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Four Lessons about Donor Relationships—From a Shoe Company

Kristin Hammett

Kristin Hammett

February 23, 2024

“Like Mike, if I could be like Mike.”

Who remembers that 1991 ad campaign by Gatorade?

I do. And I remember many other ads featuring the greatest-of-all-time Michael Jordan. But that jingle, which is currently stuck in my head—and now maybe yours too—came seven years after his breakthrough endorsement: a shoe deal.

Air, directed by Ben Affleck and featuring a list of notable actors, is the story of Nike signing Michael Jordan in his rookie year. I was fascinated by the character of Sonny Vaccaro, Nike’s basketball scout and the man who pursued Jordan’s partnership despite a number of challenges. If you haven’t watched Air on Netflix and intend to, go watch it. Then circle back and read these key learnings.

Four lessons stuck out to me.

4 Lessons for Donor Relationships

1. Be a subject matter expert

Sonny Vaccaro was a subject matter expert in basketball, in Michael Jordan, and in the competition. You should be, too.

Know your industry. Understand the dynamics, the major players, the fundamentals at play, and how individuals are impacted. Know your organization and how you go about solving the problem. And understand the problem you’re solving—inside and out. Be a subject matter expert for donors. Know your stuff.

2. You’ve got to believe

Sonny was rejected by corporate leadership and Jordan’s agent, but he persisted. He believed in his idea and the potential. Do you?

Do you believe in the work you are doing? Are you passionate about the problems your organization is working to solve? Development is not a transaction; it’s not sales. It is ministry. Its potential is eternal. Invite donors to be a part of the great work God is accomplishing through your nonprofit.

3. Go the extra mile

Sonny went all in. He traveled uninvited to Jordan’s home in North Carolina, then worked for three straight days on a pitch.

In donor development, this can look a lot of different ways; it’s not prescriptive, it’s fluid. Perhaps this is personalizing a funding proposal or sending anniversary cards for their “donor anniversary” with your organization, articulating the impact they have had since partnering with the work of your ministry.

4. Know who you’re talking to

Sonny knew Michael Jordan. He also recognized Mrs. Jordan’s role in the process and convinced her of his vision.

Donors are people, too. Get to know them. Ask them their story, how they got excited about this work, and what part they care most about. As you’re learning, be willing to pivot. Adjust your presentations and talking points and pay attention to what feedback you’re receiving.

Here’s one more bonus lesson:

5. Look for what others may not see

The biggest takeaway for me from this movie was Sonny’s ability to see what others may not see, and his willingness to innovate based on it.

Innovation is risky, and often worth it. How can you look at your development work differently and try something different, innovative, and potentially risky?

According to The Sporting News, Nike made $5.1 billion in revenue from the Michael Jordan relationship, just in 2022. In this case, the risk was worth it.

While it may not be a lucrative billion-dollar payout you’re considering, as you steward donor relationships, consider incorporating more of Sonny’s strategy in your development work: expertise, belief, work, knowledge, and risk.

Like Sonny… if we could more be like Sonny.

Simplify Your Message: the Executive Summary

As you pursue and deepen relationships with donors, keep your initial pitch simple. An executive summary of your work—with just five key elements—will help your message stick with donors.

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About Kristin Hammett

Kristin Hammett

As the Director of Nonprofit Success at The Signatry, Kristin Hammett works to train, consult, and equip nonprofits with fundraising solutions to connect God’s resources with His work

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