You Don’t Tell Me What To Give, Don’t Tell Me What To Say

An interesting question was posed to Kelly Kleiman, the Nonprofiteer, about the practice of suggesting donors increase their giving from the previous year. The writer was offended at being told what to give the next year. Kleiman attributes the origins of the practice to universities who, anticipating the increased fortunes of their graduates as the moved along in their careers, asked for slightly greater amounts as the years progressed.

This seems like a great thing and, in fact, is the reason individual giving is such an important source of funds to organizations: while foundations often won’t continue their support unless you do something new and different for every grant, most individuals will just keep on giving unless you affirmatively offend them.

But what you’re saying is that the request for elevated support is just such an affirmative offense.

The problem is that the cost of everything continues to go up, and unless the monetary inflow goes up at the same time the agencies you support will find themselves seriously behind the 8-ball. Perhaps the agencies requesting your increased support would do better if they reminded you of that—”We haven’t been able to give our actors a raise for five years while their rents and grocery bills just keep on rising”—rather than beginning with a flat-out demand that you do more.

I thought the question and answer gave some interesting insight into the whole practice of “upselling” donors from year to year as well providing some guidance about how make the request a little more graciously.

What made me cringe was the second part of the writer’s question/complaint.

“And this year, when, as a board member, I was given the fundraising “ask” letters that were going out under my name to my personal contacts, I felt especially irritated to see the request for a specific additional amount. I would certainly never have written my friends directly with this request.”

Kleiman responds that the writer is within their rights to feel upset that such a request was going out under their name. It put me in mind of a piece from the Non-Profit Quarterly I wrote on this summer. The author, Simone Joyaux, referred to the practice of having board members solicit donations from family and friends ,as trespassing. She claims it leverages personal relationships rather than an interest in a cause and ends up alienating both the board member and their friends.

Joyaux noted that giving based on trespassing is generally shallow and not likely to persist after the board member has transitioned away from the organization. Unless, of course, the person solicited is genuinely interested in the organization’s cause. In which case it is better to have conversations and identify that interest initially rather than blindly solicit everyone in a board member’s address book.

This post title inspired by Lesley Gore

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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