Under promise and over deliver? Managing donor expectations?

promiseWelcome 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 “Squeeze Out the Doubt,” John looks at both sides of the “Under promise . . . Over deliver“.  Yes, there is a debate surrounding this concept. One side says, this approach is the key to producing win-win business outcomes. The other side says, managing expectations will lead to inflated expectations and the need to always over deliver in order to attain a win-win outcome (e.g. unsustainable vicious cycle).

As someone who saw “Under promise . . . Over deliver” as a basic truism, I find this debate interesting and something I mentally chewed on for the last few days. While masticating on this concept, my mind turned to the relationship that non-profit organizations have with their donors (aka investors).

As I thought about it more, I think this debate is at the center of every agency’s fundraising program. Here are a few questions that I’ve heard clients and colleagues ask themselves:

  • Should we tell our donors how close we are to closing our doors? Or will it set the fundraising bar higher next time we solicit them for funds?
  • Do we share our mediocre program outcomes data with our donors? Or should we cherry pick the data and make them feel good about ROI?
  • When writing our case for support, should we under state our goals for program outputs and outcomes?
  • When talking about our fundraising campaign goals, should we talk about the stretch goal as if it is what we’ve budgeted?

It would be easy for me to come out and proclaim that honesty and transparency are always the best policies; however, I think it is much more complicated than a black-and-white proclamation.

For example, I am not a big fan of non-profits who run around their community screaming from every mountaintop that they are running out of money and weeks away from closing their doors. On one hand, I’ve talked to some non-profit professionals who see this as a way of low-balling expectations. If they keep the doors open, then they win. It also creates a heightened sense of urgency among donors. Right?  On the other hand, donors don’t like to throw good money after bad money. So, the next time your agency asks for money, donors will set the bar higher than they might have otherwise done because they want to make sure they aren’t investing in the S.S. Titanic.

OK . . . this might not be the best example, but the point that I’ve driving at is that employing an “Under promise . . . Over deliver” strategy takes careful thought and application.

Please use the comment box and share examples of where you successfully employed this strategy with your board members, donors, volunteers, or staff. Did it result in a win-win? Or do you subscribe to another school of thought entirely (e.g. honesty is always the best policy, never promise anything and just deliver, etc)? If so, please tell us how that has worked for you.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC


  1. Hi Erik,

    I recommend people set reasonable expectations and exceed them. I also recommend people tell the truth about where their agency is and also what the plan is to move it forward.
    Donors are willing to support transition when they understand it.

    Several years ago, I took over an organization that was failing and I wasn’t sure how or if to communicate it, I called a trusted Foundation Board member in a different community and asked for advice. She told me to set up meetings with our foundation officers and tell them where we were, and how we were going to move forward. It is among the best advice I’ve ever received. Not only did the foundation community give us a wide berth during our transition, but they supported us in spades when we became viable.

    No one expects nonprofit leaders to be perfect; they do expect us to be honest, transparent and strategic.

    Thanks for the opportunity,


    1. Sounds reasonable, Dani! I really appreciate you sharing a real, live story about a conversation you had with a trusted Foundation Board member. There is lots of wisdom in that story. Thanks for sharing it with the readers of this blog.

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