One of my favorite things to do is to listen to other people’s conversations.  I could spend hours doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I don’t do anything illegal or unethical.  I just sit there and listen.  And it is always amazing to me how people can just blather on without a care in the world about who hears what they are saying
I remember sitting in the business center of the United Club at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.  I was typing away on my computer when I heard the lady in the booth next to me say, “Yes, I am stuck here in Phoenix and just can’t get out.  (Pause).  Yes, Phoenix….”
Hmmmm. We were in Chicago.  She was representing to someone who she knew quite well that she was in Phoenix.
And then there were the two guys talking….
Guy #1:  “OK, so here’s what I think we should do.  We just cannot tell him (their boss) the whole story because he would really be upset!”
Guy #2:  “Do you think that’s wise?  I mean he’s going to find out.”
Guy #1:  “Nah.  He’ll never find out.  Here’s why….” followed by a long explanation of how the deception would work.
And then there’s my own story that just happened two days ago.  My wife and I were on the phone discussing a real estate deal and I said, “We can say we are going to rent for six months to get a better monthly rate but then use the 30 day notice clause to get out earlier.”  Then I paused and said to my wife and the agent, “But would that be honest?”
I knew it wouldn’t, so why did I have to ask?  And just as my wife was saying, “No, that would not be honest,” I got hold of myself and said, “Nope, we can’t do that, it wouldn’t be honest.”
But I had to ask myself why it was so easy to go there – to engage in a tiny deception in order to gain advantage.
You and I know this happens all the time in all areas of our lives:  the ticket agent that lies to you; the sales person that stretches it a bit; the teacher that made up a story; the grocery store manager that fudged the truth a bit; the person in your church, parish or synagogue that was just over the limit on the truth.  It happens all the time.
And you just feel like screaming, “Will someone just tell me the truth?”  We long to know the truth.  We ache to hear it.  It is a thirst that goes unquenched every day of our lives.  But it is so hard to find.
So it is not surprising that major donors would yearn for honesty in their dealing with the organization they give to. After all, they’ve given a very personal part of themselves.  They do expect it to be handled in an honest and ethical way.
But over and over again, Jeff and I hear stories of deception, big and small, where donors are willfully and proactively kept in the dark.  And it makes me wonder what the payoff is.
I suppose it’s all about keeping the money, isn’t it?  If I tell the truth, the donor will get mad and the money will go away.  But, isn’t it true that not telling the truth is the fastest way to lose the money AND the donor?  I think so.  I understand it’s counterintuitive.  It’s not our natural inclination.  It’s not the easier way.
Why is it that we engage in all forms of deception with our donors?  I think there are some basic reasons:

  1. We fear losing the money.  I already mentioned this one, but it is a core and fundamental fear.  If we tell the whole story, the money will go away.
  2. We fear the donor’s anger.  This normal conflict aversive behavior is easy to understand.  No one likes to feel someone else’s anger, but you know how it works.  You fudge a tiny bit on the truth in a relationship and then, over time, that little item takes on a life of its , demanding more deception.  And before long it turns into a monster.  I learned recently about a multi-million dollar donor who went away because he was not told the truth about how his giving was making a difference.  So when he found out the true story he was so angry and disappointed that the relationship is now irreparable. Here is a live case where the fear of the donor’s anger caused the people in the organization to hide the facts, which eventually came out, which, in turn, precipitated a loss. This is so very tragic.
  3. The truth could make us look bad.  Jeff and I see this a lot as well.   The story that gets told is too good to be true but it is propped up and promoted in a number of creative ways.  This mostly happens in the organization’s representations about how money is used and what is being accomplished.  Several months ago I discovered a situation where the perception of the public about what the organization was doing was nowhere near the reality.  The manager said to me, “You know, Richard, I am so embarrassed and so afraid.  This is not a good situation.”  Here was a good man who had inherited a poorly managed situation and didn’t know what to do.  His predecessor had carefully, over a number of years, told a story that just was not true.  And he did it because he needed to look good in the community – he needed a certain stature with his peers.  This really hurts.  But, you know, this situation didn’t just happen over night.  It started in small ways and grew into an uncontrollable monster.
  4. We could personally get in trouble.  What happens could be a mistake.  But now the events sitting in front of you are nasty.  And it is in these kinds of situations where it is so easy to just cover things up to avoid trouble – to escape a personal consequence.  And it is a common reason those inside the organization do not tell the truth.

Now, I want to be clear about one thing before I go on.  There are hundreds of thousands of honest truth-telling people in our non-profits today.  So, it’s not like our sector suffers an unusual amount of dishonesty.  I don’t think it does. But there IS enough of it to warrant this discussion.
So, what can you do to counter this virus that is so easy to catch?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make a commitment to be a truth-teller.  Jeff and I have done this. We are committed to telling each other the truth, our associates the truth, our spouses the truth, our clients the truth, our friends the truth and even strangers the truth.  We have made a specific commitment to walk in truth.  It’s not always an easy road.  And we fail sometimes.  But it gets easier as we practice truth telling.  I suggest you do the same.  Commit to being a truth-teller in all of your life situations.
  2. Be sure you have someone you trust who will hold you accountable.  This is key.  If you have someone in your life – truly IN it, not on the outside – who will commit to hold you accountable to truth-telling, it will be a lot easier for you.
  3. Keep working on the personal reasons you may avoid telling the truth and/or avoid conflict.  As I confessed earlier, one reason I might be tempted to not tell the truth is to gain advantage.  This is something I have to watch all the time.  Another is to avoid conflict or loss of money, position or influence.  What are your reasons?  Identify them. Work on them. They are the core reasons you are tempted to not tell the truth.
  4. Love and respect your donors enough that you will always tell them the truth. These donors of yours are good people.  They trust you and your organization a lot.  They’ve given you money – it is a very personal, trustworthy act. They are relying on you to act honorably and truthfully with them. Love and respect them enough to do that.

A wise person once said, “The truth will set you free”.  And that IS the truth.
Read the entire series:

  1. To Be Understood
  2. Respect
  3. Honesty
  4. Involvement
  5. To Make A Difference