Lessons from a Fiasco
If you are like me, you watched the recent drama between the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Planned Parenthood with a mix of horror and morbid curiosity. Think what you may about either organization, it’s unfortunate to watch such large, successful organizations tarnished.
This was a great learning opportunity, though, on the dangers of letting your organization get off mission. Without getting mired in the details, I thought it important to highlight some lessons I was reminded of from the kerfuffle and how to avoid them before they happen:
1) Avoid Cognitive Dissonance:
Your donors have an image of who they think your organization is and that’s why they give you their financial support. Organizations should be doing everything in their power to not upset that opinion. Stick to your mission statement.
There’s an old saying; “There are two things you don't talk about in mixed company; religion and politics...” For religious and political organizations, this is obviously a non-issue. Otherwise though, it’s likely that your donorbase comes from a diverse background and you should do your damnedest not to stir your supporters.
2) If You Disregard #1, Have a Good Reason:
And explain it! Not every move a nonprofit makes is going to make everyone happy at every turn, but it is pretty easy to know in advance when you are making a potentially risky move. Your donors are naturally pre-wired to agree with you; if your decision making is sound, you should be able to explain your moves in a way that donors will be able to understand. Be consistent and ACCURATE when explaining it!
3) Know Your Donor:
The reasons that people give to your organization are probably wide-ranging, but there are likely some trends regarding who and why people give you their support. Immerse yourself into their world, so that you are better aware of what potential pitfalls you might face with changing or new initiatives.
4) Help Your Donors Know You:
Your financial house should be in clean enough order that donors should have no doubt where their donations are going. The more explaining you need, the less compelling your offer seems. This can be taken to various extremes, but it’s always good practice to let donors know where and how their dollars are helping.
5) Know Yourself:
This is one of those leadership issues vital for the long term success of any organization. There are often short term incentives to move a small, monetarily insignificant project to your forefront. However, it’s very important that these short term pushes don’t trump the long-term goals of the organization.
I’ll give an example:An emergency need on the periphery of your organization’s work is gaining media attention, so you shift communications to highlight your work on that issue. The short term dollars gained are a boon for the organization, but you are also attracting and renewing donors that don’t necessarily support your primary mission. It’s important that efforts be made to shift back on topic. Otherwise, you risk cultivating a database of donors that aren’t compelled by the body of your work.
Go multi-channel, but don’t forget to do this…
It’s “multi-channel madness” out there these days, with every non-profit across the country thinking about how to connect with their donors!
Just count the many ways…
Get them to like you on Facebook. Tweet ‘em on Twitter. Direct mail ‘em, email ‘em, call ‘em. Meet ‘em not where you want them to be, but where your analytics people tell you they are – online, offline, on the phone, on the moon… wherever they may be!
All good advice, BUT…
before you start blasting out your message by every communication channel known to humankind, do this: Slow down, take a deep breath and find a story worth telling.
You’ll know it when you come across it, because it’ll speak to
your heart and remind you why you got into this crazy non-profit
business in the first place…
It won’t likely be your PR person’s dream tale, a story that portrays your non-profit in all its glowing perfection (and leaves donors saying “that’s wonderful, but who needs me?”)
It’s more likely a gritty story that grabs your donor by the hand and walks her right up to the scene of a need – and leaves her thinking: “This cannot be, I’ve got to do something!”
… a story like this one we developed for an international relief organization:
week, I’m receiving reports from our ministry partners in the field
who, with minimal resources, are struggling to provide starving children
with their daily bread.
One of our team members, recently returned from Haiti with this heart-wrenching Mission Report:
“The food program in Gonaives can only be stretched enough to feed 50 children a day. During one of those days, after most of the children had eaten, there was enough food for a few more. So I opened the door and I was surprised and pained by what I saw: a long line of children quietly waiting. As much as we tried to stretch the food there was only enough for a few more that day, and then I had to shut the door…”
With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, Andrew said that closing that door in the face of a starving child was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do in his life…
you see, your story isn’t “our organization is the greatest ever, won’t
you lend a hand?” Rather it’s an opportunity to let your donors see,
taste, hear – to feel in their marrow – a critical need that demands to
Of course, you’re implicitly telling your donor that your organization is ready and willing to meet that need, but that’s not your story. Your story is the door closing on starving children and your donor seeing herself there and thinking, “I’m going to help hold that door open so more little ones can pass through and eat.”
So ask yourself: Beyond mission statements and vision statements, when you roll up your sleeves and really get down to work, what is your organization’s story and how will you tell it?
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