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Hello, fundraisers of the world!

With this February’s launch of my new memoir , “BAM… And Then It Hit Me,” a recollection of my 36 years at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), it seems like a good time to take a walk down memory lane and reminisce about the most aggravating donors I’ve had to contend with.

Now, let’s be fair here — most of our supporters are decent, reasonable people who are enthusiastic about our work and generous with their contributions. I value these relationships deeply and remain incredibly grateful for their support. Without them, BAM would never have been the great institution that it has become.

But along the way, who among us hasn’t felt the sting of a donor flipping out about seats in row M instead of row G at a gala? Who hasn’t seen fire in the eyes of an unhinged grantmaker threatening to cut you off for a typo in his thank you note? Yes, I know, this is the life we’ve chosen, and it is not for the faint of heart. And truth be told, there is no room for typos, missed deadlines or seating errors if you have embraced the path of fundraising. And yet… we are human. We occasionally can and do make bad decisions, and sometimes we really screw up!

On the donor side, however, once in a while, you just get a bad apple—someone who absolutely drives you crazy and makes you question why you got into this line of work at all. The ongoing rejection we all experience as fundraisers is bad enough. I think it is time that we call out this small but truly miserable group that can really get you down.

Let me elaborate with just a few examples.

Institution Dysmorphia (Donor A): We had a donor in the early ’90s who wasn’t that wealthy but definitely had the capacity to make a six-figure gift. (Note: It’s usually not the biggest donors who drive you crazy, and when they do, it’s really OK because they are actually giving A LOT of money).

In any case, this woman (let’s call her “Donor A”) made some very small contributions that caught our attention because her name was familiar in social circles at organizations around the city. We began to “court” her and invited her to one of our donor dinners and a performance. Then, without giving even one extra dollar, she proceeded to call us regularly demanding house seats, patron tickets for friends, etc. We tolerated this for a while, thinking it was leading to a big gift, but, alas, it was not to be.

After several requests, I finally asked her point-blank if she intended to make a meaningful contribution to BAM or not. She was stunned and taken aback by my request. “How dare you ask me that?” she said. “I am a very significant donor to Lincoln Center!” I took a deep breath and then responded calmly, “Yes, Ms. Donor A, I am pleased to hear about what you have done for Lincoln Center, but we, as you know, are BAM.”

She looked at me with disdain and seemed completely baffled, and then I realized that in her mind, because she gave money to Lincoln Center, she believed that entitled her to house seats and donor privileges at BAM. I guess this institutional confusion worked well for her, but not so well for us. Sigh… time to go home and drink a large bottle of wine.

Mr. Check Is (Not) In The Mail (Donor B): This prospective donor (“Donor B”) was, in fact, a dedicated, arts-loving gentleman. In his heart, he really, really wanted to support BAM, but in reality, this guy took up a lot of time and the cultivation was going nowhere. We arranged lunches, building tours and free tickets for him and his entourage, often followed by backstage visits with artists, the whole nine yards.

All of this work and planning was put in place because he dangled an incredibly large contribution right in front of our noses. He dangled… and dangled …and dangled. When he finally made the pledge, we were elated. Eureka! All that work and delayed gratification paid off.

Then, however, the grim truth became apparent. He simply would not pay or even sign a pledge letter. We tried everything to close out this gift, but for him, it was just a game. A few months later, I received calls from two other colleagues from other organizations asking me about him. He had put them through the same wringer. There is a special place in hell for non-donors like this one!

Fundraiser Be Gone—Get Out of My Sight (Donor C): Last week, I was reminded by a dear friend of another donor rebuff. This time, the donor was hosting a great birthday bash and I was invited. We had just published the magnificent BAM 150th Anniversary Book, the first-ever written history of the organization. This donor was even featured in the book, so I brought him a “hot off the press” copy for his birthday.

My friend and I were talking at the party, and the donor came over to greet us. I held up the book and waxed eloquently about its beauty and content, and told him that he was actually included in a chapter. But when I handed it to him, he said loudly and harshly, “It’s too big, I don’t want it, take it back.” It was so rude. He walked away, and my friend and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and laughed for 15 minutes. Honestly, it was either laugh or cry, so you might as well laugh.

As you can see, I have told these stories without naming names, but for this last example, I think it’s just fine to call him out in person. And, yes, the object of my ridicule in this story is none other than the disgraced theatrical producer Scott Rudin.

Scott Rudin (Donor D): Rudin was known for years in the industry as a bully. Everyone was afraid of him, given his success on Broadway, not to mention that he owned the rights to practically every great play that has ever been written. I had authorized our patron desk to sell him good seats in the past, even though he wasn’t a BAM donor. I did this in order to cultivate him, since he was very wealthy and because he worked in the theater business, which I respected. But after I did this a few times, it was beginning to get tired.

The last request was just too much. BAM was presenting a one-month-only run of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” by Tennessee Williams, starring the brilliant Cate Blanchett as the doomed Southern belle, Blanche DuBois. It was a tour de force and the hottest ticket in town. One of Rudin’s beleaguered assistants called for house seats, and not only house seats: He insisted on four on the aisle. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that we had been down this road before, and that we would not, under any circumstances, comply with this request. The assistant pleaded with me. I felt sorry for this young person, who was in a no-win situation working for Rudin, but I had to stand my ground.

“No!” I said. “We will not provide access to the patron desk for anyone who is not a donor.” The next thing I knew, Scott Rudin had checked the levels of giving required to receive patron tickets at BAM and then actually gave the money and became a legitimate “patron.” However (the cruel irony of it all), he gave a measly $300, the absolute lowest level required, at the time, to gain access to house seats. I was furious! But chalk up one for Scott, he sure knew how to work the system!

Seriously, my friends, during my career, I saw every sort of donor behavior you could imagine.

Once, we ordered a car to drive someone home as a benevolent gesture, and instead, they rode around the city all night, stopping at clubs, you name it—and stuck us with the bill. We had another individual who asked us to book hotel rooms for her friends coming in for our show, and she wanted access to our special hotel rates. We complied to be helpful and then ended up paying the hotel bill.

Over the years, I toughened up and was less amenable to these unusual requests, but in fundraising, you walk a fine line between offering all kinds of special perks and benefits to secure donations and being the biggest sucker in town!

Good luck, comrades. It’s harsh out there in fundraising land!

Karen Brooks Hopkins is president emerita of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Her new memoir, “BAM…And Then It Hit Me,” is available here.

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