by Eric Friedman
I want to work with you to make the world a better place, but you make it difficult for me and many of my fellow donors. You certainly don’t intend to do this, but your fundraising efforts are often disrespectful and alienating, and they don’t engender the type of trust that is necessary for us to work together toward shared goals. Most of you probably don’t even know how you do it and why it makes me close my wallet. For the benefit of the good causes we are all trying to support, it is important to explain exactly what you are doing and why you should stop.
It is obvious that you go out of your way to rarely say anything that might bother me. You agree with everything I say, try to make your programs sound perfect, and even laugh at my jokes. That’s exactly the problem.
You are constantly treating donors with kid-gloves. In your salesman-like attempts to court me, you shield me from the types of meaningful information that would help to understand the true nature of the problems you’re trying to solve and how you’re approaching them. These types of interactions create a feeling of distrust—often not too different from the way many people feel about car salesman—which impacts how I feel about your organizations, how I treat you, and how much I give. While fundraisers and salesmen have things in common, there is a key difference: charities and donors are supposed to be partners pursuing the same goals.
As an example of this behavior, you provide shocking little information about the extent to which your programs actually work. I’ve tried to figure this out for countless charities, and it is rare to find persuasive information. Usually there are pictures of individuals with their stories, but this is obviously far from proof of impact. Some charities provide measures of output—how many patients the hospital saw, how many children were in the youth development program, or how much it costs to give a cow to a poor farmer in South America. That tells what you did, but that it doesn’t tell whether it was effective. Further, it makes me wonder if your programs are guided by uninformative statistics or legitimate evidence about what works best. Donors may not want to read every word of a detailed research report about the impact of your programs, but I’m certain that I’m not the only person who won’t donate without confidence that the money will be used well.
Some of your programs fail. I usually don’t know which ones, but any organization that has have been around long enough has had a few failures. Obviously charities won’t lead fundraising conversations by talking about failures, but the rose-colored images you paint, without ever a mention of a challenge, are obviously unrealistic. As one example, after Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake, many charities advertised how their work was so instrumental in building the country back better. You can imagine how much it bothered me when the media wrote very different stories about the situation on the ground—how progress was slow because so much of the rubble had not been unclear. This type of communication from charities may get donors in the short term, but other the long term it erodes trust, increases skepticism, and reduces giving. Maybe these charities did a lot of good, but the fact that they weren’t open about the situation makes me doubt everything they said.
You probably have many donors who are not interested in this type of information. They may be more concerned about the inspiring photo and sappy story than whether you are actually effective at solving problems. That’s a shame. It’s ok to appeal to them in the fundraising process, but not all donors are like that.
With so many half-truths during the fundraising process, many donors get suspicious and don’t treat charities like trusted partners. Certainly you need to pay market-based salaries to attract top talent, but donors worry about the legitimacy of seemingly large salaries for your leaders. Low overhead costs obviously don’t imply good programs, but since you’ve provided so little evidence of how well your programs work, don’t be offended if donors favor charities with razor-thin overhead. When you’re not forthcoming about your operations, don’t be surprised if donors earmark gifts for specific programs, rather than providing the vote of confidence associated with unrestricted gifts that allow you to decide the best ways to put it to use. And quite frankly, while donors probably would give you anything if they didn’t think you probably do good things, a higher standard is needed to have enough confidence to tell friends and family that they should give to you.
I understand that there is a financial asymmetry between us—I have money and you need it. But please treat me as a respected equal. I bring money to the partnership, and you bring know-how. We both have similar goals of making the world better, so let’s act like we’re on the same team.
Eric Friedman is the author of “Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving.”