Do You Tell Your Donors The Truth? You Should!

Alyssa Wright urges nonprofit leaders to be honest with their donors—even if the news is difficult to deliver.


 

Do you tell your donors the truth?

Last week, two clients come to me in a panic.

One was the board chair of a global NGO who had just left a board meeting, recognizing for the first time that she would have to fundraise in order to keep her role. The other was the executive director of a small grassroots theatre company who miscalculated his annual budget and was scrambling to fund a program that started in two weeks.

Both individuals were frustrated and ready to quit.

Too often, fundraising and partnerships get put on a back burner because nonprofit staff have to juggle multiple roles. It can lead to unfortunate situations, like the ones mentioned above. Daily, I hear from organizations about how they are struggling to execute all their programmatic goals, yet frustrated that they can’t get more people inspired and involved in their mission to help them do so. How do we stop the cycle and start thinking more clearly about growing and maintaining key relationships?

Relationships in social change, like in anything else, are based on trust. I find, as I coach and dig deeper, that so often this has been broken down by a collection of “half-truths” that are spoken daily within the organization. It may also be due to lack of clear vision, confusion around what “mission fulfillment” actually means or denial that change is happening, or needs to happen within the work.

That shared, if you have acted inauthentically or been misleading in any way with partners or potential partners, you might have them questioning if they can trust you to properly steward their work, wealth, and wisdom. Instead of immediately shouting, “we need more names!” to hit your goals, maybe start by saying, “we need to rebuild the trust.” For your organization, this might be in a few subtle, small ways or in one grandiose way, but either case, think on some specific statements you’ve made that have may have broken that trust.

Here are some scenarios I’ve seen in my career:

    Scenario 1

     
    You’re recruiting a new board member. You say:

    “We would love to have you on the board. And yes, fundraising and giving is not necessary, although we would appreciate it, if you’re willing. Mostly, we would love your expertise and wisdom here as we build out our new programs.”

    Automatically, you’re not telling the truth. Somewhere, at some point in the organization’s growth, board members will not only be called to fundraise, but sometimes be called to mainly identify as fundraisers. When you don’t share this from the beginning, it starts to break down trust between yourself and your board. I walked into a board meeting two weeks ago to hear someone share that they were leaving because they were never told they would have to make a gift once they joined. They felt like the executive director lied to them about their responsibilities as a board member. Be clear. Be firm. Be truthful. If you will need board members to fundraise at some point, state so from the beginning.

    Here’s how you can introduce the topic, truthfully:

    “We would love to have you on the board. In addition to your expertise and wisdom around our programmatic work, it would be great to see how you’d like your philanthropy to live here. We do ask all board members to make an annual gift, plus do fundraising outreach and support. When we enter into those conversations, would you be willing to step up with us as long as we provide some tools and training?”

    [If you’re interested in more tools for board management, check out our full guide.]

    Scenario 2

     
    You’re scrambling to fund a program due to lack of advanced planning. You tell a donor:

    “I’d love to invite you to make a second gift this year. Could you process it within the next two weeks? The organization is growing, and we have more students we would like to provide scholarships for this summer.”

    Is this truthful to say this when you know the real reason is because your budget is off? This kind of urgency for a theatre program, that has had months to plan and fundraise for in advance, can often be concerning to a potential funder. Additionally, what if the funder attends the program every year and doesn’t see that the numbers have gone up? Be clear as to what the direct impact of a gift is. Tell the truth about your organization’s trajectory, because even if it doesn’t result in a second gift in that moment, it means you keep your fundraising integrity within the community.

    Here’s how you can broach the issue, in an honest way:

    “I’d love to invite you to make a second gift this year. To be completely honest, we miscalculated the budget last fall and didn’t map smartly to bring in the resources needed. For next year we plan to engage in fundraising starting in October and, we hired an advisor to oversee the finances. I know it’s a lot to ask but I would be grateful to have you beside us in this time of growth, knowing next year we are on a better track with this new support and plan.”

    [If you’d like to learn more about the importance of transparency in fundraising, check out this article from GlobalGiving’s Eleanor Harrison.]

Here’s the thing: In both of these cases, the lies are small, and as you say them, they almost feel more comfortable than exposing the truth would. Often, sharing the full reality to funders means that they might see the deeper issues lurking within the culture or systems at the organization. I find that even though this is a difficult conversation and funders could fall away as a result, it is paramount that the organization keep it’s integrity. Funders are partners. Volunteers are partners. Whether someone is giving you hours of their time or thousands of their dollars, they deserve transparency and truth.

Reflect on all the moments you’ve had with your current funders and partners in the last few weeks. Where have you tripped up a little bit or been misleading? And how can you come clean to guarantee they are with you for the long haul?

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Featured Photo: Find Solutions to Extreme Poverty in India by Fundacion Vicente Ferrer

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