Seven Things Every Donor Wished We Knew – Interview with Wayne Olson

Wayne OlsonWayne Olson is the Gift Planning Officer for Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City Utah. Prior to that, Wayne was President of Wayne Olson Consulting LLC where he advised corporations and charities on fundraising, sales, customer service and building stronger relationships with customers and constituents. He is a leading expert on planned giving and donor relations. He is an attorney with more than 20 years’ experience in the nonprofit sector and has worked with donors on tens of millions of dollars in donations and helped countless nonprofits build effective and dynamic planned giving programs. He is a sought-after trainer, consultant and speaker on motivation, customer service and leadership. In 2014 Fundraising Success Magazine honored him by awarding Wayne “The Most Inspirational Speaker of the Year.” He is the author of four books including, The Disney Difference, How to Give a Great Speech or Presentation, Big Gifts, Small Effort, and Think Like a Donor. Later this year he will publish his latest book on nonprofit board leadership.

More about Wayne Olson HERE






Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Greetings, it’s Hugh Ballou. Welcome to this episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. Over the years, we have had a number of people talk about money. Money is a common topic. Very few people understand what attracts it. Very few people know how the conversations go. Very few board members understand the parameters around it. I have a guest today, Wayne Olson. Wayne has a number of books that we will talk about. Every one of the books has a specific purpose, and he is working on another one. Wayne has some good experience in this area, and he has some good wisdom to share. He and I have talked a little bit, and I am excited about letting Wayne share with you some of the messages he has learned over the years. Wayne, welcome, and tell people a little bit about yourself and why you’re doing this work that you do.

Wayne: Thank you, Hugh. Grateful to be here with you today. I started off life as a practicing litigation attorney. Contract law. Real property law. 20 years ago, a friend of mine said, “You’d be a great planned giving officer for the American Cancer Society.” She knew of an opening and encouraged me to apply. Started it. Loved it. Couldn’t believe they paid me to do this work. I loved it ever since. Had positions with the Cancer Society, University of Richmond, University of the South, and with a trust company serving charities from the other side of the table. I’ve done a lot of writing in the charitable work. Speaking events and training. I can’t believe I get to do this for a living; it’s a wonderful career.

Hugh: You’re a relationship-based presenter. I have not seen you on stage, but I can imagine how you connect with an audience. The central thing to funding or any business or nonprofit, and part of my desire for this whole series is to help nonprofit leaders and clergy understand sound business principles. What is underneath this relationship thing? Leadership, ministry, money flow, communications are all based on relationship. Talk about that. Then go into what donors wish we knew.

Wayne: Sure. Hugh, it’s unfortunate, but I think the best way to describe fundraising is to describe what it’s not. It’s unfortunate because I think a lot of people do fundraising the wrong way. It’s easy to do it the wrong way. It’s like when you go to a trainer, and they correct your form on how to lift weights or to shoot a bow and arrow. You can pick it up and shoot it, but that doesn’t mean you are doing it the right way. You are developing muscles that will ultimately betray you.

I think the problem with fundraising is that we make it about money. We talk about money. When we think of donors, we see them as money, and we see them as being able to do something for our mission. The better way of looking at it is you’re there to serve, whether it’s a member of your congregation or a donor for your organization rather than seeing them as an ATM machine that you can go and extract money from to fill your needs. I think we’re better off seeing us as a partner to them. The donor wants to heal the sick but isn’t a doctor. Or the donor wants to educate the young but is not a teacher. The donor wants to feed the hungry but isn’t a farmer. If you’re a hospital, you’re healing the sick. You have something the donor doesn’t have but desperately wants. The ideal thing to do is marry what we have with what the donor has to accomplish this common goal. Sometimes, we feel our goal is jut to get money, and the donor’s goal is to give us that money. But if we look at it from the relationship of what we can do together, it sounds corny, but it’s very successful when you do things that way. It’s what life’s all about.

Hugh: It is. We titled this interview, “The Seven Things Donors Wish We Knew.” Do you want to give us that list?

Wayne: Sure. The first thing, I’m trying to remember the seven things I put on the list, so I have to get my notes. I can tell you that the first one is that donors give to us for one reason only. I think we need to remember that. The number one reason is they have passion for our cause. They are passionate about what we do. There has never been a donation made coldly. They give us money because they have passion for what we’re able to do together. When we make it about money or mechanics or about a transaction, we move away from the heart of the matter, and it hurts us both. Donors give for passion.

