4 Ways to Deal With Donor Advice

greens near the beach“Of course, it would be better if all our donors were deceased,” said Jim, an executive director, only partially joking. Do you ever wish that your individual donations came from bequests? After all, deceased donors don’t require reports or stewardship. They don’t offer conditions. They don’t give advice. Despite these and other “complications,” you need living donors. They provide donations and wisdom, with wisdom being the most valuable gift.

Late in 2014, CharityChannel Press published 7 Nonprofit Income Streams. To celebrate, I’m creating a series of articles based on my insights from writing it. The real benefit of individual donations is not the money. It’s the opportunity to partner with successful people. Over time, tapping their wisdom transforms “average” nonprofits into viable, indispensable community institutions.

Gifts with Ribbons
Donors are investors. Unless a contact dictates otherwise, they donate without “strings,” but with expectations. Think of expectations as “ribbons” on a gift box. Attractive and mutually beneficial ribbons include: for the donor to be thanked, for the money to be used as promised, and to learn about the gift’s impact. As gifts grow in size and frequency, so do the ribbons. These bigger ribbons include the expectation to be heard, sometimes to be a board member, and always to be viewed as a partner. (The donor defines what that means.) Ribbons can be gifts in and of themselves—some are pure gold. For instance, in year one a new board member grudgingly gives the required $500 board donations. In year two, he moves to increase the minimum donation to $1,000. Over the following years, he continues to persuade other board members to give larger gifts, until $10,000 becomes the minimum expected. Simultaneously, the board of directors grows in its engagement with the nonprofit’s work.

Beneficial Ribbons
While exceptions exist, such as the desire for personal power, most ribbons represent mutual interests. You both want to accomplish more. You both seek greater community recognition. You both want revenue sustainability.

Beneficial ribbons also include advice that reveals a nonprofit’s blind spots. Last year, along with a dozen consultants, I participated in a writer’s circle. Each month, we shared a document and critiqued each other’s work. Month after month, most comments focused on the same paragraph to improve, reflecting the “wisdom of the crowd.” Likewise, when many donors tell you the same thing—listen! Others see things we can’t. You can’t read the ingredient list from inside a bottle.

Difficult Ribbons
As recipients of donors’ gifts, whether cash or advice, you have the privilege and responsibility to decide their fate. You’ll need discernment; a key but infrequently recognized leadership skill. Most leaders like the idea of beneficial ribbons, but like Jim above who preferred bequests, you probably dread advice that’s irrelevant, or potentially harmful; ribbons that create obligations that stream out the door and down the hall. Frankly, many ribbons won’t be stellar. For instance, as part of strategy development, I seek strategic advice from stakeholders, staff, volunteers, and community leaders. Most responses include management advice (put more lights in the restrooms), clichés (form better relationships), and unlikely to create results (call Bill Gates). Tucked in the midst of the mundane, I find golden ribbons. Asking allows everyone to participate, and for the organization to receive amazing ideas.

How Can You Handle This Mixed Bag of Advice?
At the holidays, advice columns fill with questions about how to respond to unwanted gifts. The consistent advice? Express thanks “for thinking of me,” affirm the relationship, and then, decide the destiny of the gift, whether your front yard, hall closet or recycle bin. Gifts from donors call for a similar process. Cash or the equivalent presents a few challenges. Spend the money as directed, negotiate for a different use, or return it. Gifts of advice: not so easy. They require listening, discerning, and carefully crafted responses.

Listen to donors and seek gold. The gold may not be obvious. I experienced a formative example with a volunteer team I once staffed at my first job. The team was doing a bang-up job. Nonetheless, the team received a letter of criticism that Dave, the chair, read to us. Alan wrote to criticize the group’s composition. We responded with stunned silence. After a bit, Dave directed us to find the letter’s wisdom. We didn’t, he pointed out, have to add critical, no-fun Alan to the team, but we might consider the wisdom of his suggestion. Not all ribbons match your package, but many of them, if you tease out the gold thread they contain, can benefit your work. Dave wrote a letter thanking Alan for the ideas. The team invited a different co-worker, whom everyone loved, to join the team. The team gained a valuable member and continued to receive Alan’s contributions. Jerry was heard, affirmed, and told the impact of his gift.

Managing Advice from Donors and Others You Need To Hear
When it comes to advice you have four choices: adopt, adapt, delay, or discard. To illustrate them, I’ve included an example response to a donor who suggests the absurd idea that you add a toddler to the board.

1. Adopt. “Great idea. We’ll start looking for candidates this week.” While in this case, the advice is ridiculous, when the advice is clear and helpful, thank the donor and get to work.

2. Adapt. “Thank you for your idea. We’ve thought a lot about it, and decided you’re right. We need to add new voices to the board. We considered adding a toddler, but decided to add the parent of a toddler instead since we meet near bedtime.”

3. Delay. “We really appreciate your idea of adding a toddler. We’ll review it with other ideas about board composition at the year-end. If I forget to get back to you, please remind me and I’ll share what the committee decided.” (Here you can noodle the advice to detect hidden gold.)

4. Discard. “We really appreciated your idea. The committee reviewed it last week—it stimulated a wonderful discussion about board selection. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit our legal requirements when the board reviewed the idea. Thank you for helping us to think differently. I’m so glad you’re one of us.”

Donors: Better Alive
Your best donors will give money and sound advice. Help to make their advice golden by sharing feedback and ongoing education about your work. While bequests may speak to you from the grave, the best advice comes from people living in your time. Besides, with living donors, you always have the chance for another gift. What’s better than dead donors? Smart donors–-and you want very smart donors—who share their golden ribbons of wisdom.

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