.

While I appreciate the station manager’s apology and understand his reasoning, he could have handled the situation much better.  Here are just some ideas for how he could have done things in a more donor-centered way:

  1. He could have explained to me that staff was busy with the pledge drive, but he’d have someone give me a quick walk around rather than a full tour. Surely someone could have been spared for five minutes of spontaneous donor cultivation.
  2. He could have invited me into the studio to observe the pledge drive.
  3. He could have invited me to become a member and then offer to put me on the air to do a short testimonial as a returning alumnus. That would have wowed me and a testimonial is a great way to inspire others to give as well.
  4. He could have followed up with an email or letter inviting me back or at least saying it was nice to meet me.

If he had done any of those four donor-centered things, I would have given the station money and become a member. And, I’d be on my way to being cultivated to give another, larger gift. Instead, that station manager and membership person have alienated me. I have not given and likely will not give for two reasons: First, I don’t like the way I was personally treated. Second, and far more importantly, if this is the way in which they treat prospective donors, they are alienating others and leaving plenty of other donations on the table. They have demonstrated that they are not a donor-centered organization.

If the radio station adopts a donor-centered development culture and if staff posts the modified L.L. Bean list somewhere on the wall of the development and membership office, I might be persuaded to make a gift to the radio station. Otherwise, I’ll continue giving where I know that organizations are most effectively raising and spending money.

Is your organization donor-centered? I hope so.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


I’m happy to report that I received a gracious and thoughtful email from the radio station manager on March 2. He invited me to the station for a tour and a chance to talk. We’re in the process of coordinating calendars. I really do have fond memories of the station, and my wife and I are listeners. So, I’m looking forward to another visit and the chance to get the relationship back on track.

22 Responses to “What Can Fundraising Professionals Learn from L.L. Bean?”

  1. Hi Michael
    This is a great example of what not to do! I had a similar experience which I described in a blog post a while back: http://wp.me/p1bPqj-1u I let the offending nonprofit (my alma mater) know of my dissatisfaction when they called to schedule a visit with me. To their credit, they worked hard to make it right after that and were successful in restoring my commitment to and connection with the institution. Maybe you should try an experiment and let the station manager know in writing how disappointed you are and maybe he’ll surprise you.


  2. Phyllis,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and a link to your own blog post about the importance of good stewardship. I hope folks will click through. As for my alma mater, I will certainly give them another chance. I’m emailing the station manager a link to my blog post. It will be interesting to see how he responds, if at all. If anything interesting develops, I’ll be sure to share the news.

  3. Great story, Michael! Thanks for sharing. It would be great if NPO’s and development staff were more donor-centered. Often, it’s not much more than a little common sense and decency!

  4. Great story! I worked in PR, Marketing and Fundraising in hospitals for 20 years and now work for L.L.Bean. Your adaptation of the customer focussed principles work well for many situations.

    The story at the radio station, quite frankly, is a sad one. I would have dropped everything to give you a tour. What an opportunity! If they missed this opportunity with you, then they are missing many more with many others. Yikes.

    • Dan, thank you for the feedback, particularly since you have both fundraising and L.L. Bean experience! I love L.L. Bean, in large measure due to it’s customer-focused principles. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the radio station for the reasons you identified. Sigh.

  5. Michael, Thanks for sharing this story. This is valuable information for anyone, especially those of us fundraaising in tough economic times.
    I’m the Membership Director at Public Radio Delmarva and know how important it is to be donor centered. Since my time here I have made a strong effort to create a more personal approach with members and cultivate our donors and perspective donors, no matter how busy I am.
    Thanks so much for sharing this story Michael and validating the importance of simply being nice.

    • Angela, I applaud your donor-centered efforts. I’m sure you’ve discovered that being donor-centered makes your donors happier, makes you happier, and generates more support for your station than would otherwise be the case. Thank you for sharing the vision!

  6. What do I think? I think it WAS a case of bad timing, and you chose to not accept that. There are times in some stations where no one is available for even a 5 minute tour during Fund Drives. Points two and three that you’ve listed may be donor centered but they reveal how little understanding you have of radio operation and programming. In my mind the only real issue you have with the station is point 4, you should have received a followup. And you still may. Fund Drives are very taxing on station resources and people, things don’t get back to normal the next day. My suggestion would be for the next Fund Drive why don’t you volunteer to help, then take the 15 minute ride over to the station and see it from the inside. Happy listening.

    • I’m sure it was a case of “bad timing” for the radio station. However, it was NOT a case of “bad timing” for me. I’m the prospective donor. If they want my money, it is my perspective that matters most. That was the entire point of my blog post. As Kristen commented, not all radio stations share your view. To date, I have yet to receive any sort of follow-up. If I do, I’ll certainly share the news here. With so many worthy causes seeking my volunteer and financial support (in the right way), I won’t be going out of my way to support a nonprofit that is not donor-centered. It’s not just how they treated me. It’s about how they treat prospects and donors generally resulting, undoubtedly, in many lost opportunities.

  7. Michael,
    I must say I was rather shocked to hear how you were treated. As a development professional at a public radio station, that is absolutely not how we treat our donors and members. We are member supported and pride ourselves on this fact. Even during a fund drive, we would have taken the time to give you a tour. Of course, each station is different, but we welcome the opportunity to show our donors what goes on behind the scenes and what their contributions help to fund. If you are ever in St. Louis, feel free to stop by and I’m sure we can let you have a look around!

  8. While we all have moments when we are especially busy, it’s essential to keep the donor/client’s experience at the forefront of our minds. Reading this post was a good reminder. You offered several excellent donor-centric responses. I will be sure to share this URL with my colleagues.

    • David, thank you for your comments and for your willingness to spread the word about the importance of being donor-centered. Being donor-centered isn’t always easy, but should be something we always aspire toward.

  9. I have to agree with Michael on all points. You absolutely have to make the donor top priority. If there is nobody available for a tour (sometimes there just isn’t a warm body around to do it), the donor should be made aware of that fact in the most transparent way possible, and something should be done to accommodate him or her in the future.

  10. Joe, you’re absolutely correct. Sometimes things come up that keep us from acting in the way we would prefer to, where the donor is concerned. We’ve all experienced runaway days. The key is how we deal with these situations when they arise. Unfortunately, in the scenario I described, the radio station has done absolutely no follow-up. By the way, I even emailed and voice-mailed the station manager, and still there has been zero follow-up! I thank you for sharing your thoughts.


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