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Notre Dame: Lessons in Major Donor Engagement

Like many of you, I was absolutely devastated watching the Notre Dame Cathedral burn on April 15, 2019. Even before the fire was put out, millions of dollars were committed toward restoration from donors around the world. The richest families in France pledged almost $1 billion.

Not surprisingly, this money has not rolled in as quickly as some had expected. And the backlash begins.

On June 14, 2019, the Associated Press reported, “The billionaire French donors who publicly proclaimed they would give hundreds of millions to rebuild Notre Dame have not yet paid a penny toward the restoration of the French national monument, according to church and business officials.”

There are some really great takeaways for nonprofits to learn from this situation:

Americans are Generous!

Michel Picaud, president of The Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, estimated that 90 percent of donations received have come from American donors, and noted, “Americans are very generous toward Notre Dame and the monument is very loved in America.”

Americans consistently respond to tragedy with incredible generosity. And it’s not just for show. When Americans make a commitment, they follow through.

Major Donors are not ATMs

“The big donors haven’t paid. Not a cent,” said Andre Finot, senior press official at Notre Dame. “They want to know what exactly their money is being spent on and if they agree to it before they hand it over…”

Well, of course, they do!

I don’t know Mr. Finot, but he sounds shocked and indignant. Did he expect the richest families in France would hand over almost $1 billion without knowing the plan?

That just wasn’t going to happen.

Foundations to a Long-Term Philanthropic Relationship

Let me be clear: I’m not an apologist for French billionaires. While I’m sure they were deeply moved by the tragedy, my guess is that their gift was motivated by a “value-exchange”: How can my gift increase my reputation in the eyes of the public? As opposed to other donors who already fulfilled their gifts, motivated primarily by preserving the legacy of Notre Dame.

Two things to keep in mind when working with major and mega donors:

1.    Presenting the Complete Case. The emotional appeal to rebuild Notre Dame is compelling and clear. However, the intellectual case was missing. Major donors were not presented a plan for rebuilding the cathedral.

More importantly, the transformational case was not made. Donors will cling to a transactional mindset unless the nonprofit bonds the donor to the overarching vision and shows how their gift will have a transformational impact.

2.    Building Trust. Receiving a nine-figure gift requires significant trust between the donor and the organization. In this case, the cathedral’s leadership did little to build trust with the wealthy families. As major donor officers know, effectively building trust takes intentionality and face-to-face time. Not just before the gift is committed, but also after the gift is made.

I’m confident that Notre Dame will be rebuilt, but it will probably take longer and cost more than currently anticipated. Even so, the leaders pursuing the reconstruction will be able to secure the funding they need if they spend the time to build relationships of trust with their major donors and bond them to a transformational vision of Notre Dame’s future impact.