Who Owns the Donors?

One of the really irritating interview questions that development often have to endure is the one that asks how many donors will the candidate bring with her. The answer, of course, is none, for donors--cultivated and stewarded correctly--belong to the organizations they support. Or, more accurately, they belong to themselves--their interests and dreams--and those are what ultimately make them give. But what about their contact information and everything else a good development officer learns about her donors and prospects? When you leave a job, can you take the information with you?

My response would be "why not?" but it just as easily could be "why?" Why would I want the contact information of donors to another organization?

OK, so truth be told, the single most important indicator that someone might make a gift to an organization--beyond the fact that they have already made a gift to that organization--is if they have made a gift anywhere. Philanthropic people are philanthropic and if asked to support an organization they care about or whose cause resonates with them, they are very likely to have a positive response. But it is that caring that matters.

When I was a development officer and I was moving from place to place, I always sent out a letter (and in later years, an email) to the donors with whom I had been working telling them I was moving on. In my letter I would tell them how torn I was to be leaving but excited by my new challenge, how much their support meant to the organization and that I certainly hoped they continued to be the committed donors I knew them to be.  I also used that correspondence to either introduce my successor, or at least give them the name of a development officer who would be working with them until my successor was named.

And I also that opportunity to tell people where I was going.

In a few—very few—cases, donors let me know that where I was going was of interest to them and they asked me to connect with them when I was settled.

Mostly I got back congratulations on my move, and best wishes for my future. Truth be told, when I was no longer the development officer who took care of them at the institution or organization they supported, I was no longer integral to their lives.

That's as it should be. I was not their peer or their friend. I did a job and when I was no longer doing that job, our relationship was over.

Who owns the donors? Clearly whoever claims their passion and their interest and keeps them involved and connected. Everyone else just has their contact information.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and develop committed donors and stronger boards. Learn how she can help you at www.janetlevineconsulting.com or email her directly at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com