Do They Know You? Developing Relationships with the Next Giving Generation

On numerous occasions I have written about how the life experiences of four generations could impact giving patterns – The Great Depression generation (my grandfather), the WWII generation (my father), the Boomers (me), and the Sesame Street generation (my daughter).  

I have found that even when you have long-standing relationships with organizations, you must continue to look for the “new” as well as cultivate the already established decision makers.  Why?  Because both groups approach your mission and your future in very different ways.

If we want to continue to receive financial support from long-standing community foundations, corporations and businesses in our communities, we must develop new relationships with the next generation of leaders now, or we will be left behind on the funding curve within the next few years.

To illustrate this, I will begin with my personal story. I have had a very supportive relationship and partnership with a local organization for many years. In my prior profession as a YMCA vice president of development, I led capital campaigns, with this organization as a collaborating partner, for shared space within two newly constructed YMCAs, and we collaborated on additional partnerships in existing facilities.

We strategized, planned and campaigned together for more than 10 years. After retiring from the Y and joining JB&A, I continued lending this organization support in pursuing federal earmarks, major grant development, other areas of capacity building and general nonprofit support. Our missions complemented each other well, and our relationship strengthened as the years passed.

Two years ago, one of the major leaders of this organization (with whom I had a very strong relationship) passed away and positions were restructured. Several positions were filled by the next generation of decision-making managers from outside the immediate area. I soon developed a good collaborative relationship with one of the new leaders who had responsibility for financial development, my primary area of support, while still maintaining my comfortable relationship with senior level-staff who had been there for years.

However, I did not take the time to introduce myself fully to the other new leaders and decision makers. I made the fatal mistake of assuming the message of our long-standing prior partnerships would carry to the new leadership. I thought all the years of working together would be communicated by the remaining staff, and our relationship that had existed for so many years would carry on uninterrupted.

I was totally wrong. The new executive brought in an outside resource from his former city. He brought in someone with whom he had a prior relationship, because he knew them. He did not know me. I had not taken the time to help him get to know me, or help him understand what our firm could do for his organization. I did not make him aware of our shared mission, vision, depth and breadth of our prior collaborations, and what we could accomplish together as partners in the future. Due to my failure to share this information with him, the strong relationship that was forged all the years before may as well have never existed.

I should have begun a new relationship with the incoming leadership of the organization – as if there was no prior history at all. I needed to proactively create the opportunity to make a different relationship with the next generation of leader. But I didn’t, because I relied on relationships from the past.

Here is the danger to our long-standing nonprofits: Well-established organizations can easily be fooled into complacency by believing they can stand on their laurels. It would be so easy to stop educating foundation and corporate leaders about our mission, programs, and services to the community. It would be so easy to say, “We have had a relationship with that foundation for years. They know us. Why spend money on marketing or take time to pay a visit? They love us.”

Well, guess what? The next generation of top-level leaders and decision makers may not know you at all. The current leaders and decision makers of our corporations, foundations and businesses are still primarily comprised of the remaining World War II generation and the first wave of the Boomer generation. But they won’t be for long, because they are retiring in massive numbers, all at the same time.

As the huge bubble of Boomer leadership is replaced by these visionary younger leaders, our long-standing relationships will disappear. These new younger leaders have lived through a different era and don’t necessarily share our life experiences in our communities. This is the first generation to come from a completely mobile, high-tech society. Many of these young leaders have lived in three to six different communities before adulthood. They have a global perspective, regularly communicating via the internet with a network of thousands of contacts living in every corner of the earth. As a result, the loyalty to the older, long-standing community organizations that thrived under the support of prior generations simply may no longer exist.

It is crucial for community nonprofits to realize that the next wave of leaders does not know them. Well-established organizations simply cannot rely on their relationships from the past. Nonprofit organizations must take the time to develop a relationship with the next generation of younger foundation, corporate and business leaders and decision makers in order to tell them about their mission, purpose and role in the community, or I fear they will lose a large base of support in the future.

If you don’t tell them, who will?

On October 5th, 2010, posted in: Donor Cultivation, Generational Giving by

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