Winning Partnerships for High Impact Philanthropy: The Power Of Internal Partnerships In Creating Highly Effective External Relationships

(This is the third and final blog in a series of blogs on designing internal and external partnerships for high impact philanthropy.)

The first two blogs in this series examined the important role strong internal partnerships play in setting the stage for high impact philanthropy.  Most importantly, these partnerships are the cornerstone of the organization’s philanthropic culture.  The alliances, the agreements, the messages conveyed and the actions taken by the CEO and the Chief Development Officer together with others within the institution set the course for all the philanthropic endeavors that are to follow.  

Who are your most important philanthropic partners, the most critical relationships outside the internal team?  I’ve frequently heard development officers, and even CEO’s ask, “Where do I start?”  Your board!  They are among your most, if not the most, critical stakeholders.  Yes, your patients, students, alumni, and community may well be stakeholders.  But, the organization will undoubtedly stumble, at worst fail or certainly not reach its potential without a board that believes in the organization, is passionate about its mission and future, and understands and even embraces its important role in philanthropy.  

This is where the philanthropy office’s most important external partnerships must emanate and grow.

The second blog in this series, Designing Powerful Partnerships II:  Why Me?  From the CEO’s Corner, described the CEO’s unique role in positioning philanthropy with the board chair.  If the board chair is uncomfortable with his or her role in carrying the philanthropy mantra to the full board and beyond, it is the CEO’s responsibility to navigate the relationship through actions and compelling example.  Clearly, a delicate matter, the tone will not be reset without the CEO’s leadership and likely perseverance sometimes over a long period of time.  

Genuine and productive partnerships don’t happen in isolation.  Just like all good relationships, they develop as a result of trust, respect, shared goals and good communication.  Regrettably, all too frequently, the philanthropy staff’s access to board members is off limits.  Although managing board relationships is the purview of the CEO, creating productive philanthropy partnerships is one of the many dynamic relationships that should be fostered with these important stakeholders.  This is not meant to suggest that this partnership is just about the board members’ monetary contributions.  Far from it.  Whether the board member serves on the development or philanthropy committee or not, it is important that each board member has the opportunity to build trusted, authentic relationships with members of the philanthropy team.  In “my perfect world”, as I like to refer to it, these relationships are identified as a priority by the board chair and CEO.  

What do meaningful relationships look like and how do they help create high impact philanthropy?  Below are just a few examples:

1.    It is the responsibility of board members to understand and be able to articulate institutional priorities.  All too often though, philanthropic opportunities (as opposed to needs) are not well understood.  Although financials and development reports are hopefully part and parcel of board meetings, typically there is little time for a deep dive into complex conversations.  Semi-annual or quarterly one-on-one meetings between the Chief Development Officer and board member is not only a time to get to know each other better, it is a great time for a well-orchestrated tutorial geared to the board member’s area(s) of interest or simply a time to answer questions about the program.  Other opportunities should be pursued outside of this business meeting for gift stewardship.

2.    High performing development or philanthropy officers are typically awesome connectors.  In the best cases, they understand how to connect people to institutional priorities.  Once these are well understood by the board member, these semi-annual small group or one-on-one meetings become a fodder for introductions and opportunities to discuss networking with individuals in their sphere of influence.  

3.    It is a rare board member who is completely comfortable with or well informed about the major gift philanthropy process. I have found that having conversations with donor-partners (and hopefully all board members fall into this role) about the meaningfulness of their gift, whether they felt happiness as a result of their gift, and/or how they felt about their gift, opens the relationship to a whole new dynamic.  Suddenly, fundraising becomes not about getting the money, but about providing meaning and even happiness to one’s life.  This may feel like a vulnerable conversation.  Indeed, it is.  It is a conversation that must emanate from authentic and genuine interest and care for the person.  Otherwise, this is just a gimmick not a step in building a truly meaningful relationship.  

4.    Be ready to listen!  The press of meeting deadlines and achieving financial goals frequently creates an environment that promotes a lot of talking at people rather than truly engaging and listening.  Our partners in meaningful relationships want to be heard and they want to know that they are heard. 

5.    Be ready to act! The information learned in these education, networking and listening encounters may be the source of powerful stuff:  introductions to new potential donor-partners, ideas to be vetted, or philanthropic proposals to be considered.  In every case, whether action is needed or not, the CDO or other philanthropy team member has a critical responsibility to report back to their most important internal partner, the CEO.  These conversations may likely result in others in the organization that at a minimum should be informed or possibly further involved for action.

In my experience, it is these intimate conversations with board partners, vetted with institutional leaders that have spawned some of the most substantive philanthropic opportunities and introduction to powerful new partners.