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Donor Relations: What If You Can’t Give Donors What They Want?

A nonprofit I once worked with went through a recent organization-wide change. Instead of working toward abstract goals, they began to focus on impact. It was a necessary shift that many forward-looking nonprofits are making as well, but it threw some of their long-time, loyal donors off.

The nonprofit had to field a ton of questions from these donors. Some were okay with the shift, while others wanted to know why the change was necessary.

“So, what did our donations go to for the past 10 years?”

“Does this mean that all the work you’ve been doing was in vain?”

“Did you not have a goal in the first place?”

The entire organization seemed to be in damage-control mode. Things got better, but it took some effort.

In an ideal world, nonprofits and donors would form strong relationships based on mutual respect and a shared vision. More often than not, this happens. Yet, it’s common for nonprofits to make adjustments and adaptations over time based on factors like need, industry trends, and funding. Any change, whether good or bad, is bound to raise questions and possibly concerns.

So, what do you do if you can’t give your donors what they want? What happens if you’re not on the same page?

Sure, you can try “breaking up” and going your separate ways, but don’t let that be your first option. There are a number of ways that you can work with your donors, even if their wants conflict with your strategy.

“There are a number of ways you can work with your donors, even if their wants conflict with your strategy.” tweet this

Here’s how:

1. Start With An Honest Discussion

Once you get wind of an unhappy donor, it’s best to contact them immediately. The donor will appreciate the effort, and you won’t have to worry about them stewing over the changes/conflict/issues without resolve.

But don’t just reach out and start talking- make the connection personal.

First, reach out via their preferred contact method (phone call, meeting, email). Then, stop and listen. Don’t explain the intricacies of your strategic plan, discuss budget shortfalls, or dive into office politics. The best thing for you to do is listen to your donor and acknowledge their perspective.

Then, ask them if they’re interested in hearing about the reasoning behind your funding decision/program change/etc. Keep in mind that although you’re representing your organization, you’re also a human talking to another human. Throw jargon out the window and speak from the heart.

2. Designate The Gift

So, your donor doesn’t like that you’re now funding X, they’re more interested in your previous work with Y population. That’s okay!

Is it possible for their gift to be designated to a particular program/service within your organization? If so, offer this as an option. Instead of having their gift go into the general fund, let them choose where they’d like their money to go.

3. Focus on the End Goal

The donor to nonprofit relationship is intricate. The donor is interested in receiving a “thanks” and updates about your work.

As nonprofit staff, we’re interested in communicating about how great the organization is, why our work is different that work of other organizations, and why donating here is worth it. But there’s one thing that both parties are interested in discussing together- the end goal.

If you hear that donor(s) aren’t thrilled about your latest initiative, try bringing them onboard using emotion. Share a story about your end goal using a video, images or written story, that details exactly what your nonprofit’s work is about.

Putting a face behind your work will help to educate and inspire any donors that are on the fence about your cause.

“Putting a face behind your work will help to educate & inspire donors who are on the fence about your cause.” tweet this

4. Connect Them With the Right Cause

If you’ve tried talking about the change, customizing their experience, and focusing on the end goal, and they still aren’t content, then it’s time to refer them to an organization that works for them.

Acknowledge your donor’s passion and let them know you’d love to help them find the right outlet to give that works for them. You’ll be losing this donor, but leaving the relationship on an honest, positive note. You may find that by letting your donor go, you’ll maintain a respectful relationship and find your paths meeting down the road.

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