Dealing with difficult donors

 

Donors are the lifeblood of any non-profit and should be treated like it. Every donor is valuable and should be duly appreciated and thanked for their contributions, generosity, and partnership. That said, the relationship between donor and organization isn't without its own type of strain or friction. While the vast majority of donors you cultivate will likely be selfless, generous people who just want to do their part to support your cause, there will always be a few who prove more difficult or challenging.

The trick is to recognize these difficult donors when you see them and properly respond to protect your organization's best interest. Here are some of the most common difficult donors you're likely to come across and some tips on how to deal with them appropriately and respectfully.

The Ghost 

The ghost is all too common in the modern fundraising landscape. These are donors who will just seem to disappear into the ether when you need them. This is especially frustrating if you have already made contact with this donor, or even had a meeting with them that seemed very positive, and suddenly when its time to actually take action, they are nowhere to be found.

The fact is, people get cold feet, change their minds, or decide it isn't the right time to donate. That's fine. The problem with the ghost though is that you never quite know for sure. For a busy organization trying to make the best use of their resources, a simple "no” is better than a donor who dances around the issue and avoids your calls, making you waste precious time trying to follow-up with them.

The difficulty with the ghost donor is knowing how to identify them and when to move on. Persistence is a virtue and you don't want to write anyone off too quickly, you should always make an honest effort to get in contact with a potential donor, even if they seem suspiciously vaporous. Run down the list of symptoms, maybe you're calling at an inopportune time, or maybe there is a better medium to get a hold of them. If you're able to leave a message for the donor, ask if they would like to contact you another way (email, text, etc). But know where to draw the line. Don't badger people who have clearly lost interest or lose out on other potential donors because you're spending too much time chasing specters.

The Favour Seeker

Donations that come with expectations of personal gain or special treatment are not donations. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who believe "this is how the world works” and expect some consideration or eventual payoff for their contribution. In a climate where it is harder and harder to secure large donors every year, even fundraisers might start considering the possibilities of handshake exchanges and favours returned. But this is never something that works out in the long run. When money is given with a kind of shady quid pro quo implied, it doesn't matter how generous of a donation it is, you'll end up paying too much for it sooner or later.

Donors should receive appreciation and gratitude for their contributions. If there is a reward or bonus available for certain tiers of donors, or a special honor bestowed on a particularly impactful donor, then by all means they should receive the appropriate recognition for their gifts. But that is as far as it goes. Nobody should expect extra consideration like "well, my nephew is looking for a job, and since I gave so much last year...” or "I'm hoping that my daughter can receive a scholarship when she graduates this June...” and entering into such a deal is unethical, can be illegal, and will harm your organization in the long run. 

Trading favours erodes your public image, diverts resources from your core mission, and can lead to unfair decisions and actions that damage your internal team. Dealing with a favour seeker can often be a painful and awkward conversation, and you can expect to lose that donor once you let them know that you can't be expected to re-pay them for their donation in some sort of exchange, but it is a necessary one to protect your organization.

The Micromanager 

Sometimes, donors can become very particular about the exact nature and usage of their gift, to the point of micromanagement. Mostly, this impulse comes from a good place, donors simply want to make sure their donation is having a positive impact, and of course, donors have a right to understand what their gifts are being used for. But, that is what transparency and financial records are for, not detailed directions on what you can and can't do.

Gifts that are given with too many provisos and exact expectations of how they will be implemented can be harmful to an organization. As a force for good, you need to be free to use the resources you have in the way you best see fit, not beholden to someone tugging your leash from a distance. When someone has a generous gift, but it comes with too many (often well meaning) instructions, it becomes a burden. Something like "I'll donate 50 new stove tops, but they need to only go to these specific families who fit this specific criteria..” may seem reasonable on first blush, but think about what will be required to implement that request. How much more detailed information you'll need to gather on the people you'll help, how invasive these questions might be, how much manpower and organization will be involved carrying out those instructions? This is an even thornier issue when a donor's personal values, which may conflict with the values and nature of your organization, are thrown into the mix ("I'll donate 50 stove tops, but do not give any of them to families led by same-sex parents.”)

A common, less extreme but still very difficult, example of this is the old refrain of "I'll only give if I know none of my money goes towards overhead or salaries.” Again, this might seem reasonable to the donor, but is unworkable for the organization. What makes this situation difficult is that it comes from a good place – the donor wants to be sure they are making a difference. But, overhead and salaries are necessary parts of a non-profit, you can't separate the operational costs of a charity from the good it does. If those needs are not met, the organization can't function, and if everyone was able to choose how their funds were spent, it is likely those needs would never be met.

Delicacy is the watchword here. You need to be able to explain to a donor that while their gift would be more than appreciated, you can't promise that specific, confining conditions will be met. The good news is that with the proper positioning, patience, and kindness, the vast majority of donors understand your position and can be brought around to it. However, if even after a kindly worded explanation a donor isn't able to see reason on this, you have no choice but to decline the gift.

The Spring Cleaner   

Every gift is valuable and appreciated, right? Well, not always unfortunately.

This particular kind of donor might be one of the most infuriating and common examples of a counter-productive donor, the who uses your need for donations for a silent auction, raffle, or yard sale as a chance to clean our their basement junk. When you approach people for items for an auction or event, you're naturally looking for things of value, items and donations that other people will be interested in, bid on, or pay for. The spring cleaner sees it differently, this is a chance to unload their junk while cloaking their selfishness in the guise of a charitable donation. This is especially insidious when your organization has agreed to pick up and transport items – you essentially become a free disposal company for unscrupulous donors.

Many organizations have had to deal with this kind of donor. There is no shortage of donation horror stories out there featuring broken lamps, rusted AC units, mysteriously stained luggage, and opened bottles of wine, being "gifted” to an event. Obviously inappropriate gifts become a millstone around an organization's neck who not only can't use them for their intended purpose, but are now responsible for properly disposing them. Dealing with a donor who insists on this kind of behavior can often be difficult.

When you refuse to accept a donation, no matter how inappropriate it might have been, you run the risk of alienating not only that donor, but their friends who will no doubt hear an exaggerated version of the exchange. But if you accept the donation, you're only encouraging the behavior and increasing your organization's workload. 

The best way to deal with this situation is to avoid it in the first place. Write up very clear rules about what kind of donations you accept with examples that may disqualify a gift (that way you can refer to policy instead of independently saying a donor's gift is inappropriate). Try to limit the types of items you'll accept to avoid common problem donations like old "collectibles” and obsolete stereo equipment (someone donating their 8-track player to your auction is not doing you any favours). Another way to go might be to only accept new/unopened donations, or to only approach businesses for potential gifts. While this may limit the number of items you receive, you will be ensuring they are of high-quality and won't add to your workload might be worth it in the long run.   
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