I’m Sorry, but Mother Theresa was Wrong!

Have you ever heard a nonprofit professional, speaking of prospective donors, say:

They should give until it hurts.”

Recently, I once again came across this phrase. I shuddered. Nevertheless, I realized that this person was not alone in his thinking.

The Rev. Jimmy Swaggert, echoing the sentiment of many church leaders and paraphrasing the Bible, is reported to have said:

Give, even at all costs, ‘till it hurts.”

Even Mother Theresa, who has been Beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, reportedly said:

Give, but give until it hurts.”

So, with this blog post, I know I’m going out on a limb. However, I must emphatically state that, on this point, the nonprofit professional I mentioned was wrong. Rev. Swaggert was wrong. Mother Theresa was wrong.

Unless you’re dealing with a population of masochists, asking people to give until it hurts is not a sound strategy. Most people tend to run from things that cause pain and toward things that give them pleasure.

I believe we should inspire people to give until it feels good.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in this belief. Recently, Michael Kaiser spoke at Drexel University and stated:

Make giving fun!”

Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Kaiser is the Chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. He is also President Emeritus of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. When Kaiser speaks, people listen. And rightfully so. He’s a masterful nonprofit leader and a gifted turn-around expert. Whether you work for an arts organization or not, you owe it to yourself to listen to his remarks. You can find the video by clicking here.

Here are some additional key points that Kaiser made:

[Donors] don’t join our family to be whined at.”

“They join because we’re inspiring and fun.”

“The donor doesn’t owe us allegiance. We need to earn it.”

“Donors get fatigue when we get boring.”

In other words, all nonprofit organizations, whether involving the arts or not, need to make giving a pleasure. We need to recognize that people will be more willing to donate if giving is enjoyable, and they’ll be more willing to continue their support as long as giving continues to be gratifying.

So, how can you more effectively inspire prospective donors by making giving fun?

If you work for a theater company, being fun should come easily. For example, you could invite major donors to watch a performance from the wings, letting them enjoy the show as well as a sneak peek behind the scenes, literally.

If you work for a symphony orchestra, you can invite donors to watch a live rehearsal. I remember when my business partner, at the time, and I suggested this to the Philadelphia Orchestra. The first reaction was, “The musicians’ union will never go for it.” The second reaction was, “Even if the union allows it, who would want to go?” Well, with our strong encouragement, the development team was able to enlist the support of the union. When the Orchestra offered donors the opportunity to attend an open rehearsal, massive numbers happily went. Now, this is a normal practice for arts organizations around the country.

Sometimes, we just need to get out of our own way.

If you work for an art museum, give donors a tour behind the scenes. Let them see parts of the collection not on public display.

If you work for a science museum, invite donors to a sleepover in the museum. That’s another idea I offered a client years ago. The Academy of Natural Sciences tried it, and it was enormously popular. Now, museums around the nation commonly offer this opportunity.

If you work for a zoo or aquarium, let major donors have a chance to feed the animals or see a newborn before the general public has a chance to see the new arrival.

In other words, look for opportunities to be fun and engaging. Look for opportunities to connect donors with what your organization does.

Gala goers donate teddy bears.

Gala goers donate teddy bears.

I recognize that some organizations will have an easier time with this than others will. For example, I once served on the board of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance. PCA brings justice and healing to the victims of child sex abuse. There’s definitely nothing fun about that. Nevertheless, PCA has been able to find ways to engage supporters in fun ways:

  • encouraging supporters to be “Teddy-Bear Wranglers” so PCA can give the children it serves a free, comforting bear;
  • inviting donors to a behind the scenes tour of the PCA facility and the police Special Victims Unit, including a detention cell and interrogation room;
  • arranging for people to give to PCA while they shop at Amazon;
  • allowing people to bid for auction items and buy raffle tickets, both at home or at the gala.

If PCA can make giving fun, so can your organization.

As Kaiser told me, nonprofit organizations need a plan for engaging donors in an ongoing, genuine, fun way. Charities are limited only by their creative capacity. My previous two posts address the subject of creativity:

So, let’s stop asking or expecting donors to give until it hurts. Instead, let’s inspire them to give until it feels good, brings them joy, and allows them to have fun while doing good. If we do that, people will be more likely to give, give longer, give more, and encourage others to give as well.

Remember, “fun” is the first three letters of fundraising, as my friend Nancy Martino has pointed out.

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

13 Responses to “I’m Sorry, but Mother Theresa was Wrong!”

  1. Michael, I totally agree. Thanks for sharing, and for giving specific examples of ways to joyfully engage donors in the work they support.

  2. My mantra is: “Give ’til it feels good (or right)!”

  3. So true! Don’t give until it hurts…give until you’re inspired!

    • Brian, thank you for commenting. While all individual philanthropy involves some degree of sacrifice, we shouldn’t expect it to hurt. In fact, researchers have shown that when people do contribute to charity, it causes the body to release the feel-good hormones. I don’t understand why some folks in the fundraising profession insist on working against, rather than with, human nature.

  4. Well when I first read this headline my initial reaction was “Mother Theresa wrong? Why she’s a Saint! (Or soon will be). ” But you are right. Philanthropy shouldn’t be about beating your back bloody in pious sacrifice. It is having fun and feeling good about it! Another super post.

  5. Great piece, Michael. I agree with everything. Except the theater benefit you suggested. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time behind scenes knows that’s no place for anyone who doesn’t need to be there – for actors’ safety and their own. If you want to give a stage manager a heart attack, suggest donors in the wings during a performance! 🙂

    However, open rehearsals ARE quite manageable and very interesting to donors. If you have a director who buys in to the idea, they can be fascinating ways to see theater put together. Open rehearsals were a very popular benefit I added when I worked for a theater and each time we had one, it was swamped!

    • Mary, thank you for sharing your insights. Michael Kaiser’s main point is that organizations should “make giving fun.” Arts organizations, indeed all nonprofit organizations, would benefit from following his advice to the degree it can be made practical. While he’s had success with organizations who have had donors watch a performance from backstage, that’s not necessarily something that all organizations could accommodate; even those organizations that embrace his idea might not be able to do so all of the time. The key is to find fun, meaningful ways to engage donors that are practical for the organization to offer.

      I once served on the board of a theater company in Philadelphia that found a wonderfully fun way to engage me. I was given a two-line role in a play. For the part, I simply had to watch the performance as a regular audience member. Then, at the right moment, I identified myself as a doctor, ran up on stage, and pronounced someone dead. By the way, it was a comedy. Not all theater companies would engage a donor in this way. This particular theater company only did so on rare occasions. In any case, it was very effective. Fortunately, the rest of the audience was very tolerant of my exceedingly limited acting skills.


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