Time for TransparencyFirst in a Series: Things Major Donors Love (or Hate)

I’ve been observing and relating to donors for over 40 years. And they’ve told me a lot of things. There are some things they love and hate in their relationships with the causes they support. I’ve made a list and I’m going to share it with you, in no particular order, over the next five posts. You can make this list yours – a checklist of things to watch out for in each of your donor relationships. You might even add a few yourself.
Here’s the first one: donors love transparency and disclosure, while they hate lying.
Lying? No one lies to donors! Hmmm. Unfortunately, they do – about overhead, where the money went, what the money accomplished, how much is still needed.
It’s a funny thing – this lying bit. It’s so easy. I know – I’ve done it myself.
You just take the facts, rationalize a different application and change the facts. It seems so right.
There is a very respected organization – you would know them instantly if I mentioned their name – that lies about overhead and how the money is spent. They’ve been doing it for years. I once got the finance people to admit that the numbers were off. But they did nothing about it; it was too hard to change. I know how that is. So do you. Changing an embedded behavior is very difficult.
There’s another organization that raises twice the money they spend for a certain program category, but they still tell donors that they need more. Imagine that – they spend $1.5 million for a specific category, they raise $3 million for that category, but their marketing says they still need funding. This isn’t right. But I understand. It’s just an easy category to raise money for. How are they going to get the money for the other categories that are so difficult to secure funding for? I do understand.
And here’s the thing: their donors intuitively know this stuff. That’s why they long for transparency and disclosure – and why they hold back.
You know how it is in a relationship when something just isn’t right. There’s a feeling you have – a bit of unease. Things are a bit cloudy. It’s not clear. There’s a lot of good happening but you have a niggle – a bother. Things aren’t right. That’s how it is with donors. And that’s why there’s resistance to giving more – to getting more involved.
You might think a donor is hesitant in their relationship with you because the offer isn’t right, which might be the case. Or you might sense that the amount or the timing of your ask isn’t what it should be. That could be the problem – but it also might be that the donor is sensing that something isn’t right.
What can you do about this? Well, the simple answer is to tell the truth. But how do you do that? Because things are a bit more complicated than just suddenly telling the truth. There’s no an easy answer, but here’s what I would do:

  • Have a chat with your manager. This might be a little scary because you fear there may be a consequence to talking about this. Here’s how you could do it. Let’s say the topic is raising more money for a category than the organization is spending. After warming up the conversation a bit, you might say something like this:
    • “You know, NAME, I’ve been thinking about something that I’d like your opinion on. You know the (insert program category name) we do? It seems we raise a lot more money for that category than we spend. And we continue to present it to donors as a need we have. I’d like to understand why we do that.”

    And let the conversation begin. You might uncover information and a rationale that makes sense. Or, you may find that your manager agrees with your concern. If that’s the case, you can talk about what to do about it.
    Here’s what I would do. I would either stop raising money for that category, or continue to raise it but clearly explain to donor that you are using that category to illustrate the greater need your organization is addressing, and that the donor’s gift will be used for that greater category. For instance, let’s say the category is feeding homeless people. And it’s oversubscribed. You could lead with feeding and clearly say that this is one of the things you do in addressing homelessness and that the donor’s gift will be used to help homeless people in “all of these ways” – then name the ways. You must be clear in your copy and presentation not to lead the donor to believe that their gift will be for feeding. No, it will be used for ALL programs you carry out with the homeless.
    If the internal folks are unwilling to disclose to the donor how things really work, I would ask your manager to take the issue up-line, as it does present an ethical issue the organization must address. Here’s the principle to follow when you’re “prosecuting” a perceived or real gap between fundraising communication and reality: always disclose to the donor what the real story is, and then make a strong case for using their gift where most needed to fulfill the mission of the organization.
    In every exchange with your donor, always disclose the real facts and story. And always admit you don’t know something they ask about and pledge to find out. If a program the donor supports is going bad, tell them as soon as you can. If something has changed that they would be concerned about, tell them as soon as possible. Don’t wait to share good news or bad news. Be the MGO that tells it like it is. Now, be wise about this and plan approaches with your manager if there is bad news. By plan, I don’t mean plan to manipulate. No. Plan to present the situation in the most constructive, practical and honest light.
    On the subject of disclosure and transparency, be an agent of change in your organization. Talk about this subject all the time with your colleagues and in your meetings. Remind everyone you talk to that they value honesty in their relationships – and that ethic should be applied to your donors. Be sure they understand that donors will stick with you longer if they perceive they’re treated in an honest way. It’s good business to be honest.

There’s a short term and long term payoff to being honest and transparent with donors. As they come to trust you more, they’ll give more. (Tweet it!) And that’s good for them and for you.
In my next post, I’ll write about telling it straight vs. manipulating. While this may sound like the subject I’ve already talked about in this post, it’s actually different. You can tell the truth but still do it in a manipulative way. And donors long for straight talk.
Read the series “Things Major Donors Love (or Hate)”

  1. Major Donors Love Transparency [This Post]
  2. Major Donors Love When You Tell It Straight (not Manipulate)
  3. Respecting Donors’ Space and Time (Don’t Bother Them)
  4. Major Donors Love being Thanked and Appreciated
  5. Donors Love to Achieve Impact (Don’t Waste Their Money!)