Right From the Headlines: Your Fundraising To-Do List

Early morning … struggling to wake up … half-listening to the news when something is reported that tells me my entire day is changed. Time to toss out the old to-do list and start over. Ever had that experience?

Yet some news we read or hear seems far removed from our jobs as fundraisers — but is that true? There are headlines that may not seem relevant, but they need to stir you to action so you can make sure your nonprofit avoids being the headline story next month or next year.

Some of these may seem to you like “not my business.” But unfortunately, anything that potentially can impact fundraising has to be the business of fundraisers. You don’t have to run it or repair it, but you have to understand it enough to give your donors assurances and to make certain it remains a priority for the organization. So what are these headlines?

First, fundraisers need to care about data security and data breeches. Oh, sure, you have really smart IT people who take care of this. But let’s face it — your entire donor database can be downloaded to a flash drive that costs less than $10 and transported to who-knows-where. Credit card information is often stored in a file that is accessible to almost anyone. And the anonymous donor isn’t really anonymous if too many people know the identity of that person.

As a fundraiser, you want to be able to intelligently and confidently explain to donors about how your organization protects donor information. You may be the only person he or she asks; it’s doubtful most donors will call and speak to your IT manager or the vice president of operations or whoever it is that manages your data. So it’s your job to know how data is protected and stay current with any changes so you are always ready to offer reassurance to an inquiring donor.

I know this can be delicate; no one wants to feel that his or her competence is being questioned. So when you meet with the appropriate person, explain that you need to be able to assure your donors that your organization is at the highest level in terms of securing data; you need to understand the procedures in place so you can explain them in terms a donor understands. Show a genuine interest, and approach this with a desire to learn, not a desire to accuse someone else of not doing his or her job. Your IT team should be among your best friends in the organization; a partnership built on mutual respect can help you solve your biggest fundraising challenges.

Secondly, fundraisers need to know how your organization handles accusations and wrongdoings. This doesn’t mean you need to know about every disgruntled former employee or every complaint from a vendor. But you need to know about lawsuits (at least in general terms; the specifics may be confidential) and anything else that could be a headline one day.

On a slow news day, that frivolous lawsuit against your organization may become fodder for the front page. A disgruntled person may complain to someone who tells someone else — who just happens to be a major donor. An unsubstantiated rumor may circulate online and suddenly take on the appearance of fact.

These can be delicate issues, and some have to be completely confidential. But make sure you are looped in to gossip, rumors and reality so you don’t hear the bad news first from a donor to whom you have just made a large ask. Oftentimes, you are the only representative of the organization that a donor trusts or even knows; that “deer in the headlights” look seldom helps build a donor’s confidence.

The third headline you need to be proactive about is misuse of funds. Recently, someone told me that she had come in contact with an organization that used designated funds as “kind of a slush fund.” Perhaps you winced when reading that, knowing the potential something like that has to backfire and cause loss of funding. Or maybe you aren’t sure why it’s such a big deal.

The bottom line is if your organization isn’t 100 percent committed to using designated funds as the donor requests, you need to decline the gift. Gasp! But let’s face it — it only takes one unhappy donor to spread the word that your organization doesn’t honor designations to scare off a lot of other potential donors.

Yes, sometimes overfunding happens. If you don’t use a disclaimer when soliciting the gift, you may need to go back to the donor (in the case of a major gift) and ask if he or she agrees to you redesignating the money for another project. (Choosing one that is similar or you know will resonate with the donor can make this a much more pleasant conversation.) But in general, if you accept designated gifts, your entire organization has to be committed to honoring the designation.

Frankly, this old dog has had to backpedal a few times over the years for issues not unlike these three. It’s a terrible place to be in. So be proactive; arm yourself with knowledge and you’ll be ready when a donor asks a question — with an honest answer that gives the donor the same peace of mind that you experienced when you set out to understand how these issues are handled in your organization.

Any other headlines that should be wake-up calls to fundraisers? Please use the comments section below and share them. I thank you — and I know your fellow fundraisers will, too.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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