What’s your Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris?

mission your why

By Tammy Zonker, Fundraising Strategist & Keynote Speaker

On my way to speak at IFC Amsterdam last Fall, my partner Trent and I planned to spend several days in Paris. Neither of us had been there before, so we decided to check off the top touristy must-see-sights. Palace of Versailles: check. House of Monet at Giverny: check. Eiffel Tower: check. The Louvre Museum: check. Arc de Triomphe: check. And last but far from least, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. All magnificent in their own unique way.

Fast forward to April 18th, 2019. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames right before our collective eyes. We were glued to our televisions, computer screens and smart phones around the world. By the time the flames were extinguished, the cathedral’s spire and most of its roof had been destroyed. Many works of art and religious relics were moved to safety, but others suffered severe smoke damage, and some were destroyed completely.

Then came the remarkable and unprecedented out-pouring of generosity. According to the New York Times, more than $1 billion dollars was donated to Notre Dame within two days of the massive fire that ravaged the Paris cathedral. Incredible acts of philanthropy. Large gifts. Small gifts. And lots of gift values in-between. Whether they were gifts inspired by faith, French nationalism and pride, or a passion for historical preservation and architecture – people from around the world were compelled to take swift action.

And then what happened? Judgment. Value judgments posted in social media. Value judgments shared around the water cooler. Value judgments at every turn. People I care about and respect saying things like, “A billion dollars for a building – while children are suffering?”  You probably heard some version of the same sentiment. You may even feel the same way – that other issues are bigger, more urgent and deserving.

Perhaps you even felt disaster envy. You know, “If only we had a fire… a hurricane… an earthquake… an extraterrestrial invasion.” Disaster envy is a special strain of the broader disorder of mission envy: “If only we had cute kids or puppies and kittens…” 

With love and empathy I say, “If only you would stop with the judgement, already!” It simply does not serve you or your cause. It just doesn’t. And it’s a waste of your precious time and energy. Better to redirect your efforts to two purposes:

How can you more powerfully convey the urgent and compelling needs of those your organization serves and the impact in your community, region or the world? Consider the following questions inspired by the brilliant Jerold Panas in his book, Making a Case Your Donors Will Love: 

What does your organization do and why does it matter?

Why should I (the donor) care? How is this issue relevant to your donor and/or community?

Why now? What’s the urgency? What will likely happen if I don’t take action?

Why me? (acknowledging the special connection this donor or prospective donor has to your cause).

If your donor did give to help restore Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris or provide relief to disaster du’ jour – take the time to learn more about your donor’s interests and motivations. Consider asking your donor some of the following discovery questions with an open mind and heart (read non-judgment):

Tell me about your connection to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame (or other organization).

What compelled you to give in response to the fire (or disaster du’ jour)?

Was this your first gift to them? Will you continue that support in the future?

Overall, what do you want to accomplish with your giving?

When it comes to the charitable causes you care about, where does ourorganization rank and why? (Thank and acknowledge them, regardless of their answer).

You’ve made such a different for those we serve. How can we be an even better partner for you? 

Your role is to be Curious George – not Judge Judy!

Giving is an emotional act, justified by logic. I always say, “Nothing happens until someone feels something.” As fundraising professionals, it’s really on us to move and inspire our donors. It’s our work to make the case for our cause every bit as heart-stirring, compelling and urgent as the tragic fire at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. It’s also our responsibility to respect our donors and their giving decisions without the distraction of our own value judgments.

It takes self-reflection and courage. Believe me, I know. As an example, I vehemently oppose the NRA and could easily judge people who support them. To be clear, I believe in the constitutional right to bear arms; specifically hand guns or rifles. However, in my opinion, there is no place for automatic or semi-automatic weapons in civil society. But when it comes to my donors, my value judgements must be set-aside if I am to be the most effective conduit between the donor and the cause I represent. Alternatively, I could choose to judge my donor’s giving decisions – win the battle and lose the donor. As fundraising pros, we have a conscious choice to make.

So, what’s your Cathédrale Notre-Dame? What’s figuratively on-fire in your organization related to your mission delivery and those you serve? Tell that story. Make that case. Create that offer. And let your donors be the judge.


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