I recently heard of a situation in a large non-profit where a multi-million donor withdrew his giving from the organization he had come to love. The reason? The promise which had been made when he gave his $2 million dollars was not delivered by program.
As I dug into the situation I realized that it was way more complex than just one department not delivering.  It had many faces to it, one of which was the major gift officer.  I’ll explain all of that in a moment.
The job of the program person in a non-profit is, in my opinion, is one of the most critical functions in the organization.  It is also one of the most thankless jobs a professional can have.  I think program people are often the most misunderstood people in a non-profit.  It is no easy job to craft a solution to a need either right in your hometown or thousands of miles away.  Yet, often, MGO’s think these folks can just turn on a dime and churn out a meaningful offer for a donor.
It’s not that easy.
Real solutions to our planet’s needs are difficult to design and even more difficult to manage.  In the situation I am talking about here, the program person came up with an impressive and practical solution to the need the donor funded.  It was so impressive and practical that the donor willingly and enthusiastically parted with $2 million in cash!
So what went wrong?  Several things:

  1. The MGO did not set the right expectation with the donor at the start.  Jeff and I always tell our clients to be sure and inform donors that “This is what we are going to do with your money, but circumstances often change, which means our program direction/solution may also change.”  The donor needs to understand that in the non-profit world, just as in business, things happen.  That’s life and it’s part of how the whole thing works.  On this point, I remember getting into a friendly but spirited debate with a very successful board member on why he was so tolerant of changes in HIS business and so intolerant of changes in the non-profit he was serving?  He would easily invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a project he felt was going to succeed only to find out that its design was flawed and he needed to change direction.  No problem.  That’s how it is in business.  Well, that’s how it is in non-profit program design and execution!  Circumstances change and the program people need to change with them.  Why we hold them to a different standard than our own business practice is beyond me!  So, when you are presenting an offer to a donor, make sure you cover this point.
  2. When things began to change the MGO did not communicate.  In the situation I am talking about in this post, circumstances started to change the direction of the project, but no one said anything.  The program person didn’t talk to the MGO.  The MGO did not inquire.  The program changed and no one said anything.  I don’t know about you, but when I am told that “This is the path and timeline we are going down,” and then it changes and no one talks to me, it makes my head spin.  I really get wound up.  Think of the donor. He is assuming everything is going along fine and suddenly, bam, we are in a different room of the house – a totally unexpected event!  Not good.
  3. The MGO thought program was responsible.  Program is not responsible for your donor, you are.   So, when you have set an expectation with the donor, you need to manage it.  In this case, the MGO was just bouncing along believing everything was fine when it wasn’t.  Also, truthfully, in this case, the MGO was not doing his job. Had he been servicing this donor’s gift properly he would have had a communication plan that required project reports on a regular basis.  Digging for information on the project would have alerted this MGO to the problem and the donor could have been informed.
  4. The CEO disassociated herself from the situation.  This is very sad.  Here is a major partner and long-term friend who feels left out and, to some extent, violated.  The CEO had a perfect opportunity to “fall on her sword” and make things right.  Instead, she ran away – literally.  And this made things worse.
  5. The donor was treated as a source of cash vs. a true partner.  Jeff and I have repeatedly said in this blog that a donor is a partner – an equal – NOT a source of cash.  If the MGO had truly believed this he would have (a) known about this problem sooner, (b) gotten together with the donor immediately to report on progress, and (c) reset expectations. Donors are reasonable people.  If you explain things, they actually do understand.  But treat them poorly and they go away.

The jury is out as to if this donor can be brought back into the non-profit.  You can avoid this situation by owning the fact that your donor is your responsibility and being very careful to communicate in a timely fashion.
And, when things go wrong, just admit it!  It’s not that big of a deal.  Donors understand that things change.  They don’t understand silence and darkness.