What Are the Dangers of Having an Angel Donor?

by Barbara Barron | Posted on February 12th, 2020

Are there downsides to having a donor (or two or three) who effectively secures our entire Annual Fund campaign each year? Or who provides most of our capital campaign (or major gifts program) giving? 

Does posing this question make me sound insane? I mean, why would we not want to have the extraordinary generosity of a family (or a few families) who save our bacon? Who make our schools’ dreams come true? Who are effectively our organizations’ best friends and saviors? 

For some of my readers, you’d welcome such a philanthropic investor in your fledging school or your stagnating giving program. I’ve been there. We’ve faced the very real question: who are we going to turn to to kick start this great idea? Or who can be an anchor that gives the rest of the Board or community the confidence to participate with their own stretch gifts? When we do have that person or family, our campaigns (annual or otherwise) are injected with some kind of secret sauce that enlivens our work as advancement professionals, brings relief to our Heads, CFOs and finance committees, and stacks up the odds of reaching – or (breathe! )– exceeding our goals. 

All true. But what I’ve also seen happen is that these lucky organizations risk becoming just a little lazy. We start taking their support a bit for granted. Like a reliable family member, we may begin to view this donor as a done deal. Someone we don’t need to work so hard for anymore. After all, they have told us we can count on that. But, like with our partners or parents or best friends, the relationships we enjoy with these philanthropic angels deserve nothing less than our very best work.

Because things can change. They always do. In a school, that angel may be a current parent. Someone who soon will become an alumni parent, slipping further away from the heartbeat that is the daily life of their child in our classrooms. Or maybe your angel donor is an alumna. Better for longevity, yes. But, as time goes on, she will have other and perhaps more compelling opportunities to make a difference in her world. After all, as I often remind my clients, generous people tend to be generous to several places. If we are doing our best work, we will remain the top one, two, or three priority for our angel. But we can’t count on it indefinitely. Stuff happens.

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During the uncertainty of the financial meltdown in 2008 and 2009, I heard from several lead donors that they needed to spread around their charitable resources to the many people recently out of work and struggling. Or following the devastation of a hurricane or wildfire, we may find our schools competing with far more urgent, and therefore, compelling needs in our communities. Like I said: nothing is certain. 

But even without a disaster, we need to be careful. I am reminded of a school where the top donor (and Board chair, bless him) served for close to twenty years in that role. Today, most of our bylaws would prevent that. But I can assure you the school benefited enormously from that unconventional arrangement. This good man and his very good wife transformed that school through their service and their philanthropy. When he finally stepped down, the dearth of leaders in waiting was appalling — but maybe not surprising. I mean, honestly, who could have possibly imagined filling his shoes? And the new chair was, well, lacking in all ways. It took time for them to “grow” their next good leader.

Another school I know has enjoyed the extraordinary generosity of a Board member. This person and her partner gave significantly to the capital campaign and they annually gave gifts five times larger than the next Board members and more than ten times greater than the average enrolled family. While that level of generosity is thrilling and so beautiful, it poses a risk. How will the school compensate for that support if (or when!) it goes away? What happens when the family eventually moves on philanthropically after her children graduate?  

So, yes, there are some dangers we face when blessed by an angel.  How to mitigate them? How to ensure, as best as we ever can, that we remain a top priority for these extraordinary people for as long as we can?  

The answer is simple, but not easy. For regular readers of my blog, you likely know what’s coming: Stewardship.  

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For our angels, as well as those angels in waiting, it is the regular, thoughtful, genuine expressions of gratitude and demonstrations of the impact of their giving that help us keep them close. Yes, we can ask them to serve on our Board (and ought to), get their advice (for sure), and invite them to every event, concert, or game (yea, ok). But let’s be clear: they likely have plenty of friends, other commitments, and endless cool things to attend. What we and we alone can do is provide them with the heartfelt proof of the ways their gifts are making a real difference to the people and programs they care about. Simple. But not easy. 

And there’s one more act of ultimate stewardship we can provide for these angels: we can show them, through our intentional and highly professional advancement program, that we are in fact identifying and cultivating their replacements. Gasp! Really!? Yep. If you don’t believe me, ask them.

Ask them what they would love to see, above all else. I betcha a nickel they’ll say they want to see us grow more leaders. Leaders want to lead. And without those coming up behind them, who are they leading? You can be confident that your angel sometimes worries in the privacy of her heart about what will happen to our fine schools when she is no longer able or, frankly, interested in continuing in her current role. 

Let’s get ahead of that. Let’s build an intentional pipeline of donors who could, if treated right, step into that top spot. Let’s build our budgets, office procedures, and calendars to keep cultivation and stewardship a priority. And let’s be sure to report to our angel what we are doing, every day, each year, to grow the pool of people who may, in time, join her. Or, someday, take her place. That is a true and lasting gift. Maybe the only one she really wants.

If you would benefit from some help creating an intentional cultivation and stewardship program, give me a call. As always, my door is open. We can do this, together.

My name is Barbara Barron, and I write this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at Presidio Knolls School, San Diego French-American School, Julia Morgan School for Girls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do better, together.