I will reveal something about me to you and your listeners. I am a planned giving guy. In planned giving, we do a lot of fancy things that give the donors amplified tax savings, capital gains tax savings, other types of taxes that can save on, and income back to the donor. If I put everything together that I know, every trick in every book, the donor is still better off keeping their money than making a gift. In order for that gift to happen, they have to have passion for what we do. We need to remember that. Some people express passion more than others. True. But there is still passion underlying every donor.

I will be briefer on the following, but the first one is so important. The second one is they want us to treat them like the people they are and not as the ATM. They want us to respect them: respect their time, goals, wishes, attitude. Just simply to be respectful of them.

The next thing is that donors want to hear from us. They like it when we talk to them. I think the most powerful thing we can do with a donor is have a conversation with the donor where I call and say, “Hugh, I appreciate everything you have done for me in the university. Today, I wanted to call and see how you’re doing” and not ask for anything. “What’d you call me for, Wayne?” “Hugh, I don’t have an agenda. I just wanted to say hello.” Donors want to hear from us, and that’s good news. We should honor that.

The fourth thing, and this is amazing: at a minimum, donors want us to thank them. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen donors make very large gifts and never receive even a basic thank-you. I will give you a real example. This is not in my role as a planned giving officer, but as a normal person, everyday Wayne.

I was the executor of the estate of a friend of mine, and he gave a million dollars to a university. Happens to be a university I am very familiar with. Know a lot of people in fundraising there. I wrote a check for $500,000, and I’ll remember this. I was cleaning up his apartment when they called me and asked when the check was coming for $500,000. I was covered in soot and sweat and dirt and grime. I only had three days to clean everything this man has ever owned. They didn’t bother to ask to help me; they just wanted to know when they are getting their money.

Two years later, I wrote the second check for $500,000, and I said in my letter with the check that he’s been dead for three years, and I never heard how his scholarship is doing. “Would you please give me an update on his scholarship? Let me know how the funds are being used and what the balance in the endowment is.” Three weeks later, I got a letter from the advancement officer acknowledging receipt of the check. It was three sentences. The two words that appeared nowhere in the letter were “Thank you.” I never got an update on the scholarship. I never got an update on the endowment. I never got an update on anything. I never, ever heard the words “thank you.” That’s a million-dollar gift.

What they don’t know is I had some authority to give them extra money, but they’re not getting extra money from me. It’s gone. It went somewhere else. By the way, I can give you examples of some of the finest charities in the country who don’t thank their donors. It’s amazing to me. I’m very glad they don’t thank their donors because I do thank my donors, and that makes us stand out. That’s fine. Keep not thanking your donors. I love that.

The fifth thing is it’s the donor’s priority. We are here to help the donor reach their priorities. It’s about them wanting to feed the hungry and heal the sick and teach the young and house the homeless. It’s their priority, not ours. I used to work for the American Cancer Society. There are 6,000 organizations in the country who have cancer in the name. The donor just wants to cure cancer. They really don’t care which organization does it, nor do they care which organization is the one who helps their relative or themselves coping with cancer. They don’t want to support the American Cancer Society; they want to support people with cancer. It’s their priorities, not mine. I am very fond of the society. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. I think they do it better than everybody else. But at the end of the day, the donor is still about curing cancer, not about making sure a corporate organization is healthy.

The sixth thing: I want to be better, stronger, faster. I ripped off the lines from the Six-Million-Dollar Man to see if there is anybody old enough who remembers that TV show. It’s closely related to a bunch of other items. It’s about the donor. Aft the end of the day, the donor wants to be better having made the donation than not having made it. We need to make the donor feel good about the donation, letting them know how this is going to make their life better, how it’s going to make them stronger, and just making sure that the donor knows how much of a difference they’ve made in both their lives and our lives.

Finally, this might come as a surprise to you because the first six are all donor-centric. Hugh, you and I are important. Numbers 1 and 7 are closely related because this is a human endeavor. The gift officer is key to making a gift happen. It’s a human relationship. You and I work in all matters in one of the very few professions where who you are matters. I can be an oil mechanic or change the oil in a car at Jiffy Lube, and I am under that trench, and no one ever sees me. My personality doesn’t matter; my attitude doesn’t matter. As long as they change the oil properly, who I am doesn’t matter. It’s a good job. It’s a fine job. But the personality is not important to do the job. You can be a great gift officer for a mediocre charity and get great gifts. But if you’re a terrible gift officer with a bad attitude for the best mission ever created, you won’t get any gifts. It’s all about us.

I like to put it like this when I present this list. As gift officers, it’s our job not to get in the way. If the donor has a passion for the mission, we are the conduit to make that happen. Our job is to stay out of the way and let the donor do what they already wanted to do. Help it along a little bit, but stay out of the way.

