Development Dialogue: A Challenge of Legacy:

Editor’s note:  With this article From the Green Room begins Development Dialogue, a regular series exploring issues relevant to the needs of non-profit development directors and fundraisers. If you have issues you would like to see explored here, please email We look forward to hearing your ideas. 

Thanking Donors Today … and in the Future 

By Ron Fredman

There are times when a book tells tales not contained within its covers. I hold such a text in my hand: The Pilot, penned in 1823 by James Fenimore Cooper, perhaps best known for The Last of the Mohicans.

This edition, with its leathered spine and marbled covers, is part of the five-book Sea Tales printed in 1884. It’s a rousing yarn based loosely on John Paul Jones’s Revolutionary War exploits along the British coast. A fun read, indeed.

The Pilot fundamentally created the genre of the naval adventure. In its day, it was a big deal, celebrated and filled with impact. But now, to quote Cooper contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, it is a “quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” It would not surprise me if I were the only person on the planet reading it right now. It is probable I am one of a comparatively few today aware it ever were written. 

And as a fundraiser, that is the real story for me.

The book’s significance, though clear, is clouded by time. Could this fate also await those major donors we declare the generations will celebrate? Too often, I fear, today’s big deal will become tomorrow’s The Pilot.

What is our responsibility to ensure a donor’s legacy — if by legacy we mean remembrance rather than impact — continues to burn brightly? More important, what is our real ability to protect it deep into tomorrow? It’s an interesting challenge for posterity, not to mention for promise making and keeping. 

Put bluntly, do we risk setting up false expectations when we talk of legacy? Is there a trap of making assurances without surety?  

Then again, does it matter how the distant future might view any of us? Perhaps the human ego lives so much in the present that the presumption of immortality — whether etched on a sidewalk brick or in lights aside a gleaming performance hall — is adequate guarantee. 

An interesting question, indeed.

My copy of The Pilot shares yet another story, one even more obscure but familiar. On the flyleaf is penciled “Waislow Judson Jr., 1897.” Clearly this bit of provenance hints at one who found joy in its pages. Nothing more. No city. No background. No context or meaning. Just a name and date.

In some ways, it’s not unlike a donor listing in the back of one of our programs. It is acknowledgement of investment and a nod to existence. That’s where it starts … and that’s where it stops. 

As with the case of Mr. Judson, it does but little justice. There is no appreciation, only the simplest of recognition (and, yes, we all like to see our name in print, so maybe that basic acknowledgement is sufficient for satisfaction). 

But surely there is more we can we do for our donors, especially those of modest means who don’t otherwise enjoy the tangible benefits reserved for larger contributors. Elevating every one of them — $10 donor and up — from simple recognition to appreciation, and from appreciation to celebration, is our great opportunity.  

There you have it. Two stories straddling the story, tying the past to the present … and beyond. From a fundraising perspective, both point to the same vexing challenge: How best to say thank you to our donors today, and thank you, also, for all time. 


What efforts have you taken to preserve your donors’ legacies over the longer term? Is this a concern in your organizations? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Ron Fredman, chief development officer at Kansas City Ballet, is well known for beyond-the-horizon thinking, deceptively tough questions, nurtured expectations and enthusiastic partnership. He is a passionate fundraiser and dedicated relationship builder. He has enjoyed many years in arts fundraising, including record-breaking seasons as the chief fundraiser for the Kansas City Symphony and Houston Symphony. He joined the Kansas City Ballet as chief development officer in the fall of 2012 and has continued the string of fundraising successes. His background includes more than a decade as a national fundraising consultant with Hartsook Companies, where he last served as executive vice president. He has guided arts and cultural organizations, social services, youth organizations, schools, religious institutions, health care, professional and trade associations, foundations and more. Beyond solid fundraising leadership, he also provides senior-level expertise in management, strategic planning and marketing. 

Ron is a frequent speaker at national, regional and local fundraising and business conferences, where his energy, interactive style and common sense draw strong reviews. He has designed and taught business courses at the corporate and community-college level, and has written for many publications. He began his career as a sportswriter at The Kansas City Star. Ron studied political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and served as an adjunct faculty at Lansing (Mich.) Community College. Ron is chair of Dance/USA’s Development Directors & Staff Affinity Group.



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