Donors behaving badly: How to navigate a challenging donor relationship

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Donors: nonprofit organizations couldn’t function without them. Donors are rightfully thanked and praised for their partnership, their vision, their contributions and even their friendship. As one fundraisers reports, the vast majority of donors are “selfless people who love what we do and want to help with very little ego involved.”

In turn, fundraisers know that much of fundraising is about cultivating relationships with donors. “Any fundraiser worth their salt knows that it’s about relationship-building: if your donor or prospect likes you then they are far more likely to give. That means we are friendly and funny and engaging and interesting and we compliment our donors, ask good questions, listen intently and smile,” writes an anonymous blogger for Charity Savant.

But the relationship is a professional one, making the term “friendship” somewhat artificial. And sometimes the relationship is nothing like a friendship at all: some donors can be very difficult to work with. One fundraiser put it this way, “There are some people who have made money and spent their lives crushing human souls. This is true in philanthropy too. It’s naïve and dangerous for people to think everyone will be nice.”

Power imbalance

At the heart of the difficulty with donors lies a power differential created simply by the nature of the relationship itself.

Too often nonprofit organizations struggle for funds and so feel a sense of obligation to accept any and all donations, regardless of how helpful the gift may or may not be. Perhaps more disturbingly, they may feel they must accept any and all behaviour from donors themselves.

In an article on improving the donor-grantee relationship, writer Rahim Kanani reminds us that nonprofits are “dependent on charitable contributions...They rarely have enough money for programs, much less operations, so success, if not survival, turns on fundraising.”

The imbalance goes beyond the donor-organization relationship to the donor-fundraiser power differential. In their book The Generosity Network, authors Jennifer McCrea and Jeffery C. Walker write, “It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like a supplicant when you speak to a potential donor. The sense of a power imbalance may be exacerbated by particular circumstances, such as when a relatively junior staff member from a nonprofit organization calls on a prosperous individual as a potential donor. In such a case, all the markers of power in our society — age, status, experience, wealth, power — tilt lopsidedly in one direction.”

Tail wagging the dog

The first rule of sales is, of course, that the customer is always right. This thinking makes it all too easy, especially for newer organizations and less experienced fundraisers, to feel they have to gratefully accept every donation offer they receive. Phil Gérard, president of Gérard Consulting — Fundraising Talent Management, calls this “old-school thinking” and says, “That philosophy can keep you where you are and your organization will never advance.”

Cynthia Armour, owner of strategic planning and fundraising consultant firm Elderstone Resource Development, observes, “Some fundraisers, EDs or boards are awestruck by a wealthy person making a gift. There can be a power differential if you see money equaling power.”

Gérard recalls a time early in his fundraising career when a donor offered his organization a boat: “What do you do with that? It was more complicated than of benefit to the organization.”

In a 2010 CharityVillage article, Malcolm Burrows, head of philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Private Client Group, refers to such donors as suffering from benevolent ignorance. “Donors want to help but they're approaching that desire in the wrong way. They're misguided.” Even worse, he says, are donors in “the no zone”: gifts that don’t fit in any way with the organization’s values and objectives.

For Gérard, these types of donors can often be turned into great ones and suggests that focusing on your organization’s mission can prevent these situations in the first place. In the same way that organizations can respond to questionable accounting requests from donors (such as requests for receipts for gifts-in-kind that don’t qualify for receipting) with clear policy, so developing policies on gift acceptance and strategic priorities will prevent many issues with donors. Gérard says, “Being able to refer to your mission clearly and explain the list of your priority projects to a donor takes the power out of the equation. It demonstrates that you have a plan, you know what you need and are going about it strategically.”

Armour adds, “Chances are, if you come back to a donor, valuing their gift but saying you can’t accept it, the donor may be genuinely surprised and ask why not. It’s all about communication and we don’t usually do this clearly at all. Many charities just say we need money or volunteers without being clear on parameters. You need to level the playing field by being strategic and committed to principles and values.”

“Fundraising isn’t sales,” says Cindy Wagman, principal of Toronto-based fundraising consultancy The Good Partnership. “Rather it is about helping people create the change they want or to support the values they want in the world. When you make the mental shift to see yourself as a conduit helping people achieve a good fit with an organization, it changes the dynamic.”

Still, some donors also engage in that old-school thinking, says Paul Nazareth, vice-president community engagement of CanadaHelps. “There is a type of donor who believes the poor deserve what we give them and charities should take what they can get. It doesn’t matter whether they are offering a ten-dollar gift or a ten-million-dollar gift.”

Nazareth says, “Fundraisers feel guilty saying no to such donors but they are getting braver.” Armour also believes this requires courage: “If a donor is a bully or is used to getting their own way, it takes courage, integrity and respect to actually talk to the donor about that.”

This does not simply mean that a fundraiser is courageous, but that the entire organization — and particularly the leadership — plays a fundamental role in this process. Boards and senior managers need to establish the kinds of gift acceptance policies and strategic priorities that Gérard says are vital for fundraisers to use in helping find good overlap between a donor’s wishes and a nonprofit’s needs.