Those are the seven things, Hugh, since you asked. That’s it.

Hugh: I may know those, and I will summarize them on the website. That’s good. We are talking in the COVID quarantine in the second quarter of 2020. We’re thinking about how we’re going to empower ourselves coming out of this. These are really important messages, Wayne.

Wayne, you and I talked earlier. We are nervous about visiting Mr. X who has an endowment and wants to support charities and does support charities. We go in and have a briefcase full of stuff with PowerPoints, handouts, business plans, and more. You had some good insights on we’re ready and armed, and we’re nervous. We have all this data. What is your advice about using that data?

Wayne: Create a really good PowerPoint presentation, and study it, and memorize it, and have your phone up to date with the latest firmware and contacts and email. Have the latest brochures that you can. Leave them in the car. Leave it all in the car. Do not take it in with you.

I’ll exaggerate to make the point, but I’m not sure it’s that much of an exaggeration. It’s a mistake I see a lot of people make. When we go in to meet with a donor to ask them for a sum of money, that is one of the most arrogant things we can do. “Hugh, I’m here to see you today. I was hoping you’d support our canned soup drive for a gift of $10 million. Done my research. I know that you’re capable of giving a gift for $10 million, and I think you should give that gift to us.” That is incredibly arrogant because it says that I know more about your passions, your calling, and your everything than you do. I know more about you and your charitable inclinations than you do. I know your family story. I know what kind of day you’re having because I can ask you for this no matter what. That is a dangerous thing to do.

What you need to do is go to a meeting with a donor and listen to what they want to do. Then have a second meeting. The donor might ask for something. “Do you have a brochure you can give me?” Then we can send them what they want, what they asked for, as opposed to what we think they want that we are imposing on them. As a bonus, every gift officer knows this, you want a second meeting. That is when you give them the brochure or the document that they want rather than putting everything together first and assuming you have guessed correctly what their capabilities and intentions are.  

Hugh: Complications for people with substance said to me, “We didn’t ask for a sale,” or “Do you want a check?” I sit back down and say, “Now that you brought it up,” that is .5%. We load ourselves up with stuff, and we are nervous about it because it’s a business transaction we’re preparing for. We have all the figures. Here is how much money we’re going to need. Here is the impact on people’s lives. Here is the overhead. Here are all the things people might ask, so we want to lay it on them. What I am hearing you say is the first visit is getting to know the donor, finding out what they are interested in, and doing more listening because you have two ears and one mouth. Did I hear that right?

Wayne: You heard that correctly. Absolutely. Listen, listen, listen.

Hugh: This thing about overhead. Dan Palotta talks about the ways we think about charity are dead wrong. Overhead is one of them. For SynerVision Leadership Foundation, overhead is 100% or 0% because all the money goes to serve the needs of the clients. It’s the accounting. How do you account for it? We’re thinking about those things that a business needs. There are different kinds of money: inherited money, earned money. There is a businessperson you are talking to, so they will drill us for the business figures and equations. How often is that part of the conversation? The first thing is about relationship and getting to know them. How often do these kinds of things come up in questions with donors?

Wayne: Hugh, we talked about overhead a lot. But in my experience, it comes up very rarely in a conversation. I’ll add this thought to that answer. Donors make decisions on overhead based on perception and nothing else. My very first boss, I worked in television before I was an attorney. My news director said, “Perception is reality.” I have been in board meetings where people say, “We need to cancel this golf tournament because it’s costing us $1.10 to raise $1. We lose ten cents for every dollar we make. The golf tournament is a net loss.” But you have to have it because that’s been our great golf tournament for the last 30 years, and we have to have it. Everyone at the table knows that it’s a losing proposition, but we still have it because there is some emotional attachment to the tournament. So the perception is it’s worth it. At the same time, there are events or things that have a 5% overhead or a 2% overhead that people are violent against, they can’t stand, because they perceive it as a waste of money.

I’ll add a caveat to this. When I left being an attorney to be a fundraiser, no matter how much money I made, I always will drive a modest car. I will always wear modest clothing. Not shabby, but modest. Not dirty, not wrinkled, but modest. The same person who helped me get my first job at the Cancer Society told me, “Never outshine the donor.” I think there is some validity to that. I appreciate that if a donor invites me to the country club, they don’t want to see me pull up in my 1985 Yugo that has a different color door than the rest of the car. I got that. But I really don’t need to drive a brand-new Lexus or Mercedes or some other fancy car. I need to make sure that I don’t ever give anyone the perception that my overhead is taking away from the effectiveness of their donation.

Hugh: *Sponsor message from Wordsprint*

So donors want us to stay in touch with them. How do we do that?

