justsayno 2015-Nov02

The relationship started like any other: the donor wanted to give to a specific program, and the organization was very happy to help her do it. Things were going well for a while, but then came the suggestions. “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you add that staff? Here is how I suggest you could improve that. You really shouldn’t have so many staff, just use volunteers and save money…” Etcetera, etcetera.

Now that is not necessarily bad. Suggestions, interactions, involvement – that is the type of relationship every MGO wants with a major donor. Until it becomes too much.

In this particular case, it became too much when the donor insisted that staff should be added and things done a certain way and that more activities should be added, changing the program direction. All this, while she adamantly refused to pay for any staff time or any overhead. The program manager did everything he could to please this good donor, but to no avail.

The MGO said the following about the donor: “She does have good intentions, I know. But we all feel she is a bully, albeit a well-intentioned one.”

So the program staff, CEO, the Director of Development and the MGO got together to talk about the situation. They all had to admit that it was difficult to think about walking away from this generous source of revenue, a dilemma any non-profit would have in a similar situation. But they agreed that it was time to say “no.” They agreed on the messaging and approach, and the MGO delivered a message that went like this:

“We appreciate everything you have done for us and for our programs. Your support has been so valuable. In fact, the program has grown with your support. But we cannot manage the program as you have suggested and directed, so we will not be continuing the program.”

There was a lot more detail and nuance to the message than what I am writing here, but the essence of it was a “no.” “No, we will not be continuing with you managing our programs. No, we will not be changing to fit your view of things so we can receive your funds. No, doing it this way is not in the interest of the people we serve and does not work for us.”

And that was it.

Sometimes you have to say “no.” There is a line you should not cross when the gift you will receive has so many strings attached that it changes who you are and what you are trying to do. Just say “no.” It is OK. But be sure you do it with grace, compassion and care. In this case, the donor replied that she understood – we still don’t know if that understanding will allow for future gifts or not. Either way, these good people did the right thing.



One Comment

  • Eric Phelps says:

    Richard – THANK YOU for this outstanding article! I have long struggled with the balance between donor-centric fundraising and the agreement to “too much” donor involvement in program design or organizational structure. A few years ago – after careful consideration of a proposed project- it became necessary to turn down a 7-figure offer of funding (that would have required matching funds, was outside the organizational scope and was unwelcome by our partners and supporters).

    I am fairly well-assured that this is a practice most nonprofits simply don’t want to address publicly, but that senior leaders are all-too-familiar with. I think that bringing this issue into daylight is critically important to increasing the impact of philanthropic dollars and maintaining organizational alignment.

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