How looking for donors changed how I look for friends

I’ve been thinking about friendships lately. (I think this is one of my perennial wonderings, it turns out. Friendships are weird.) I had a couple hard situations where I felt really let down, and I started to question what I was looking for in friendships and why I was investing in friendships that were ultimately so disappointing (time and time again disappointing).

Then I had a lightbulb moment when talking to a friend about fundraising.

The bulk of a fundraiser’s time is spent developing relationships with her portfolio of Major Gift “probable” donors. Probable donors are the people who are committed to the mission of our organization and want to use their philanthropy to make an impact. We fundraisers work with them to help them make the best gift they can to the organization, in a way that makes them feel proud of their impact on the organization and the impact of their life on the world around them.

A big way we discover new probable donors is by building and reaching out to lists of “possible” donors — people who we think, but don’t know, have the potential to become a Major Gift donor. Possible donors are the people we are trying to get to know so as to invite them to develop a deeper relationship with our organization, to hopefully one day become a deeper partner in our mission through their philanthropy.

When researching suspects for our outreach lists, I have tended to look for two things: capacity and interest. Does it appear that this person has the capacity to make a Major Gift (about $100k over 3 years)? Have they indicated an interest in our organization and mission, perhaps through a history of making yearly gifts to our organization, or attending our events, or being involved with other organizations with a similar mission? We generally have an inkling that the people on our list are likely to satisfy both criteria (hence why they are on our list!), and we continue to try to answer these two questions more concretely if we are able to get to know them after some initial outreach.

Then recently my boss shared a new, third criteria that I hadn’t realized was truly the element that took a person from possible donor to probable donor: availability.

In a lot of ways, availability is what determines whether or not someone is a “probable Major Gift donor” to our organization. Are we able to connect with them? Do we have the right contact information? Does this person make time for us? If someone is not available to us, it’s clear it is not “probable” that they will make a Major Gift to our organization within the next 3 years, simply because we don’t have the opportunity to engage them regarding their philanthropic vision and how they could fulfill that with the work and people of our organization.

Even though availability is the big determining factor, however, truly, if we discover a “no” on any of the three elements — capacity, interest, or availability — we don’t move that person from “possible” donor to “probable” donor. Without capacity, interest, and availability, a person is not likely to become someone who is more involved in, invested in, and part of our nonprofit mission and vision in a more intimate and significant way. And whether or not a donor meets all three criteria determines the depth of the relationship I try to build with that person moving forward, and sets the expectations I have of the outcomes of that relationship. 

Then a lightbulb went off in my head a few days ago when I was talking about my friendship frustrations and confusions to a long-distance friend.

What we look for when trying to find “probable” Major Gift donors, we can also look for when trying to find friends for deeper friendships.

(Can I please call these folks “possible” or “probable” people for Major Friending? No?! You are no fun.)

To be revealed as a “probable person” for a deep friendship, someone must demonstrate capacity, interest, and availability to and for us. First, capacity: do they have the kind of things we want/need in a friend for a particular kind of relationship? In other words, is this person already the kind of person who is capable of being a friend at all? Do they demonstrate an ability and commitment to be honest, kind, non-toxic, non-narcissistic, fun, thoughtful, vulnerable, etc.? This first kind of capacity is really about whether or not this person is psychologically and characteristically able to be a “friend” at all. (Usually we have already established this if we think they are “possible people” for Major Friending. Yep, I’m using the term Major Friending and you’re just going to have to be cool with it.)

The second criteria, interest, looks at whether or not someone is the kind of person who could be a good friend to us. Are they interested in having the same kind of friend connection we are interested in? More specifically, is this person interested in developing that kind of friendship with us? Someone may be interested in having that kind of friendship in general, but may not be interested in having it with us. (Just like a donor may have a passion for conservation, but may prefer to donate to a different conservation organization with a slightly different mission from ours.)

Further, many friendships are built between people who share some particular interest, whether it be an ideology or belief system, a hobby, a reading/eating/activity interest, or a goal. Several kinds of interests must align in some good combination (though it varies depending on the people involved!) for two people to be able to consider each other “probable” prospects for Major Friending (sorry, can’t help myself).

But the thing that really cemented the similarities between “donor seeking” and “friend seeking” to me was thinking about availability as a major criteria for deciding whether someone is a possible or probable Major Friend. Does this person make time for me when I ask, or do they only make time for me on their terms? Do they reciprocate my outreach with invitations that reflect a desire to grow the friendship? (Aka, do they invite me to do things with them that allow us to connect, or are all their invitations to surface-level parties and gatherings where “connection” conversations are rare and almost prohibitively difficult to have?) Do they have a current life situation where they actually have time for a deep friendship with me?

The great thing about having three points of criteria is that it gives us a more nuanced way to appreciate what people have to offer, even if it isn’t what we were hoping for. Someone could have capacity and interest but no (real) availability. Someone could have interest and availability but no capacity. Someone could have availability and capacity but no interest. This framework gives us a helpful way to try to understand why we feel excited or disappointed by the way a friendship is evolving. It also takes a bit of the sting out of being let down on expectations for someone to become a deep friend — it helps to be able to say “they just don’t have the capacity/interest/availability” (without judgment) instead of thinking “they didn’t like me.” As so many psychologists remind us, someone’s communication is ultimately about themselves, not us. This set of criteria helps reframe some of the rejection we may feel from the possible friends we had hoped we could move to probable friends and then to Major Friends (CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP). It can also give us words to know what we appreciate in other people and what helps us feel connected to people, so that we can search out and nurture those things specifically.

One of my favorite shared interests — getting into the ocean.


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