My Take on the Chronicle Letter from a Donor
Dear fundraising friends,
A letter from a donor to the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy has popped up in my feed a couple times in recent days. It’s a self-congratulating, non-profit shaming diatribe about what this donor wants, expects, thinks he deserves, and assumes all other donors want, expect, and deserve.
While I’m sure fundraisers have reacted to this letter in as many different ways as there are fundraisers, I can imagine a couple of common ones. One was my initial reaction– ANGER. WTF? Who is this guy?
Another is the reaction I would have had not that many years ago. I would have SHOULD all over myself. I should have worked later. I should have been more organized I should have made those calls. I should have spent more time on that acknowledgment letter. I should have gotten the annual report done earlier. I should have taken more photos. I should have put more notes in the database. I should. I should. I should.
If you reacted in either of these ways, just stop. Take a breath. Take three deep breaths.
If you haven’t seen the letter yet, don’t look it up. Scroll past it when it shows up in your feed. You don’t need it. I’m not linking to it because I don’t think more people need to see it.
The letter is A LOT. It’s full of demands for things that will make the donor feel good with no regard for the clients, the community, or the staff at the organizations receiving his gifts. There’s no acknowledgement of the reality that most nonprofits are short staffed and running lean. That the staff they do have are pouring everything they have into the community, working to create change that benefits all of us. They scramble day after day to respond to ever-changing community needs. And, on top of all that, they’re supposed to make well-off, privileged donors feel good too. No wonder nonprofit staff are burning out so fast.
I considered writing an angry rebuttal but after taking a few deep breaths and sleeping on it a night or two, I decided my emotional energy was better spent talking with you.
I have so many things to say to you in response to this letter.
First, you are doing enough. I see you. You bring your heart and soul to your work. You’re putting in long hours. You’re creatively solving problems. You’re making things happen. Community is better because of what you’re doing. Don’t should all over yourself. Don’t skip your lunchtime walk. Don’t cancel your after-work plans with friends. Don’t check email when you’re on vacation. You’re doing enough.
Second, I’m sorry. As a long-time, successful practitioner of donor-centric fundraising, I am complicit in training donors to believe they are the center of the nonprofit universe. Over the decades, I’ve been part of creating and sustaining fundraising practices that are all about making donors feel good. So good. I perpetuated inequitable practices that took power away from communities and gave it to donors. I’m sorry for the harm done to community, to fundraisers, and to donors.
Third, it’s time to re-center community and distribute power more equitably by retraining donors. I have a few ideas about how we can begin to do this and am really interested in hearing your ideas. I know that many of you are practicing or exploring or curious about Community Centric Fundraising. What are you trying? What are you learning? Please share in the comments and perhaps your ideas will begin showing up in our feeds as often as the letter from the donor.
Here are some ideas to get things started. In general, I’m suggesting that we pull back the curtain and let donors know how and why we’re changing the way we do things.
-Fundraisers are good at telling donors what it will take to achieve their mission – dollars, time, votes, advocates. Let’s add TRUST. Trust in the community. Trust in the organization’s leadership.
-Tell donors how you prioritize your time and why. Let them know that you’re spending your time and resources in community-building, client-serving, mission-related activities and minimizing time spent on administrative tasks that benefit only a few.
-Tell donors how they can help your organization stay mission focused. They can make their gifts online so no one has to open the mail and take checks to the bank. They can give without expecting anything in return. They can allow their gifts to be put to work wherever they’re needed most.
-Tell donors what to expect when they make a gift. Be transparent about your process. Perhaps you can tell them that checks are deposited weekly and email acknowledgements with tax receipts are sent at month’s end to minimize time on administrative tasks and maximize time spent on mission.
-Talk with donors about power and the steps you’re taking to distribute it more equitably. Have hard conversations about how donors have traditionally been given too much power and that you’re trying to mitigate the imbalance.
-Tell donors how to find information about your organization on their own rather than expecting someone to deliver it to them. Ask them to read the blog for program updates. Share that the audited financial statements are posted every year in October.
-Let demanding donors and their money go. Don’t let them be a drain on resources and morale. They clearly don’t share your organization’s values. Focus on the donors that do. Stay focused on your mission and you’ll attract donors that share your values.
-Build relationships. One-to-one and one-to-many relationships. Donors are part of the community and an essential part of achieving the mission – they just don’t need to be the center of the community. Invite them in and be clear about their role and responsibilities.
What would you add? What would you change? I can’t wait to learn from you.
With gratitude for all you do,
PS: We’ll share what we learn from you in our next enews, too (with your permission). Sign up here.
TLDR: Donors aren’t the center of the universe, BUT some of us (me) have taught them they are. You are doing good work, friend. There are other ways to fundraise that have more ease and joy. To hear more join SVA’s enews.