Are donors really the problem with fundraising?
There is a concept being talked about in some fundraising circles – “donor dominance”. The idea is that some donors behave badly (true enough) and because of that, all donors must be… I’m not really sure. Educated? Chastised? Maybe just taught to understand that while we welcome their money, they shouldn’t expect any special treatment.
This is problematic. Because while a few donors – often those who give quite a lot of money – do behave in terrible ways, that broad brush ignores most donors. Donors who more often than not, are treated poorly.
I don’t think our sector treats donors too well. I think most donors aren’t treated with the respect and gratitude they deserve. More about that later. But let’s focus for a minute on the donors who do abuse their power. Because there are ways a well-run organization can prevent that abuse.
But first, one note about “donors”. I’m not talking about grantors here. Or corporate giving. Those relationships are different. I’m talking about individuals.
Mission first – always
The most important way to avoid problems is to ensure every person – staff and board – understands your mission. What are your goals? How will you reach them? Who do you serve?
Every decision needs to be weighed against that mission. If it matters enough to ask people for money, it also matters enough to say “no thank you” to money that doesn’t further your cause.
Fundraisers must have the freedom to say no
This is a leadership issue. If a fundraiser knows she will be fully supported by her executive director and board, then she won’t be tempted to put up with harassment or other bad behavior.
No staff person should ever have to put up with that behavior. And no leader should ever bow to a donor who behaves that way. Yes, it takes courage to say, “your behavior is not acceptable. So we won’t be accepting your gifts anymore.”
If you’ve been raising money for an extended period of time, you may have run into the donor who crosses lines. Unfortunately, dealing with these situations firmly but gracefully is a skill you’ll need to succeed. But if you don’t feel like your boss has your back, that’s very hard to do.
Am I suggesting that your frontline fundraising staff has the freedom to make those decisions? Wait, even if it means turning down money? Yes. Exactly. When money is wielded as power, it becomes a problem.
What if the problem isn’t personal behavior, but conditional gifts?
That’s where a strong gift policy comes in. Again, this is a leadership issue. The head of fundraising, the ED, and the board need to agree on the parameters for gifts – before those gifts are offered.
Will you allow someone to design a program? Maybe – if it fits your mission and the gift covers the costs. What if it’s a LOT of money but the project doesn’t fit your mission objectives?
If you already have a strong gift acceptance policy, the conversation will be easier. If you’d like to keep the relationship intact, this is your opportunity. “We could certainly use a gift that generous! But your goals are well outside our work. And our gift acceptance policy won’t allow me to say yes. But I know the ED at another organization that does work in that area. Would you like an introduction?”
Again, turning down big money is hard. But can choose to be clear about your organization’s work and help the donor fulfill their wish. They’ll remember that generosity.
What if the problem is a donor’s bad reputation outside your organization?
Rely on both a comprehensive gift acceptance policy AND your leadership’s judgment. The key is to consider not just the money, but your organization’s reputation and work. You don’t need to think like a supplicant. You are a potential partner.
Do you want to go into business with this potential donor?
Most donors are not the problem
Most donors don’t behave badly. They don’t expect much from us – and sadly, often don’t receive much.
If you want more of those donors and fewer of the others, you need to treat your donors with respect. Respect isn’t obsequiousness. Respect isn’t difficult, either.
Donors – whether they give $3 or $3 million – deserve to know how their money is being used. They deserve to be shown sincere gratitude. And please, get their information correct – so they’re called by the right name!
Thank you letters – even hand-written notes – are not “donor dominance” at work. They’re a way to include people in your mission. And writing a warm thank you takes no more time than a cold, business-like one.
The best way to avoid temptation
A broad-based individual giving program is a great way to avoid many problems. When you have a dozen very large donors, the chances they’ll hold too much power are high. When you have hundreds or even thousands, it’s easier to treat them all well while staying true to your mission.
That broad base also gives your organization room to expand or change that mission. If you’ve been honest and caring toward those donors, most will stay with you through good times and bad.