A Tale of Donors and Volunteer Firemen

Fireman and puppy

Recently, I received an annual fund donation request to support volunteer firemen in a town in New Jersey, where my grandmother had once lived. I’ve always lived in Ohio (where volunteer firemen are not as common) and can recall having to explain the concept of someone voluntarily running into a burning building. It conjured up images of ordinary civilians braving heat and flames to save families and puppies alike.

Years before I entered the nonprofit world, I received a similar request from the same organization. It had been mailed to my Ohio address, as my grandmother had spent her last months living here. At that time, I called N.J. to tell them she had passed many years ago and asked to have her name removed from their mailing list.

But now as a nonprofit consultant and grant writer, I viewed this most recent donation request with different eyes. Given my grandmother had lived in that N.J. town roughly 20 years and that her brothers had been volunteer firemen, I felt compelled to donate. I could have merely stuck a check in the envelope and send it off with no explanation, but I opted to enclose a note.

After all, we give to feel good about doing good. And in the case of memorial gifts, we give to keep the memory of a loved one alive.

So, I briefly explained my grandmother’s sudden passing from lung cancer, the family’s history of volunteer firemen and that I, her sole granddaughter, was donating in her memory. And of times spent at her N.J. home, lying in bed at night with the sound of the fire alarm sounding – wondering if one of my great-uncles would be fighting those flames. The note was all but six sentences long.

I have to admit my donation was also an experiment. I was curious to know how, or even if, they would acknowledge my donation. I’ve donated to many nonprofits over the years, but this time really was personal – on a different level. So I mailed my check and I waited.

It’s been over two months since my check cleared and still nothing. I wasn’t expecting to be asked to serve as grand marshal in the next town parade, but a letter of thanks would have been appropriate. Ironically, donations were being handled by a bank that has the word Stewardship in their name.

So, what do volunteers (firemen or otherwise) and donors have in common?

The need for recognition – regardless of the level of bravery or size of the donation. A thank-you for helping out when it was needed the most. Development staff, who at times feel like they spend too much time putting out fires, know this but yet it often gets lost in the effort to keep the fundraising process moving forward. Nonprofits enter into an unspoken commitment when they send out annual fund appeals, one that implies in exchange for acknowledging their need for financial assistance, we the donors will be recognized. No balloons or marching bands necessary.  

What experiences or thoughts do you have on donations not being recognized and how organizations might develop a better strategy to address donor recognition and foster stewardship?

P.S. Here’s to donors everywhere that continue to give regardless of recognition, to nonprofits that get it right and to volunteer firemen who risk their own lives to save others.

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