One of my favorite things about having three kids was reading Dr. Seuss stories to them at bedtime. Recently, I was thinking about relationships between nonprofit leaders and donors when I suddenly recalled the story What Was I Scared Of? It’s about the protagonist’s fear of a pair of green pants, and how the green pants are just as afraid of the protagonist. In the end, they both realize there’s nothing to fear and become friends.
I recalled that first scene, where the protagonist looks across the field with trepidation as the green pants approach. It reminded me of some of my own experiences working in the nonprofit sector. As an executive director, I’ve experienced this tons of times: A donor is coming to visit, and we anxiously prepare. We’re not sure what to expect. Tension is heavy.
But guess what? Donors often feel the same way. I know, because I’ve also been that pair of green pants. Fifteen years ago, I was working for a tech company. I wanted to get more involved in my community and help reduce the opportunity gap. I began my journey as a philanthropist and engaged with organizations like The Philanthropy Workshop, Legacy Venture, and Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund. I discovered the Boys & Girls Clubs a mile from my home and became a donor. Then I dove in and joined as a staff member. I was an outsider—way out of my comfort zone and unsure how to tread. I received unwelcoming looks from some staff and families, and felt as uncomfortable as Seuss’s protagonist.
The problem with this tension is that it creates unnecessary stress for all involved. Worse, it reduces efficiency, which undercuts the social impact we aim to achieve.
I’ve observed that this tension often develops as the result of five imbalances in donor-nonprofit relationships:
This imbalance is best illustrated by the riddle about the chicken and the pig. The the pig and the chicken decide to open a breakfast restaurant together, and their specialty is bacon and eggs. What's the difference between the chicken and the pig? The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. For the chicken, it’s just a day’s work to lay a few eggs. But for the pig, it’s a lifetime’s commitment to provide the bacon.
Before joining the nonprofit sector, I was the chicken. I did my work and went home. I contributed, but I can’t say I was all-in. Now, I feel my work at the Boys & Girls Clubs—as with most nonprofit leaders—is a calling. It’s deeply personal. We put everything we have on the line in the hope of creating a better world, and I can get frustrated and even resentful at times when donors and board members come and go, and don’t seem as committed.
Navigating this imbalance requires effort from both sides. I have to remind myself not to take board members’ absences personally. They are volunteering their time, and as I touched on in a previous article, most have another job or other commitments. If they didn’t care, why would they donate their time and treasure to a social mission? I need to compare their commitment to the rest of society, not my own. I need to focus on the time they are giving. There’s a reason why I’m getting paid and they aren’t.
Donors can meanwhile diffuse the commitment imbalance by investing for the long term. Most nonprofits are trying to solve intractable problems, and progress takes time. Our most trusting relationships are with long-term donors. Sometimes when I receive an RFP for a one- or two-year grant, I can’t help but wonder whether the donor’s priority is their own giving strategy or our organization’s mission. If they truly believe in our mission, why would they want to leave after a year or two?
My initial decision to donate to the Boys & Girls Clubs was based solely on its mission. I didn’t know how to evaluate success, and I wasn’t even sure what the right questions were. This lack of insight was discomforting to me as a donor.
When I joined the staff, I addressed this information imbalance through a commitment to transparency. We discuss nothing internally that we don’t share externally. Our donors often thank us for our openness, and this creates trust.
Of course, being fully transparent comes with its own risks. Once I was meeting with a high-powered Silicon Valley CEO, and he suddenly started grilling me about my assumptions and the data. He wanted to know why we weren’t doing more. I felt under siege and distrusted. I was pouring my heart and soul into our mission, and wondered why he was being so critical of our results. What more did he want from me? I just wanted to get out of there. Later, after my emotions subsided, I realized his engagement was really a sign of respect. I had succeeded in getting a big kahuna interested, and he was giving me 100 percent of his focus and energy. His provocative questions were a gift. Now we try to cultivate a culture within BGCP where we embrace challenging each other as a way to improve. In fact, for me, there is nothing more deflating than vacuous platitudes of what a great job we are doing. Based on what? How do you know that?
