Best Donor Language: Transparency

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By Jim Eskin

I had a grandmother who sternly reminded us: The truth will out.

And she was always right.

Politicians, corporate giants, celebrities, marketing gurus, not to mention nonprofit staff and volunteers, could have salvaged careers by heeding this powerful truth.

This is especially true in the fundraising arena. Fundraisers can never afford to compromise an essential attribute — trust. Losing it, even on just one occasion, can result in dire consequences.

The competition for donor dollars is fierce and growing more so every day. Donors are forced to make difficult choices, not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the good.

The fundraiser’s job isn’t that complicated: Get donor prospects to know, like and trust us. This opens the door to aligning the donor’s values, priorities and philanthropic vision with the mission of our nonprofits.

Through sound stewardship — expressing gratitude, reporting on successes and engaging genuinely — the door swings open to a precious second gift, which begins to cement donor loyalty. Now that beautiful loop can spin faster and faster with donors, solicitors and beneficiaries all bringing out the best in each other and forging lifetime friendships (much deeper than relationships) that can grow closer and closer over time.

Nonprofit professionals and volunteers — like people in every other field — make mistakes in moving their organizations forward. Less than making a mistake, it might be that the nonprofit was unable to achieve what it was supposed to do in the time allotted. How they handle those situations doesn’t build character — it reveals it.

I can hear my grandmother’s voice, and not so softly: The truth will out!

If you have something difficult to tell the boss, the board or especially a donor, don’t delay one minute. Tell them.

We’ve all been there. We need a little more time (and then more and more) to attempt to patch things up and fix the mistake.

From years of personal experience, I can tell you that there is never enough time, and the ultimate result is typically far from acceptable.

We’re far better off emailing, video conferencing or telephoning (I’m omitting face-to-face for the immediate future) those who deserve to get the news — however bad it may appear — directly from us and as soon as possible.

Our PR colleagues teach us that “no comment” is the worst thing to say, and if we don’t tell our side of the story, someone else will.

Never, never, never hold bad news back from donors. Instead, as you take time to research and think through possible remedies, make donors part of the problem-solving process. That way the bad news isn’t being held back from them, and they are given a sense of equity in creating the solution.

This axiom runs two ways. You won’t be in this profession too long before a donor asks for something, or even more complicated, offers a gift that just isn’t a good fit for the nonprofit. Hopefully, you have a gift acceptance policy that will guide your actions. But even if you don’t, your personal litmus test will tell you much, and will likely be reinforced by your supervisor.

If you can’t respond to a donor’s request or accept their gift, it’s in your best interest to act swiftly. I have seen more than one donor give greater respect to organizations that demonstrate their courage by saying “no,” and actually end up giving the nonprofit a larger gift.

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