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Why Your Donors May Not Be Leaning In

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

Donors deserve to be treated like grown-ups. In my book, that means being as clear as you possibly can about your needs as a non-profit organization. By definition, a non-profit is a public benefit organization that must rely on the public’s generosity in order to deliver its services so it’s the nonprofit’s responsibility to lead that conversation.

Donors can’t read minds. For example, when your budget depends on a certain number of major donors, but you don’t signal to your donors what your definition of a major donor is, then you both lose. Your donor may have supported you at that level if they'd been invited to do so. You’re disappointed (and short funds), and they’re disappointed by the enthusiasm with which you may (or may not) steward them.

There are many diplomatic ways to position your requests and guide your donors to align with your goals without it getting awkward. We need to do this every day and not just during pandemics or when times are desperate.

I was heartened to read in this Non Profit Times article that many nonprofits that reported dire economic circumstances during the pandemic saw dramatic improvements in their financial position in 2021 because "nonprofits were more upfront about the direness of their circumstances." Being upfront (even when things aren't dire) demonstrates transparency, good governance, and strong leadership.

It takes courage to be clear with your donors, but it’s actually a tremendous sign of mutual respect when you can communicate on that level. That means telling it like it is. For example, if guests attending your event don’t understand that their ticket price barely covers expenses (mind reading at work) and the event’s success is hinged on paddle-raising during the fund-a-need, take a hard look at how you are communicating with them. Is your event called a “dinner dance” or a “fundraising gala”? Are you sending your ticket buyers info ahead of time, especially to first-timers, that invites them to raise their paddles high during the fund-a-need and educates them on how those funds will be used? If they don’t understand what you’re expecting of them, you need to work harder to be clear.

Nonprofits had an existential imperative to clearly communicate their needs this past year, and guess what happened when they did? 46% of nonprofits reported major donor gifts increased, and almost as many reported gifts of all amounts up as well. Now, that’s clear.

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