I’ve seen staff hesitate to share certain data with donors for fear of looking bad. But while donors care about results, they tend to care even more about our approach. How are we learning from both success and failure? They want to invest in teams that are asking good questions and learning as they go. It’s also worth noting that showing some failures and weakness can, in fact, be helpful. Donors and board members want to join organizations that still have room to improve, where they feel they can help make an impact.
Another practice that amplifies information imbalance and fuels donor discomfort is when nonprofit CEOs manage all communications with the board. Line staff usually know more about what is really happening than the CEO and can provide richer insights. We empower everyone at our organization to work directly with donors and the board so that we can motivate, grow, and inspire a strong team of lieutenants. Our management bench is deeper; we aren’t dependent on me to lead. And it makes my life easier; I couldn’t handle the workload of managing all donor communications.
Donors can help avoid information imbalance by investing in general operating support. As executive director, I constantly think about how best to allocate our donors’ scarce resources and maximize return on investment, and our budget reflects our collective best thinking. When funders come in with grants that steer us away from our existing plan, it can be a distraction and even frustrating. General operating grants help us focus on executing existing priorities and avoid spending time manipulating metrics and financials for one-off reports. This makes us want to be even more transparent.
When a foundation calls me or our development director asking for something, we make it a priority to respond quickly. Yet when we reach out to the same foundation asking for a meeting, we need to follow-up an average of three times. In my conversations with other nonprofits, this scenario seems to resonate.
I appreciate that foundation staff are busy, but are we less so? If funders could just let us know they received our message and will follow-up, that at least would show that we’re in a partnership, This lack of responsiveness makes us less productive, as we spend time spinning our wheels waiting for responses. In this way, funders are unintentionally undercutting the impact of their investment.
4. Life Experiences and Perspectives
While we can’t eliminate the imbalance in life experiences, we can focus on what we have in common: our values. When I look beyond our donors’ resumes, and ask them what motivates them personally and why they care about our mission, I’m often surprised and inspired by their stories. We have three board members who I labeled at first as “rich business guys.” But it turns out they were first-generation college students and had childhoods similar to the students in our programs. When we take the time to get to know our donors as people, not just checkbooks, we find shared values.
Sometimes, however, because of their different backgrounds, I’ve seen donors express an idea in such a way that staff found offensive. One time, a donor made a clumsy comment to the effect that most of our students’ parents were in jail. While some of our staff perceived bias and got sidetracked, our development director used it as an opportunity to start a conversation with him about our families. The donor ended up getting more involved, mentoring a student into college.
Nonprofit leaders have to remember that our board members are the good guys. They are giving their time and money to our mission. If we can remain tolerant of their delivery and focus on their intentions, we’re all better off. While we may come from different backgrounds, we’re trying to get to the same place.
For us, the best way to overcome this imbalance is to create shared experiences around our programs. For example, a donor couple adopted our college access program. They’re raising funds for it, and they attend monthly program strategy meetings and personally mentor students. Our staff sees them at our clubhouse, and everyone has gotten to know each other. The relationships that have formed between the donors and staff as a result have created trust despite differences.
The final imbalance is, of course, money. As in the donors have it, and we nonprofit leaders need it. If the money imbalance is left unchecked, an unhealthy power dynamic can develop.
But it’s important to remember that we need each other. Funders are just as dependent on nonprofits as we are on them. They have their own aspirations and goals, and they need high-performing organizations to hire staff, run programs, and convert their dollars into impact.
So nonprofit professionals, let’s own our power. Let’s approach donor interactions as partners, and offer them a deal: If they give their dollars to our organizations, we will work our hardest to design and run programs that use their money as effectively and efficiently as possible for the greatest impact. And let’s be bold. Our work is so important to our communities. There is an unprecedented amount of wealth out there, and people care. Let’s inspire donors and engage them. Let’s grab their attention. Forget those campaigns for $25,000; let’s ask each donor for $25,000! Remember: We’re not asking for a hand-out. We’re offering donors a partnership—an opportunity to work together to make an impact.
Nonprofit leaders and funders: These inherent imbalances in our relationships don’t have to pull us apart. Let’s acknowledge them and proactively take action to overcome them. Let’s work together, in partnership, with shared values, to make our communities great places for all families to live.