Early in my career, I was a planned giving representative for a large religious and social service organization. During a presentation I was giving, a woman shared with me that she was going to include the nonprofit in her will. It was great news.

Later, I searched our donor records and discovered that in the last two years, she had given us three gifts. The largest was $22; the total of the three was under $50. To top it off, hers was not a “great” zip code.

I adjusted my expectations, but followed up with her anyway.

The following week, I arrived at her modest home; parked in the gravel driveway; walked past every yard ornament imaginable—gnomes, gazing balls, bird baths (plural).

To be honest, the thought crossed my mind: “I’m wasting my fundraising time here.”

I knocked on the door and was welcomed inside. The woman invited me into the kitchen for a cup of instant coffee served in a ceramic cup on a plastic saucer. That’s how I knew she meant business. Real deals are done over the kitchen table, not in the living room.

She said she was glad I had scheduled to visit on that particular day, because her bank statement had arrived, and she wanted to ask me some questions. My first impression was that I was about to be asked to help her balance her checkbook.

Boy, was I wrong.

Her high-five-figure checking account balance included tidy deposits twice a month. “That’s just the interest from my long-term CDs. I just let the short-term investments roll over,” she explained.

I had arrogantly misjudged this gracious and generous woman’s ability to give. I had judged a donor by her zip code. Believe me, I gave myself a good talking-to that day, and promised myself not to make that same mistake ever again.

By the end of our visit, this humble, wonderful woman shared her plans to remember our organization with a six-figure gift.

In contrast, another donor—a board member who regularly contributed five- and six-figure gifts to our organization—had accumulated tremendous wealth. When this donor died, we were interested to see what might have been left to the nonprofit. We were appreciative for many years of generous giving, but the amount left to the organization at the donor’s passing was zero dollars.

Both donors expressed their support for a cause that was near and dear to their hearts; they just did it in different ways.

The lesson for me was to understand the power of philanthropy to accomplish more together, and that meant never making assumptions about the size of gifts or donors’ methods for giving. My job is to facilitate the process, demonstrate genuine appreciation and honor donors’ intentions in life and death … and, of course, never judge donors by their zip codes.

Scott Justvig
Executive Vice President
Chicago
[email protected]