How Hidden Risks Can Make Giving Decisions a Challenge

by | Oct 30, 2023

When I was about three or so years old, my family went for a drive in the Colorado mountains. I think we went for a picnic, but what I remember is jumping out of the car, barefooted, heading for a patch of wildflowers.

My mother called out to stop, but all I saw were flowers, not the tangle of briars between me and them. Almost immediately I shrieked from the thorns in both feet. My mother searched for each thorn and tried calming me down, while my dad said something like your mother told you to stop.

And that’s all I remember. Did we have our picnic after the tears dried? Was I lifted over the briars into the patch of flowers, socks and shoes laced up? Those details are lost to time. However, when something triggers my memory about the event, I wonder why it has remained so vivid after six decades.

To this day, I love wildflowers by the roadside and am willing to step off into the field even while watching for East Texas snakes and fire ant mounds.

Finding the Good, The Bad and The Missing

Friends know I see the beauty or the good in something, and still, I’m suspicious, questioning and trying to ferret out what I can’t see.

I am very comfortable with this part of myself – quick to question and outspoken with my opinion or developing thoughts on most matters. You see, I’m a big girl now and dive in with my socks on and shoes laced up.

Still, I frequently encounter thorns I didn’t see because I asked a few questions and then assumed I knew enough to get to the good of the matter when I didn’t know enough.

If you read my columns, you know my penchant for asking questions in the philanthropy and nonprofit world. But sometimes, I still get it wrong.

Predictions Gone Wrong

I have predicted a nonprofit will close its doors in the next few years based on the struggle to find adequate operating funds, only to watch it struggle for at least a decade before finally merging with another nonprofit. I have strongly encouraged a nonprofit not to start a particular income project. I thought it would take them off their mission only to watch the project become wildly successful and an important part of their annual income.

These two organizations’ names aren’t that important because the story is true in every community. We can see great organizations from afar and feel safe donating while missing critical challenges and issues threatening their ability to serve well.

Risk Hiding in Plain Sight

We can watch small organizations struggle and wonder how they make it from year to year when, if we just started supporting their mission, a small grassroots board of directors could face their challenges and yet grow.

So, the questions will only carry us so far. And then we face risk. How much are we willing to donate, how much of our time will we give, and how long will we continue our support while they work through challenges?

Different Answers Heading the Same Direction

My answers to those questions are different from your answers. Recently, I discussed a gift a donor wanted to make after reading about a project in a fundraising letter. The donor was a long-time supporter of the organization’s work and a donor over many years.

The explanation in the letter was vague, so it was easy to grab my phone and go to their website, where we hoped to find enough information to clarify the program’s work. We were disappointed.

The next decision depends on our comfort with risk. What do you need to know? How much information is enough?

Here again, our answers will be different. We must each reckon with different levels of comfort with risk and the size of the gift. My donor friend decided to make the gift to the project, trusting that more information would come. Only time and reading future materials will confirm the decision. I’m not sure I would have made the gift.

You will face similar questions. Nonprofit organizations hope you will make the bet to join or continue your support even during challenging times. Keep your eyes on the flowers, watch for the briars, and take some risks. You’ll give well, one gift at a time.

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Dawn Franks new book, The Gift of Giving
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