We are at a crisis point.
In short, there’s a lot of scary mess out there, folks.
But… times like this are also often pivot points.
Will the pandemic finally move us toward more just ways of treating healthcare?
Will the economic hardship of the crisis force us to look harder at the gross inequities in wealth and income?
Will the most recent murders of Black people – and the important protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter – finally, finally, get enough people to understand how much of what we take for granted was built on the backs of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color?
There’s possibility there – because the times are so apocalyptic.
What does this have to do with the nonprofit sector and fundraising?
Well, we’re having more conversations about society and our role in it. We’re talking about our responsibilities. My friend Vu has been writing on-fire pieces on the topics of change and inclusion. (Start here, follow links… there’s so much good thinking. Don’t cheat yourself by missing any of it.)
But there’s one thread in this I want to pull. So bear with me, please. I’m sort of thinking out loud.
Donors are – in general – whiter and more well off.
This is most likely true. And we can probably say that many people support causes that don’t directly address the problems I mentioned above. And the causes they do support sometimes serve the donors as much as anyone. Social capital is real.
BUT. But, but, but… That doesn’t mean donors are bad people. It doesn’t even mean all very wealthy donors who give exclusively to higher education and fancy arts organizations are bad people.
And… we cannot force them to change their values. We certainly won’t succeed by attacking them.
We can, however, persuade.
But before we can do that, we need to step back. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror we’re holding up to others.
What are your organization’s values?
Values are usually connected to, but not exclusive of, your mission. Have you identified yours? Do you talk about them, or are they some words on your website? Do you live them?
Can you define, understand, and live your values? Can everyone connected to the organization?
- Your values should inform how you work, not just what your work is
- Who determines the values? How will you uphold them?
- How will we communicate our values?
- Who will hold us responsible?
- What are we willing to give up to live our values?
When you’ve defined what matters to your organization, and communicated it, and made it part of your activities every day, then you can better persuade someone else to take them on as well.
Do you have ways to really listen to and hear the people you serve?
Do you also have ways to listen to and try to understand your supporters?
If a more inclusive workplace is one of your values, are you actively seeking that? How? (If people are hired because they seem like a “good fit” are you kidding yourself?)
Are you asking your board to support new programs (and retire others) that better support your values?
We need to model what we want to see. It starts at home.
What about those donors?
Is your nonprofit ready to change hearts?
If persuading people to share your vision and values is the goal, you won’t succeed by making enemies of those same people.
Listen, I get it. My Twitter feed is full of outrage and depression. It’s satisfying to find a common enemy. Makes things seem very clear. I’m every bit as guilty as anyone.
But after decades of working with donors – plenty of them well-off and white (and at arts organizations, too) – I know these people are not the enemy. They are good people who care.
So if we want to persuade donors to see things in a new way, we have some work to do:
- Show how your mission and values connect
- Accept that supporters (giving time or money) do not owe your organization
- Accept that you can’t and shouldn’t try to “educate” people who don’t want to be educated
- Accept that supporters are completely free to use their money and time as they will
- Work hard to find and encourage the people who share your values and your mission
When you values are clear, and when you communicate them through what you say and what you do, people will either choose to stay or they won’t. You’ll do better if you can communicate those values in an inclusive way.
Here’s the tricky part.
What happens if donors don’t stay? What happens if donors who contribute a lot of money don’t stay? Are you ready to accept the loss? Or will your fundraisers be penalized for not making budget?
Persuading funders and donors to stay will fall largely on fundraisers’ shoulders. Fundraisers are your chief relationship-builders. If you are asking them to communicate difficult things, you need to adjust your financial expectations.
If fundraisers are to be brave enough to turn down some funding, that has to be supported across the organization. We can’t say “don’t take that dirty money!” and at the same time say, “you must find more money!”
Philanthropy is an organization-wide project.
So, summing up, here are my thoughts about nonprofits changing hearts.
(I really want to hear yours, as well.)
- Define your values
- Lead with your values; we lead by example
- Be brave enough to say no when funding doesn’t further your values
- Welcome people in various stages of awareness
- Confrontation doesn’t change minds; understanding can
- We’re storytellers – so tell the stories that build empathy and understanding
- Remember that stories need to illustrate problems when you are asking for money. They need to illustrate progress when you are reporting on results. Illustrating problems at a personal level is not a problem. Telling unhappy stories is not “poverty porn” when you respect the protagonist and treat them with empathy. If there is no problem, what is the donor’s role?
- But don’t “other” people you work with – colleagues or those your organization works for. Give clients dignity – and privacy, when requested.
Finally, (and I’ll have more to say about this later):
Our values should include honoring “small dollar” donors and volunteers as we do donors who give a great deal of money. If we are inviting people into a cause, then everyone has a role to play. And remember that the $100 from one donor may represent a bigger part of their wealth than the $1000 from another.