Donor Attitudes That Can Drive Us To Drink

FrustrationI've worked in the nonprofit sector my entire working career. While I'm by no means an administrator or an accountant (yikes!), I do have experience in writing grant proposals, making presentations, or in many other ways begging for money. Some days it feels like all we do in the NPO world is beg.

Justify our existence and beg.

And beg some more.

And justify ourselves again.

By and large I am truly and wholeheartedly grateful for the donations we receive (cash, in-kind, volunteer hours). It not only shows an investment in our programs and services, but (as is the case right now) it keeps me in a job. So while I aim to perhaps shed some light on certain attitudes that can make the fund raising process difficult for NPOs, I hope you'll read a bit of humour in it too. After all, some days all you can do is laugh!

1. "We'll give you money IF you agree to fill out a 20 page summary and create a detailed 100 page dissertation on the effectiveness of your program/service that our money supported."

Oooookaaaaay… transparency and good reporting are a part of nonprofit life. No matter what money pots are applied for, there will be some measures of reporting back to the funder. This attitude becomes frustrating when it's so micro-managed that the reporting makes it so that the money given really is worth getting. 

It also shows our society's addiction to success (as success is defined by numbers). The funder may or may not have any idea about how poverty works in 2014 Canada, why or why not people behave the way they do, or do or not complete certain supportive programming. Funders want numbers, not an accountability to be informed about the issues at hand. 

Some days all I hear in my head is: "Dance, monkey, dance!"

2. "Just let me write the check. I don't need to know anything else."

Kind of opposite to the demand for over-reporting on finicky details is the donor who doesn't care a snit about where his or her money is going to. The donor might be generous as all get out, but honestly does not want to learn about why the money is needed in the first place. They want pointless details that creates headaches for NPOs, and a whole shwack of useless paperwork keeping us from our actual duties.

Unlike Over-Detailed-Donors who hide behind pointless reporting to keep from understanding the true nature of the people needing help, Eyes-Closed-Donors simply hide. But when something goes wrong or is handled in a way the donor disagrees with, THEN the eyes pop open. 

Why did you help THOSE people?

Howcome you did THIS?

What is going on???

While NPOs understand donors have lives and careers to look after, it really is in a donor's best interest to invest a little time and education before handing over cash.

3. "What do you mean you can't use my help!? I want to help the poor people!"

Trust me. We get it. We really do. When you want to teach your kids healthy values about community relationships, giving and so on, we know that your hearts are in the right places. But sometimes donors seem to believe that we only need help around Christmas time… or after a major disaster… or when it polishes their apple. Oh yes, there are those donors who want to look good in the community, so when their contributions do more harm than good, it's difficult explaining to them that (while efforts are appreciated), they could be helping in different better ways.

If you don't get a callback to come help at the food bank at Christmas (for example) or a soup kitchen or a thrift store, don't lose heart. Believe it or not, nonprofits can get a glut of people wanting to volunteer at Christmas and we simply don't have enough to do for everyone. Instead of believing that this means we don't help help at all, try to understand that we need to space out our services and programs. Work with us and our donation and volunteering needs. That in itself is a huge help.

4. "The poor will take anything."

Similar to #3, this donor gives on the fallacy that poor people will eat, wear or live on anything leftover. When you have bags of clothes that you've culled from your closets or cleaned your pantries of canned goods that you pretty sure you won't eat, you want to 'give back'. You don't want to see waste and you want people to get some good out your throwaways.

I can't be clear enough: The poor cannot, indeed should not, eat, wear or live on anything. Period.

Beggars can be choosers. People struggling to make ends meet or who are experiencing difficult times still have food allergies… still have cars that break down… still have jobs to get to that demand dress codes… still have to maintain hygiene levels… still have bodies, minds and souls to care for. This is difficult to do on expired, broken or stained goods.

Whether you think someone's worthy or not, that is not your decision to make when you partner with us (your nonprofit). Everyone is inherently worthy. The triage of who needs services and programs most is left up to us. When you give your cash to us, or your goods, or your time, you basically give them to us to use as best we see fit. 

So when we ask that you check your canned goods for expiry dates or your boxes of food for damage or your clothes for stains or broken zippers, we aren't trying to talk you down. We are advocating for the health and wellbeing of people who come to us for assistance. 

Think about it this way: if you wouldn't feed that out of date can of beans to your family, why would you feed it to someone else? If you wouldn't wear that paint-spattered sweatshirt anymore, why would you give it to someone else who's on the job hunt? If you wouldn't treat your children that way at home, why would you demand such different behaviour from other people's kids?

5. "Prove thyself!"


There is some wisdom in seeing the success of a program or service before really committing to it. But the downside to this is: it makes these programs and services very unstable. 

Very often NPOs have different definitions and measures of success than corporations do (or businesses, or churches, or lending agencies). Donors and funders see the financial bottom line, while NPOs have to see the human bottom line. 

When we have to apply for funds annually, jobs are on shaky ground. Long-term planning can be difficult because without long-term funding, we can't prove ourselves to you or anyone else. This is where many NPOs get stuck: between short-term and mid-term services to long-term problems. It's that we don't want to offer long-term solutions. Not at all! But when funding comes only on a project-by-project basis, or annually or monthly, we can't give more than we get. If we overextend our reaches, we might begin some good long-term stuff but we won't be able to continue it. 

There are NPOs that have tanked in their first few months; and there are NPOs who have a proven track record of success and necessity. We understand donors can feel "once bitten, twice shy", but we ask that even these donors give more NPOs a longer-term chance to effect change.


That's it for today.

Just 5. I think it's time for a mojito.

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