Fundraising: It's All About 'I' (Integrity, That Is)
A friend recently commented that as a fundraiser, you are first and foremost selling integrity. If donors feel that you — or your organization — lack integrity, they will likely look elsewhere to donate.
For the most part, we like to think of ourselves as people of integrity. Since this is an article about fundraising, I won't get into the ethical issues of "white" lies and gray areas. Rather, following are a few ways to make sure you always approach your donors with the tools to present an honest assessment of what they can accomplish with their gifts.
Check your attitude
Believing in your organization and in what it accomplishes is essential. If you are negative about your leadership, your program accomplishments or your fundraising methods, that affects your conversation with a donor.
Avoiding these negativisms means you need to invest the time to understand. Why do your program staffers do what they do? Is that best practice, and if so, why? Take the time to see your programs in action, and get to know some of the people who benefit from them. What excites you? If your answer is "nothing," you have a real challenge exciting donors to support the work. Enthusiasm is contagious — but so is negativism.
Also, listen to your leadership. What are the visions for the future? Why is he or she investing years of life into this organization? Does your boss see an exciting future ahead or simply maintenance? Is there honest discussion about challenges and creative thinking about addressing them? We all want to be on the winning team, and having confidence in leadership is essential to perform at our best.
Finally, are you proud of your organization's fundraising? If you are the sole or main fundraiser, you may have your imprint on everything. But if you are part of a larger team, many things can happen that you don't see or have any influence over. Remembering that you are not the target audience, do you feel good about being associated with those fundraising efforts? If you don't understand why something is the way it is, ask questions. There are best practices that can significantly improve net income. This doesn't mean best practices supercede honestly presenting the facts, but dismissing (or feeling ashamed about) fundraising programs without investing the time to understand them can destroy your attitude.
Know your facts
Did you review your organization's 990 last year? There's a chance the donor you are speaking with has, and you need to be at least as informed as he or she is. Plus, a 990 (the form nonprofits file annually with the IRS) gives a great deal of information about your organization. Some of it may surprise you, and some may even concern you — but if you haven't read it, you won't be prepared if a donor raises a question or an objection based on what he or she has read or even just assumes.
Knowing your organization's overhead is essential. This can be calculated from the 990 (add total management and general expense + total fundraising expense, and divide that sum by your total revenue). If it seems high, do some fact-checking. What is the overhead of your competitors? Is there a reason for a higher overhead (i.e., your organization was paying down a mortgage or launching a new program)? Is your overhead reasonable considering mitigating factors that you need to consider? Being able to address a donor's concerns means always being prepared, so make sure you understand this important measurement.
You also need to take the time to read the materials that go to your donors. This includes newsletters, direct-mail appeals, the annual report, e-appeals and e-newsletters, and anything else that is sent out. It is embarrassing to have a donor ask you a question about a mailing he or she received and to have to admit you didn't read it. If you aren't interested enough to read the communication from your employer, why should your donor bother?
Being armed with facts can keep you from being embarrassed, having to admit you don't know or, worst of all, sacrificing your integrity by making up an answer when queried by a donor.
I was speaking to a friend a few days ago; she's a major donor to an organization. She talked about how this organization doesn't listen to her preferences but instead keeps doing what it wants even though she has specifically asked the organization to stop. It's probably inexpensive for the folks at this organization to keep her "in the program," and this can certainly be justified — except she has said, "Don't do that."
"We view you as our partner and value our relationship" is the right attitude for a fundraiser. But it has to be practiced, not just proclaimed. In a healthy relationship, we listen to one another and don't always insist on having our way. So why is it that with donors, we can insist on doing things our way and ignore what the donor requests?
With the focus on donor relationship management, this should no longer be an issue. But based on this conversation (and other anecdotal experiences I have had with nonprofits), there is clearly room for improvement. Don't ask your donors to fall in line with your program; instead, align your program with their wishes. Yes, it's more expensive to not have a "one size fits all" fundraising program, but the net results should tell a different story.
Unfortunately, our news media seems to enjoy reporting stories of nonprofits that have been "caught" in a lie. Let's not give them any fodder for the stories. Focus on your integrity by fundraising for what you believe in, know the facts and never sacrifice them for expediency, and treat your donors like you would want to be treated yourself.
Oprah Winfrey once said, "Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not." An old-fashioned notion? Maybe. But I believe integrity is the "I" that really matters in our fundraising.