Partners in Philanthropy   Partners in Philanthropy
805 New Hampshire, Lawrence, KS 66044
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On Partnership

We’ve all heard — and probably used — the phrase "marriage is a 50-50 partnership." It probably says more about our beliefs concerning partnerships than marriage relationships. If you’ve been married for any length of time, you may not put much stock in the 50-50 proposition any longer.

In our firm, we hold the belief that partnership is the defining philanthropic relationship whereby each partner has equal status and a certain independence, but also implicit or formal obligation to the other partner. What does that mean for development professionals?

Equal status

Two or more entities having the same value is a good working definition for equality. Obviously, there are differences in status between us and many of our major donors. Generally, they have greater financial resources, higher social status, depth of maturity by virtue of having lived longer, and other such distinctions. That’s why I like building on the notion of value.

As with most things we undertake in life, attitude is crucial. It is important that we think of and relate to our donors as equals. If we separate value from its common meaning of market price, we can focus instead on a subordinate meaning: that which is worthy of esteem for its own sake. Isn’t that what we all desire in our heart — to be esteemed for the persons we are and not for what we have or what we have attained? Our major donors are no different from us in that regard. They want to be valued for their personal qualities and not for the sums of money they can bestow on our organizations.

There is a flip side to this, though. Sometimes we may approach our donors from a superior position. It may appear to them that we are dispensers of information who sometimes use arcane language or acronyms. We are the insiders, they are the outsiders. Information is power. So, due to our positions with our institutions, we can assume a position of power. Sometimes we take this attitude with us to bolster our lack of self-esteem or our sense of inequality in relation to our donors. Relating effectively with others, particularly major donors, requires that we operate from a well-grounded belief in ourselves — in our intrinsic value.

The governing principle: ascribing equal status to our partnership with donors depends on a healthy self-esteem.


Independence is defined as the freedom from the influence, control or determination of another. How much freedom are we willing to tolerate? We can and do influence our donors, but we do not control them or determine their behavior. Too often we approach our donors as if we have all the answers and we know best how to go about fulfilling the missions of our organizations. If we believe that people will invest substantially where they are involved, it is our task to get them interested and then working with us. We have to be authentic about soliciting and listening to advice and ideas that may not align with our own thinking. How do we react when people challenge our attitudes and proven methods of doing things? Do we become defensive or even angry? Do we dismiss them as naive, as uninformed or misinformed? Do we avoid including them in planning sessions or committee deliberations?

If we don’t respect their independent thinking or their perspectives as outsiders who may be more objective than us, we risk losing their interest and support. I’m reminded of a major donor prospect who had chaired an organization’s $1 million capital campaign three decades earlier. He and his wife had made a sizable contribution to the project. Over the years with changes in personnel, he was forgotten. When he let one of the current board members know of his dismay, they set about mending the relationship. The board’s major gift committee believed that he and his wife were capable of making a gift of $500,000 based upon their estimated net worth, pattern of giving in the community and history with the organization. It happened to be embarking again on another construction project which provided an excellent opportunity to involve him. This particular prospect had earned a reputation as one who freely offered advice — solicited or not (usually not) but which was often very sound. While the CEO wanted the gift, he wasn’t able to genuinely consider ideas or suggestions that might be counter to his own; he was too personally invested in the project. Consequently, the prospect was never asked for a gift.

The governing principle: encouraging our donors to freely offer new and different perspectives is perceived as a sign of our acceptance, a condition which is fundamental to a loving and respectful relationship.

Implicit or formal obligation to one another

The definition of obligation includes contract or promise but extends to moral responsibility. There are certainly formal obligations we have to our donors. We have to assure that their contributions are used as they have stipulated, that we will be good stewards of funds entrusted to us, that we will comply with IRS regulations, that we will provide recognition that has been agreed to, that we will perform functions or promises expressed in binding planned gift instruments or memoranda of understanding, etc.

They, too, have formal obligations to us. They must be honest with us in conveying gifts of property. It is incumbent upon them to fulfill pledges they have made which allow us to proceed with building projects or expanding programs. These formal obligations bind us to one another in a legal or business sense.

It is the implicit obligations which sometimes are not voiced and which are at least as important. These are in the realm of moral responsibility — our psychological contracts with one another. Here we enter the door to friendship and love. There is the expectation that we will be honest with one another so that trust can develop. There is the tenor of respect, of accepting one another’s differences.

However, there are other anticipations held as responsibilities which are best discussed openly. For example, does a donor expect special treatment when he or she is admitted to the hospital? Will the church choir sing at the funeral of the donor’s beloved spouse who is terminally ill? Will the donor continue to be treated to lunch once the gift transaction is completed?

Our mutual consent to these expectations transforms them into responsibilities. One donor to the hospital ultimately bequeathed $1.3 million from his estate. Left with no immediate family, one of his expectations was that we decorate his families’ graves on Memorial Day. Even now, after I have been gone from the hospital, I stop by those graves on Memorial Day to be sure that we are living up to our moral responsibility. It may technically be the hospital’s responsibility, but more importantly, it is also mine. His gift was based in part on the relationship he and I had. It is my responsibility as his friend to see that his wishes are fulfilled.

The governing principle: genuine partnerships obligate us to care for and respect one another beyond the expected.


One last thought about partnership. What enables us to form partnerships with our donors is our mutual concern for the missions of our institutions. It is our shared dreams and goals, our common values which allow us to transcend our differences to join in our pursuit to make this a better world for us all. When we hold the mission foremost in mind, sharing or collaboration becomes natural. We embrace shared decision-making. We willingly share our resources to attain the goal. We affirm one another. We celebrate our achievements without regard to personal recognition. We become philanthropists — lovers of humankind.

Suggested readings:

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Loving, Bantam Book, New York, 1963.

Tjosvold, Dean and Tjosvold, Mary, Psychology for Leaders, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1995.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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