Wayne: Hugh, I don’t have an answer for that other than be in touch with them the way they want to be in touch. I can tell you the hierarchy for me is in-person is first. Nothing beats looking someone in the eye and letting them look you in the eye. Very few donors don’t like a personal connection. Followed by a handwritten note. I am a big proponent of handwritten notes. One of my trade secrets—I love the American flag, but you will never get a stamp from me with the American flag on it. I go to the post office or online and try to buy the fanciest stamp I can that stands out because it shows the donor that you have taken time to write a letter. If you have your mail metered or with a generic flag stamp, that says it’s just one of a bunch of letters today. Person to person, mail, followed by a phone call, followed by email. All of those are great. Text messaging is fine. But nothing beats a one-on-one. Even with email and text, the nuances and the tone can be easily lost. So be careful. But nothing beats face-to-face.

Hugh: Research shows that 7% of a message is in the words. All the rest of it you can do in person that you can’t do on email. We send an email and expect a person to get it. That’s all about the relationship thing.

We’ve had a lot of people over the years talk about donors and giving. You’re giving us some fresh insights on all of this. The stamp. Would never have thought of that. I did 40 years of music ministry. Never had lunch alone. Always was with a member. I always came in with note cards to thank people. It was like sending people a million-dollar check. “Oh, you took the time to write me.” It has to be genuine. They did something, and you liked it. Or they showed up. Or I appreciate you. Something simple they got from you. We don’t have to write a lot. What I did was mix it up. Sometimes it was email. Sometimes it was in-person. Sometimes it was something in the mail. “Here’s an article. I was thinking about you.”

Wayne: Perfect. By the way, mixing it up, what he mentioned is here is an article that shows I was thinking about you. That is a sign of a genuine relationship and a friendship. That’s priceless.

Hugh: It is. Donors aren’t all one size and shape. I’m an extrovert. When people come, how are you doing, what is the purpose, where do we want to end up. My wife wants to talk about family. We will get around to talking about this. Knowing the personality type, where does this enter in?

Wayne: Our job is to be a chameleon. If our donor is the extrovert, let them be the extrovert. If they are an introvert, let them be an introvert. We respond to them rather than asking them to respond to us. We respond to the environment and creating an environment that is most comfortable for them. Whatever works for the donor has to work for me.

Hugh: I work with people starting up businesses and mid-cap corporations, and nonprofits, both mature organizations and start-ups. Not everybody can afford a Wayne Olson, an expert of your stature. They’re trying to put it together. A couple questions coming out of this. Early-stage people who want to build a nonprofit and hire an executive director. I say, “No, you need to think about a funding specialist first.” When should somebody think about hiring even a part-time funding specialist?

Wayne: You have not seen my accounts receivable or my paycheck because you’d be amazed at who can afford me, Hugh. Oh boy, you’d be amazed at what you can afford. Here’s the reality though. You need to be thinking about fundraising immediately. Any organization that depends upon donations for your wellbeing, you need to be thinking about them right away. It’s that simple.

Here’s my tip though. Let’s just say that I’m a great fundraiser and you like what I’m saying. There is a lot of experts out there that have written books that nobody reads or not enough people read. They’re really good books. Check out some fundraising books and read them. Learn from them. Be careful about which ones you choose because there is a lot of bad advice out there. Read. I’ve asked people in leadership positions when is the last time you read a book on fundraising. “Oh, I don’t have time for that.” I say, “I can tell because your habits are terrible.” By the way, I don’t pretend I have all the answers in my book, or any of my books, but check them out. You can get the previews online for free on Amazon. By the way, I probably buy—I have been doing fundraising for 20 years—at least one fundraising book a week. I don’t read them all cover to cover, but at least I skim through them and read some chapters. I’m also fortunate some friends of mine who are writing some will share their books with me and ask me for ideas and to help edit. I try to stay on top of things. Reading about fundraising is never a bad idea.

Also, join AFP, or another fundraising organization, so you can meet peers and listen to their ideas and learn from them.

Hugh: Here’s a top-level funding specialist who is saying he buys one fundraising book a week.

Wayne: All the time.

Hugh: Somebody who is broke saying, “I don’t have time to read.” I buy and read leadership books. This is a book I recommend. It’s called Think Like a Donor: Creative and Simple Ideas for Getting More Gifts and Improving Donor Relations by none other than Wayne Olson. Tell us about that book.

