How to Give Well When a Nonprofit is in Transition

by | Jun 5, 2019

A recent five-hour drive to my dad’s home was more than enough time for thoughts to drift in and out about work over the last several weeks. First, there was a phone conversation with a couple exploring a list of nonprofits and navigating how to make large donations to safe, stable organizations.  I reflected on the hard work of being intentional about the giving list and their next steps.

Then there were conversations with three different nonprofits concerned about falling off their donor’s giving list. Each had reached unexpected transition points this year and found themselves facing significant decisions that could impact donor giving. Each grappled with the reality of how to stay on their donor’s safe, stable list and the work ahead.

All three nonprofits understood transparency with donors mattered and the challenge of providing clear messages in our fast-paced world.

As donors, we find ourselves hard-pressed to gather enough of the right information to make smart decisions about giving when organizations we care about and support are in the throes of any transition. 

As thoughts swirled, I remembered I had written on this topic once before. In early 2017, I wrote about donor responses to charity alarms. I was surprised to see how relevant the recommendations were more than two years later.

Writing soon after a fire drill in our office building, I noted the difference in attitudes of people descending the stairs with me. Some hurried out of the building, and some laughed and recounted childhood stories of school drills.

I was struck by how differently we act when confronted by alarms, that includes those loudly ringing from nonprofit organizations on our giving list.

What do nonprofit alarms sound like?

  • Bad press
  • Threatening liability issue
  • Embezzlement
  • Poor leadership
  • Unexpected change in leadership

No matter the issue, problems are exposed at the professional, board level or both.

Donors react in much the same way as those who joined me in the stairwell of our five-story building.

How do you respond when you hear of trouble at a nonprofit organization?

  • We experience a donor freeze from mixed information and messaging. No donation feels better than a bad donation.
  • We ignore the alarms, red flags, and voices warning us not to donate, and write the check anyway. We reason if there is a crisis, they must need our financial help to continue services.
  • We make a small donation to feel good about our continued support while taking a watch and see position.

From time to time, nonprofits experience situations which might cause any donor to freeze, ignore the alarms or watch and see.

Transition is never easy. Even large, strong organizations will experience significant challenges when these transitions arrive. And they happen to most, large or small.

For donors, there is no wrong or right action in such situations. There is only the response that feels “best” now.

Your giving decision sends critical messages to the nonprofit and fellow donors.

  • The donor who freezes and makes no donation sends the message I need clear communication to help me donate.
  • The donor who writes a check despite the alarm telegraphs the message of financial support and loyalty to the mission.
  • The watch and see donor throws out a life-jacket and waits to see if the nonprofit can swim its way out of the situation. Will other donors follow? That’s one question the “watch and see” donor needs answering.

Several days after the fire drill, I learned the employees of one company had not participated due to a required meeting taking place. They were not allowed to leave.  That’s proof positive we react very differently to alarms. We take calculated risks.

Donors take calculated risks all the time. We ask questions. How bad is it? Will the donation still serve those in need? Is it a sinking ship? Do I care if it’s sinking if services are still being delivered right up to the moment the ship sinks?

Your answers indicate the level of risk you are willing to take. Pay attention to alarms and take the action that seems right to you. It is your decision. 

How do you respond to a nonprofit in transition? What solution works for you?

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