Nonprofit Communications: You Don't Have to Have All the Answers
Many of us, especially in business settings, are afraid to admit we don’t know something. We worry that it is a sign of incompetence or weakness. I disagree. Actually, I believe that when you don’t know the answer, owning up to it is important to establishing trust with your coworkers and clients, the media and, in the nonprofit sector, your donors.
There are two main business-related environments where admitting that you don’t have full details is relevant; one is external to the organization, one internal. Let’s first look at the external scenario.
1. External Example
When I worked for the American Red Cross, I was the development director, but was also responsible for public and community relations, including disaster PR. At one point, a representative from the national office came to my chapter in Florida and worked with us on how to prepare for and give interviews.
They would turn the video camera on, read us a scenario (which we had not heard ahead of time nor been able to prepare for), and film our responses. Let me digress here for one moment to say that being filmed in such a simulation, responding professionally to questions, interruptions and accusations, is a humbling experience. I had no idea that when I am describing something I tend to wave my arms around—flail, if you will—to somehow illustrate my points. And, apparently, I roll my eyes towards the ceiling when thinking. Let me tell you, neither of those habits looks good on film! Maybe everyone has quirks like that. Think about how TV interviews usually only show the person from the chest up. But, such media training is good for helping to break those habits.
Back to my original concept of acknowledging when you don’t know the answer to something. What those sessions with Red Cross taught me is that one staff person doesn’t have to have all the answers, you just need to: 1) know who to go to for said answers, and 2) be able to say that you’ll get them in a way that doesn’t make you sound clueless.
The same is true whether you are giving a TV interview or delivering a presentation about your organization to a local service club. If someone asks a question you don’t know the answer to, don’t say, “Huh, I dunno” and move on. Do say something to the effect of, “I am not the best person to answer that question for you, but as soon as we are finished here, I can put you in contact with our program director who can give you more complete details. Now, what I can tell you is...” and then go back to focusing on what you know.
That way, you’ve validated the person asking the question, and you have promised to get them a real answer or connect them with the right person. If it is a reporter who persists and says they want an answer from you rather than a prepared statement by the organization, it is reasonable for you to respond that you can only give them information you have direct knowledge of, or that pertains to your area of work, and that you would not want to give them inaccurate information. For that reason, it is best if you connect them with the appropriate person on your team. You are under no obligation to answer press questions; you do have an obligation to represent your organization in the most professional way possible. Additionally, it is not advisable to answer a reporter with “no comment," because this can come across as though you have something to hide.
As nonprofit PR executives, we are often responsible for providing talking points on specific subjects to our staff and boards of directors. The more information these people have on the organization’s position on certain subjects, the more comfortable they will feel answering questions, and the higher the likelihood that they pass on accurate details.
Sample Scenario One
You work for an organization that provides services to people who are homeless in your community. The county commissioners hired an “industry expert” to evaluate the state of homelessness and give recommendations. You have been given talking points by your executive director that provide a high-level look at the part your organization will play in helping the industry expert gather the information she needs. But a reporter calls you one afternoon and says that they’ve heard that your organization dislikes the expert brought in by the county and that you are planning to start a capital campaign for a new shelter before the expert’s report comes out.
Hopefully the talking points you received forecasted such a question and armed you with an appropriate response. But if they did not, and you have no idea what the reporter is talking about, tell them that your organization is always open to collaborating with community partners, but that you do not have direct knowledge about the expert or any planned campaigns. Tell the reporter that you want to be sure they receive accurate information, so you will connect them to the appropriate person to answer their question; but in order to determine who that is, you need a bit more information from them. Get their name and contact information and the name of the media outlet they represent, ask them the focus of the story they are writing (meaning, are they doing some sort of exposé, or do they just want to find out if your organization has searched for land upon which to build a new homeless shelter). Ask their deadline. Then let them know you’ll have someone get back to them within the necessary time frame. Just be sure to follow up and make that connection happen!
Some organizations have only a few representatives who are authorized to answer questions from the press. In that case, the organization should provide talking points to all staff and non-approved board members about how to relay the fact that there is a single point of contact for the media.
When communicating outside your organization, conversations with donors, prospective donors or clients can present similar scenarios where you may be asked a question you can’t answer. Donors can often tell if you are guessing at a response; they can see it if you are exaggerating or generalizing. If they are asking you about your organization, they are interested and potentially may want to be somehow involved, whether through volunteering or investing monetarily. If you don’t know, don’t make it up. Just explain that the information they seek can best be provided by another team member, and that you are happy to find that answer and get back to them. If appropriate, you may be able to make this happen immediately (if the staff person is in the building, for example). Other times, it may require a day or two to run the reports that will supply the information the donor requested. As long as you set the donor’s expectation for how long it will take, and then follow through, the conversation and subsequent follow up will likely have a positive effect on your relationship with that person.
2. Internal Example
When talking about communications inside an organization, admitting you don’t know is about gaining trust and working efficiently. It has probably happened to us all that we’ve been in a meeting, a question is asked, and the person who responds seems to be “creating” the answer as they go along. As I mentioned earlier, it is likely because they do not want to appear incompetent. But inaccurate information can make it harder for others to do their jobs. When this happens, I have a silent (usually silent, anyway) gauge that I refer to as my BS Meter. My mind tries to rate how much of what the person is sharing is accurate, and how much is created from an ego that can’t admit it doesn’t know everything, fearing looking bad to a boss or employees.
It can be especially damaging when it is an executive or team leader that is providing flawed intelligence, because the team needs to base their work on solid information. The senior person on a team often serves as a mentor for the more junior staffers. Those junior employees must be able to trust that their supervisor is at least attempting to give them the best data possible.
Sample Scenario Two
As we all know, there are numerous regulations when it comes to fundraising. It can be hard to keep track of what is required federally and by the states in which your organization operates. Your nonprofit is hosting an annual gala, tickets to which are priced at $150 per person. The database manager goes to the development director stating that he has heard something about Fair Market Value (FMV), and inquires as to whether the organization has to deal with FMV in any way.
The development director has heard of FMV, but at her previous organizations, someone else always dealt with it. The director has an opportunity here to admit that she is not completely sure, but that she will research the regulations (and/or call a peer from the Association of Fundraising Professionals) to get the correct answer, and will make sure the database manager receives not only this answer, but the documentation to back it up.
The director could have just guessed. She could have said, “I think it is this way, so go ahead and process it like so.” But, if she was wrong, and the error came to light right after the event, then the whole department has to figure out what to do about all the tax acknowledgment letters that were sent to 300 attendees with incorrect information regarding the potentially deductible portion of the ticket price or sponsorship.
It would have been easier if the director just confessed up front that she wasn’t sure. A few minutes of research on the front end could save hours of putting out fires later. Needing to research an answer does not show weakness, it simply shows that you are familiar with the resources available to assist in your professional work.
We all make mistakes. Operations of a nonprofit organization are complex; no one person can know every single detail about each department and function. It is OK to acknowledge that you are part of a team and that you have a peer resource who can help shed light on a given topic. People will generally understand and prefer you get them the correct information in a follow up rather than guess at a response that could give a skewed version of the facts.
As long as you are genuine and honest, and are professional in stating that you need to consult another person or do a bit of research to find a correct answer, people will appreciate your efforts—and it will reflect well on you and the organization.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.