Leadership can also play a negative role in this process. One anonymous fundraiser tells of situations where fundraisers who want to decline an inappropriate donation are told by management that their very jobs are dependent on saying yes, regardless of the appropriateness of the donation or the strings attached to it.

Donors behaving badly

Every telemarketer knows there are some people who need to yell, and every fundraiser knows there are donors who can be demanding to deal with. A recent article describes the types of challenges fundraisers face from such donors:

“I’m about to turn off my computer and leave work for the night when he calls…I asked him for a six-figure gift a month ago. He’s called every week since. First he wanted to know how much revenue we made from our recent event after expenses. Next he wanted a report documenting how many of our students went on to a four-year college and what their majors were. Tonight he’s asking for a detailed expense analysis calculating the cost per student for each program we offer. My donor...generously supported a handful of charities. But first they had to pass his tests and make no mistake, there would be several.”

After facing several such donors early in his career, Nazareth decided to become a specialist in dealing with difficult donors. His experience and research showed him the importance of recognizing that often the behaviour of donors has nothing to do with a fundraiser or nonprofit but is about the donor themselves. “Part of our job is dealing with difficult people,” he says. “You shouldn’t let someone swear at you or be abusive, but we need to recognize that serving donors well sometimes means simply recognizing this isn’t about us, and that some people need to express their emotions before they can get back to being reasonable.”

“You need to meet people where they are,” says Nazareth, recalling an elderly donor who left frantic and increasingly abusive messages with Nazareth, his supervisor and eventually the head of the charity about a planned gift Nazareth had already explained would be in process for a week. When Nazareth called the donor back, he listened to the person’s explanation for their anxiety — they decided together that Nazareth would respond proactively to the donor’s need by calling them daily until the gift was transferred. In the end, the donor added to their original donation because they felt recognized and respected.

It’s also important to pay attention to disgruntled supporters, says nonprofit fundraising coach Claire Axelrad, who writes, “If someone takes the time to tell you they’re unhappy, that means they care. They’re connected to you. They want something from you, and you’re disappointing them. This is your golden opportunity to get inside your donor’s head and find out what your supporter really cares about! Don’t blow this person off. Instead, empathize with them and find out what they want; then see if you can deliver.”

Crossing lines

Gérard offers this advice: “You really have to establish boundaries: the donor is not your friend even though we talk about donors as friends. We want to build strong, genuine relationships but there is a fine line we need to figure out. You might take a phone call from a donor after hours, but not one about their marital issues. You might have developed a strong connection with a donor but you shouldn’t simply assume you can visit them in the hospital or attend their funeral without checking in with the family. Keep the good of your organization — not your own personal good — at the fore.”

For Wagman, it’s important that fundraisers keep a sense of their own authority. “I always call donors by their first names and treat them as equals, never putting them on extreme pedestal.” She adds, “Unless the donor is lonely they don’t want someone fawning over them – they are there for the organization, not you. It’s great if you get along and work well together and have project-friendship but that doesn’t mean you become friends outside of that.”

The challenge is among the donors who are lonely and do want someone fawning over them. And it's true that some “difficult donors” are not simply those who misunderstand the relationship with the charity or who are having a bad day, but are actually those who cross lines inappropriately.

This is particularly a problem for the many fundraisers who are female. As one veteran female fundraiser writes: “...when you combine the donor power imbalance with a donor who might find the friendly fundraiser remotely attractive, lines get blurry and things can get awkward fast.”

She goes on to address such donors directly: “Being friendly is not the same as flirting. Full stop. Because I am nice to you and grateful that you are passionate about the cause I represent, does not mean I want to date you or sleep with you or stroke your ego or stroke anything else outside of our professional interactions.”

The fundraiser-blogger continues, “In that power imbalance, it’s not always easy to address the inappropriate behaviour. If you hold your donor to task, you risk them taking back sizable gifts. You risk looking like you’re exaggerating, and even losing your credibility or your job.”

This is where organizational values and policies become a vital part of the equation. One female fundraiser described how a donor touched her face in a meeting that involved her boss — when the fundraiser told her boss she would not deal with the donor anymore, the boss was fully supportive. Other organizations recognize donors as potential offenders within their sexual harassment policies — and are willing to refuse to partner with predatory donors and to warn inappropriate ones.

Unfortunately, female fundraisers report that not only do some of their leaders see sexual harassment or even assault as being part of the cost of doing business, but they can even promote boundary crossing: “My boss would pimp out the young female fundraisers on our team,” said one fundraiser. “Whenever we took our multimillion-dollar donor out for lunch to thank him, she made sure he was surrounded by all the pretty young women on the team.”

It all comes down to values

“Fundraising is absolutely a kind of courtship,” says Armour, “and it can get blurry, in terms of expectations on either side. Fundraisers have to be clear on their own values and boundaries, but organizations need to include respect as one of their core values and make sure it is engrained in everything they do. This has to include their relationships with donors, 99% of whom are fine people with high integrity who want to be treated like a person.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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