Wayne: That book in particular is my first book. It’s a simple, small book. You can read it in less than an hour. As I was making the transition from attorney to planned giving officer, I collected stories of things that worked for me. I thought, This worked once, and it worked again. I bet somebody else might want to do this, too. It’s a collection of short, simple ideas on things you can do to improve your fundraising. It’s designed to be quick. Each chapter is a page. You can read a chapter, implement it, move on, or do whatever you want. Hopefully creative and simple ideas you can use right away.

Hugh: How about The Disney Difference?

Wayne: I grew up in central Florida. I am a fan of Disney. I have gone there many times. Worked in the theme park industry for eight years for Busch Gardens. I thought it would be fun to write a book. I give a speech that is my most popular presentation: Donor Relations the Disney Way. I first gave that presentation in 2005. Somebody named Jeff saw me give that presentation and asked me to give it in Lynchburg, Virginia a couple months later. I have bene giving that speech ever since. Thanks, Jeff.

People said we want to learn more about Disney and your approach to Disney, so I wrote this book on donor relations the Disney way. If you have to summarize it, it would be if Walt Disney was your chair of your nonprofit, what lessons would he give you to run your nonprofit better? I also wrote it so it would work for nonprofit or for-profit organizations.

Hugh: It’s that same Jeffrey that introduced us.

Wayne: Yes, that would be the same Jeff.

Hugh: Big Gifts, Small Effort: Unleash the Power of Planned Giving and Change Your Nonprofit Forever. Define what you mean by planned giving as well.

Wayne: Planned giving is a type of giving. It’s my specialty. Planned giving is any gift to charity other than cash, check, or credit card. Planned gifts can be cash as well. It’s any gift that takes more than two minutes to do. It’s wills, trusts, gift annuities, life insurance, real property, personal property. A great number of nonprofits don’t realize that they can have a planned giving program.

I will give you a personal and vulnerable story. I went to the Cancer Society on my first day. They came up to me and said, “We’re so glad you’re here. We’ve been holding these checks for you to get started so you can send these out to the donors.” I paused and I was really confused because I thought the donors sent us checks, and we didn’t send checks out to donors. I was genuinely confused. I said, “Sure, I’ll get right on it.” I went to my office and closed my door. I flipped through the books to figure out why in the world we would send checks to donors. It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t make sense. But the answer is if they do something called a charitable gift annuity, we are sending them a check every month. It’s good for the donor and the charity. In my frustration and anxiety to find the answer, I had a lot of really thick books that are good at holding a door open, but they weren’t good at explaining what a gift annuity was. What I did is I wrote the book for me that I wish I had on my first day on the job that hopefully if I’ve done it well enough, explains planned giving so anybody at any charity can pick it up and understand very quickly how planned giving can help their cause, without any experience whatsoever. By the way, I still use the book that I wrote because I’ll forget something and say, “I think I covered that.” So I will figure out the answer to a question. It’s easy to read and reference.

Hugh: You are working on another book.

Wayne: Fundraising for Nonprofit Board Members. There is a lot of books on board membership and fundraising for board members. There is a need for a book that is something board members will actually read and do. I have written a book that is eight chapters. At the end of each chapter are questions for board members to do as an exercise. It’s meant to be read quickly and easily. My goal is to write something that the board chair or the CEO or the senior pastor could hand out to the staff or the board members on their first day of the year or the fiscal year or when they join so they can learn how nonprofit fundraising works.

Hugh: You can find these books on Amazon.

Wayne: Amazon or my website

Hugh: Wayne, this has been full of information. Thank you for being the guest on The Nonprofit Exchange today. Do you have any parting challenges or thoughts that you would like to leave people with, ending this great interview?

Wayne: Thank you. I’m grateful to have talked with you. I’m honored that you would ask me to join you. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Here is my parting thought. #1 is look for people like Hugh Ballou. Look for mentors. Find somebody who you can follow and learn from their experience. That will help personally and professionally. Find a mentor.

I had a young woman call me on Wednesday. She had heard a webinar I had given a couple weeks ago. We talked for 30 minutes because she had just graduated from college and wanted to know what decisions she should make on her career in fundraising. I gave her some ideas to look for and questions to ask. I would not presume to tell her what to do, but I did tell her what to look for.

Find a mentor. You’d be surprised who would be willing to be your mentor.

The flip side of this is to be a mentor. Whatever experience you have, be willing to share it with other people. Help other people come along. Do what you can to give back to the profession and to your donors, too. That’s it. Be the person that everybody wants you to be. Be the friend, the golden rule. All fundraising comes down to the golden rule. You can summarize it all in one sentence about doing unto others. That doesn’t make a very long book, so I have to add some extra words in there.

Hugh: Wayne Olson, you’re a gift to humanity. Thank you for being here today.

Wayne: You’re very kind, Hugh. Thank you.


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