Donors don’t like deception

deceptionWelcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Fire and Rain,” John talks about the story behind the story with regard to James Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain” and his personal reaction when he discovered some of the urban legend associated with it. While it is obvious that John will use this post as a springboard to another post, I think John’s reaction as he describes it in his post speaks to a basic truism:

No one likes to feel like they’ve been deceived.

Even when there are elements of truth, I’ve seen people react strongly just because it “FEELS” deceptive.

This idea is something that non-profit organizations deal with all of the time as it relates to donor communications. Right?

The following few examples spring immediately to mind for me:

  • Example #1: Agency X is experiencing cash flow issues, but doesn’t share this news with its donors. Why? They are afraid that this news will deter donors from writing checks.
  • Example #2: Agency Y is getting ready for it annual audit. In preparation for a visit from their auditor, they discover that their administrative and fundraising costs were a little higher than they anticipated. So, they change some of their salary allocations in order to put their numbers back where they should be. Why? They know that individual donors, United Way agencies, foundations, and even the Better Business Bureau have expectations (and standards) associated with how much money a “responsible” non-profit organization spends on fundraising and administrative costs.
  • Example #3: Agency Z is developing a direct mail appeal and knows that people don’t like to give money to the “general fund”. So, they craft a letter that says something like “It costs $X to run program A, it costs $Y to purchase equipment B, and $Z to purchase program supplies”.  When the responses start rolling in, the money is not used for A, B or C and instead put into the general fund to pay for the electric bill or employee salaries. Why? The intent of the letter was to raise unrestricted income, and the organization thinks donors understand that “cash is fungible“.

These are fictitious examples, but do you remember the 1994 Christian Children’s Fund scandal? Here are a few other recent examples of when donors were deceived or “felt” deceived:

  • Susan G. Komen for the Cure threatening to not fund Planned Parenthood. How was this deception? Donors never thought their contributions were supporting an organization with an alleged political agenda.
  • LIVESTRONG’s founder, Lance Armstrong, admits to doping. How was this deception? The foundation co-branded itself with its founder’s image and donors invested based on his story, character and credibility. After the confession, donors couldn’t help but openly wonder: “If he lied about doping, what else is he lying about?
  • Boy Scouts of America and their long standing battle with the LGBTQ community. How was this deception (after all haven’t they been very vocal about their membership restrictions)? Some donors see hypocrisy with this policy because a case can be made that the policy contradicts some of the 12 points of the Scout Law. Moreover, the Scouts announced to the world a few months ago that they were poised to re-visit and possibly reverse this policy. As the date got closer, they postponed and stalled. “Deception” is sometimes as simple as saying you will do something and then dragging your feet on doing it.

In John’s post, he admits that his feelings for James Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain” changed after he learned the truth. The reality is that your donors’ feelings for your agency will change if they feel deceived. The point here is that it doesn’t even have to be outright deception. It only has to be the “feeling” of deception.

What does your agency have in place to insure honesty, transparency and ethics? Please use the comment box below to talk about things like ethics policies, whistleblower policies, evaluation practices, etc. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
www.thehealthynonprofit.com 
erik@thehealthynonprofit.com
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