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Mayes Wilson & Associates

Should we always tell donors what they want to hear?

Julie Whelan Capell|

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked what to do about donors who don’t want any of their donation to pay for overhead.

Do these donors work for for-profit businesses? Do those businesses pay their employees wages? Benefits? Do they have an office that needs electricity and heat in order to function? Do they not understand that a nonprofit has these same expenses, and will cease to function if these bills cannot be covered?

Possibly even more infuriating is the discussion in nonprofit circles over what is an appropriate percentage of the overall budget that should be allocated to administrative overhead. Is 20% too high? How about 15%? Can we shave it back to 12% or even 10%? Would that make our donors comfortable?

What would happen if nonprofits began telling donors the truth? Can you imagine saying any of the following to one of your donors?

“We struggle to pay our staff a family-supporting wage, good health benefits, and paid sick and vacation time. An increased donation from you will help us increase salaries and hang onto good staff people.”

“We rent/own/poach office space that is barely adequate for our staff to provide quality services to our clients/members. Staff pay for their own cell phones and use them for all their work needs. We haven’t updated our technology in 7 years.  A portion of all donations this year will be allocated to purchasing new computers for all our staff.”

“Our staff routinely donate their own time and resources to help the organization meet its bottom line: they don’t claim mileage for driving for work purposes; they come in on weekends to paint/clean/fix our facilities; they buy their own office materials. We are asking all our annual donors to give a second time this year so that we can update our offices to make them better physical spaces including higher cubicle walls to keep us all safely physically distanced.”

Centering donors’ interests and feelings over the very real needs and interests of our organizations has been fundraising gospel for a long time. But it has led us into an untenable situation where many nonprofit organizations, especially those serving marginalized communities and less-popular causes, are often covering real needs out of their own pockets and not telling donors the truth about the reality of their situation.

What uncomfortable truths are you not telling your donors?

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