Maybe It's Time for a Reread … of the Donor Bill of Rights
I recently graded papers from 20+ students in a master’s class. Their assignment was to read and respond to the “Donor Bill of Rights” created way back in 1993 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and Giving Institute (formerly known as American Association of Fundraising Counsel).
Somehow, reading about this 21-year-old document as seen through the eyes of people new to the profession was refreshing (oh, not the misuse of commas and lack of complete sentences, Margaret Battistelli Gardner) — my students saw this as the most logical thing for a nonprofit to follow.
And many nonprofits do — some even unknowingly. Sadly, it’s the ones that don’t that bring dishonor to our profession and sometimes make us have to defend fundraising to people who assume that if one is corrupt, we all are.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet, wrote, “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.” The Donor Bill of Rights fits that description perfectly — treating donors like it instructs us to really is genius, even if to many of us it just seems like a no-brainer.
So, if like me, you aren’t rereading this seemingly ancient document as part of your regular activities, here’s the CliffsNotes version.
Rights 1-3: Keeping donors informed
The first three “rights” cover basic information donors should expect to be able to locate without having to get a court order or spend hours lost in the sub-pages of your website. These include your organization's mission, how you intend to use their donations and proof of your ability to use those donations effectively; the identity of your board members and an expectation that the board is functional and operating as wise stewards; and to review (when desired) your most recent financial statements.
Nothing there is too shocking, yet the Web pages with this kind of information are often outdated or missing altogether. Here are some recent “discoveries” I’ve made when looking at nonprofit websites: a purpose included in the mission statement that (I was told) totally wasn’t what the organization does, an entirely missing mission statement or for that matter any clue to what it is the nonprofit does, a board listing that is outdated, and financial summaries that are based on numbers from three audits ago.
If the company managing our retirement funds was this poor in reporting, we’d probably take our money elsewhere. Don’t give your donors an excuse to do just that.
Rights 4-8: Use of donations
These five rights pertain to what a donor should expect when he or she chooses to give. They are entitled to know we will use their gifts to do what they asked us to do; receive acknowledgment (receipts) for their gifts; be assured their giving is confidential unless they specifically say otherwise; keep our relationships with them on a professional level; and tell them honestly if the fundraiser is a volunteer, an employee or a hired solicitor. (There is nothing in the Bill of Rights to say if this latter has to be voluntarily given or only provided upon request. What’s your opinion?)
Do your policies honor these expectations? It’s easy to get caught up in the cause of the hour and rush after income first and then stop to figure out if you have the means to invest it wisely in a solution to that problem. The media has done its job and exposed some nonprofits that raised money for a disaster and failed to spend most or all of it on helping alleviate suffering caused by that disaster.
Our profession does not need ambulance chasers. We need integrity in raising funds and using those funds. If we can’t use them as the donor asks, we need to explain to the donor why we can’t honor his or her wishes and offer alternatives. In the worst case, we need say “no.” That hurts. But it’s the right thing to do.
Rights 9-10: Good operational systems
Donors have the right to not have their names and personal information shared with other organizations, and they have a right to “prompt, truthful and forthright answers” if they ask questions.
In my experience, most nonprofits have these systems in place. But it’s a good time to ask, “How long does it take to respond to a donor’s question?” Sometimes letters get shuffled aside because of the more immediate “interruption” of in-person, phone and email inquiries. If you aren’t sure if your system “works,” now is as good a day as any to ask — and fix it if it is broken.
True confession from this old dog — I hadn’t looked at the Donor Bill of Rights in a while. It seemed like a good assignment to give to students of fundraising. But it ended up being a good assignment for me, too.
Maybe today is when you need to put some working clothes on your genius and read it over with a fresh set of eyes.