Talking to donors about the hard stuff

Crises strike every organization. Data systems are breached. Research protocols are violated. Positions of power are abused. Natural disasters strike.

All of us who have been privileged to help lead nonprofits have hard-won lessons that offer guideposts for managing successfully through this pandemic’s human, operational, and economic dimensions. One factor has enormous implications for our long-term success: How we engage with our closest friends and donors.

Today, as in any crisis, donors and volunteers who have been our strategic partners—offering invaluable counsel and expanding our ability to improve others’ lives—rightly expect us to step up to the task. Crises are rapid wheat-chaff sifters, revealing strong and weak leadership. Our values are clarified, and our best relationships are deepened. The relationship of trust we enjoy with donors makes this an especially high-stakes moment.

Below, we offer five practices to consider as you work to ensure your donors and friends understand both how you’re approaching these challenging times and their own significant value to your community.

1. Engage, don’t push

When the news is difficult, pull donors as close as possible with a high-touch approach. Relationships are multi-directional, and respect and reciprocity are key. Ducking difficult phone calls and pushing institutional talking points via email risk irreparable harm to relationships of trust. Think through those donors most in need of personal outreach, determine the best person to reach out, and connect as quickly as possible. One-on-one conversations are the only real way to discuss hard news, explain factors behind decisions, and—perhaps most important—gain others’ insights and open the door wide for continuing dialogue.

2. Be as transparent as possible

As instruments for the public good, nonprofits are rightly held to strict standards of integrity and transparency. Our donors and communities have high expectations for our work and our behavior. When our organizations fall short—and when we have challenging news to share of any kind—the only course of action is to be forthright. If we fouled up, if we delayed when we should have moved, our donors need to understand that we made the best decisions possible with the facts at hand. We can’t always share details of personnel actions and other matters, and donors will usually understand that if we are upfront about what we cannot answer and details that are inappropriate to share. Our donors expect us to be candid. Anything less erodes their belief in our integrity.

3. Keep it simple, avoid the spin

Passive language and overly complex statements are universal red flags. They distance us from the other person and make us wary—clearly counter to purpose in talking with donors about difficult issues. Being straightforward and clear demonstrates respect and honesty. Crises are not moments for high gloss. Think about how to simply state the facts: what is known, plans for the immediate future, open variables, and what will follow.

4. If appropriate, ask for help

Our instinct when discussing difficult news with donors might be that this is not the time to ask for favors. While that’s often true, asking permission to come back to them for advice—once news is considered and any heat has dissipated—could be valuable for you, your organization, and your relationship with that donor. Asking for counsel underscores relationships of trust, and it can reinforce our natural desire to help. Within appropriate bounds, welcoming others to be part of solution-building expands the cache of good ideas and generates deeper emotional investment in the institution.

5. Focus on the mission—always

Anchoring back to your organization’s mission is never more important than when facing strong headwinds. Museums, food banks, schools and universities, health systems—all nonprofits exist to move lives forward and improve communities. Those larger purposes link your founding days to this moment. Talking with donors about your long-term mission carries enormous weight during a crisis, as does recalling past difficulties from which the organization has emerged strengthened. Your founding purpose is bigger than any momentary challenge. It is why your donors support you, and it is more substantial and enduring than the uncertain times at hand.


If you need assistance developing a strategy to talk to donors about the hard stuff, please contact Melinda Church at mchurch@grenzglier.com.

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