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This Nonprofit Leader Needs to Resign. Do You Have Someone Like That?

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What I’m about to tell you is a true story. In fact, the story is still playing out, which is why I’ve changed some of the details to hide the identity of the players. You’ll see why pretty quickly.

A couple of weeks ago, a smart nonprofit did a COVID-19 Crisis campaign consisting of several urgent email messages.

They are not a “front line” organization working directly to help fight the health crisis or its economic fallout. They are a well-known and beloved organization. It’s likely you’ve heard of them. The challenge they face is widespread cancellations of their main programs. This has blasted a devastating hole in their revenue that threatens the viability of their program once they are past the “social distancing” phase. They were looking at wholesale layoffs of staff and other possible draconian steps just to keep the organization afloat.

That was the topic of the appeal. And they did a great job. That’s not just my opinion — their donors responded at record levels: Orders of magnitude more than they typically got from their fundraising campaigns. Enough revenue to free them from the painful budget cuts they’d been considering.

A resounding success.

But not everyone was happy.

A member of the executive team, a certain vice president, is furious. He says the crisis campaign was grossly insensitive, immoral and permanently damaged the organization’s reputation. He’s calling for resignations from the fundraising team.

I think it’s the VP who needs to resign.

But before we fire up the petition campaign to remove him, let’s take a careful and rational look at his case: Was the COVID-19 fundraising campaign wrong?

The common fear we hear about fundraising during this crisis is that it is insensitive or exploitative. That the message may reach people who have lost their jobs, taken serious hits to their investments, or lost loved ones to the virus. Or that somehow it takes unfair advantage of the emotional turmoil so many of us are in to squeeze donations out of people who otherwise wouldn’t give.

It’s quite possible that the VP even heard a complaint from someone who was offended by the campaign in some way.

Let’s ask ourselves: If the organization’s reputation were damaged, what would be the signs?

  • Extremely low response to the fundraising? That would be a reasonable sign that they’d made a mistake by fielding this campaign. But that’s not what happened. They got an outpouring of support. And they are not the only ones. Organizations all over the world have been getting record-breaking responses to their crisis fundraising.
  • A massive public backlash? That could happen. But has it? We can assume that there were complaints. Strong fundraising can stir some to complain, even in normal times. You have to put complaints in perspective: If you got thousands of people saying YES with their money (as this organization did), how many said NO with a complaint? Does one complaint have the weight of ten donations? 100? 1,000? Wouldn’t you think it should go the other way, with one donation having the weight of many complaints? After all, it costs nothing to complain, but it costs something to donate. There would have to be an awful lot of complaints before you could call it a meaningful public backlash.
  • Maybe the damage is invisible — for now. Is it possible that some of those donations were somehow scammed out of unwilling donors who will eventually wake up to the mistake and never give again in disgust? To believe that, you have to think donors are incredibly sheep-like and irrational. Which strikes me as horrendously arrogant and disrespectful of the people who know and love and support the organization. They gave of their free will. Ask them if they want the money back. I can tell you what they’ll say: “Heck no! I gave because I wanted something good to happen!”
  • Or there’s an angry silent majority they will never hear from again. Even the strongest fundraising campaign only moves a minority of people to donate. But is there any business or any other human endeavor where you just assume that everyone who says nothing is united in some negative viewpoint? It simply doesn’t happen.

I think we can safely say that no meaningful damage has been done to the organization’s reputation or future revenue. Time will tell for sure, but if this emergency is like any of the other emergencies I’ve been through with nonprofit organizations, it’s almost certain that this campaign increased the connection and engagement of their donors, who are filled with gratitude that they could help make a difference for an organization they love.

They are stronger today than before the campaign. Plus they have revenue they would not have otherwise.

I’m calling this vice president for being irrational and negative, for a toxic mixture of arrogance and ignorance about donors and human psychology in general. If I were his boss, I’d be asking for a resignation — and not just “asking,” if you know what I mean.

The unusual thing about this case is that the attack on fundraising came after the fact. Far more leaders (and board members) have been preventing fundraising from happening in the first place, for basically the same reasons.

They are just as wrong. And unlike the after-the-fact executive, they are inflicting deep, possibly unrecoverable financial damage on their organizations.

And they also should resign. Their entire job is to make their organizations strong and healthy. They are doing the exact opposite.

If your fundraising tells your donors the truth about the situation, makes it clear what giving can do about it, and appeals to the better angels of their natures, your fundraising is not insensitive, exploitative, or reputation-damaging.

In fact, if your organization is doing something that matters — whether that is directly related to the virus and its impact or not — and you are not letting your donors be your partners in important work you’re doing — that’s terribly damaging in my book.

Do you really want to show up out of the blue some months from now when the crisis is behind us, saying, Hi! Remember us? We were hiding in a hole while you went through a major crisis. But now we’re back. Let’s pretend that never happened, okay?

Your donors love to donate. They need to donate, especially in a time of crisis. You are not taking something away from them when they give to you. They get so much back that you might argue they’re getting the better deal.

I hope you and your leaders are giving these issues good and clear thought. And if your organization is helping make the world a better place in the face of this frightening situation, I hope you are including donors as empowered, heroic people who are tackling the crisis and making a difference.

That’s what we’re here to do!

This crisis raises a lot of questions for a lot of us. Want some practical and experience-based help? Schedule a free 25-minute call  with one of our Moceanic Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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