Some Supporters Can’t Support That

Last night, a couple of stories from the Tony Awards started circulating on social media.  The first and most surprising to me was that the award show cut the presentation of a lifetime achievement award for one of the finest actors of the stage and screen of my time, James Earl Jones, and that appalled me.

The second news item was that Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled their sponsorships for the Public Theater’s production of the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, due to the director’s decision to use a Donald Trump look-alike as Caesar.  If you recall from your school days or the movie adaptation, Caesar is stabbed to death by Roman Senators in their effort to keep Rome from being ruled by an Emperor.   From what I read in the New York Times article, the depiction of the assassination of Caesar (Trump) is rather graphic, so after a campaign in the media, both companies chose to end their financial support.

That doesn’t surprise me in the least.  Businesses have their reputations  and their stockholders to consider, and being connected to such a questionable and politically motivated performance is not something they need to be connected to. These are businesses that provide services in all parts of the country, not just the more liberal anti-Trump coasts, and they really can’t afford to drive off half of their customers.

As I continued following the tweets and posts, I read a great many comments crying foul, particularly from many of my associates in the development field in the nonprofit sector.  Some cried censorship, bemoaning the lost financial support as a way to silence the theater and director, infringing on the First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Expression.  What those people fail to understand is that a sponsor, like any other donor, has a right to stop supporting an organization for any reason, but especially if the organization does something that can create controversy and go against the beliefs of the donor or business.  The sponsors are not denying the theater company the right to express their beliefs, but are simply using their right not to support the manner which the Public Theater expresses its vision.

Controversy and politics can have a deleterious effect on nonprofit organizations, and the Public Theater should have been aware of the potential risks.  Remember a few years ago, when Komen decided not to renew financial support for Planned Parenthood because of a potential Congressional inquiry?  That ended up costing the breast cancer foundation millions in support, even after they backtracked on their decision.  What about the time an employee of an organization posted a picture that appeared to be disrespectful to those buried in Arlington National Cemetery?  It cost the employee her job and her employer financial support from donors.  You read stories like these all the time, unfortunately.

Honestly, I think the Public Theater will survive and will find support from other sources.  There are many businesses and philanthropists that share the director’s vision and dislike for President Trump who will step up and replace the lost funds.  It might take some effort, but it can, and probably will be done.

My only hope from all this is that nonprofits learn this valuable lesson:  If you court controversy, realize that not all supporters can or will continue to support you, and they will leave.  It is their right as donors, and they are using their freedom of expression to let you know you may have gone a bit too far.

 

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Nonprofits and the Relationship Attention Deficit Disorder

Ten years ago, I went through a pretty traumatic divorce, and when I thought I was ready, I signed up for a couple of online dating services which I won’t name.  I tried it for a few months, but nothing came of it, and I found I really wasn’t ready after all.  I decided to give online dating another try late last year, and I ran into many of the same issues that I encountered the previous occasion.

After signing up initially, a subscriber puts together their personal page, adding a few complimentary photos, answering some personal questions, and telling prospective partners what you’re looking for in a relationship.  After you finish, you start browsing through profiles while other browse through your profile.  Someone might send a “flirt” to let you know they’re attracted by what they’ve seen in your profile, or someone might actually take the time to send you a thoughtful message.  You start a conversation online, which may go on for several days, but the relationship doesn’t progress to phone conversations or meeting in person, and as time goes on, more flirts and messages come in, and you or the person you’ve been communicating with start losing interest because there might be someone better out there in cyberspace.  Before you know it, a good thing that you just created is over.  You’ve lost a potential relationship because you are looking for something better, and not making the necessary effort to create a truly lasting relationship.  I refer to this as “Relationship Attention Deficit Disorder.”

Those of you who are married or in a relationship are quite lucky not to have to deal with some of the insanity of dating in these modern times.

The charitable sector shares something in common with many of those people who show characteristics of “relationship attention deficit disorder” by those who use online dating services.  Like those who have captured the attention of someone in an online setting, they make an initial effort to acknowledge their supporters’ interest by sending an obligatory acknowledgement of appreciation for a donation, but few seem to go beyond the impersonal thank you.  The organizations might sign the donor up for an e-newsletter, often without permission, that ends up in a spam folder unread.  Rarely, though, do organizations take the time to truly reach out and build a stronger relationship by making a simple phone call or sending personalized letter to the new donor, and after a period of neglect, the new donor moves on, and it loses out on future support.

Charitable organizations need to change the way they work with supporters after the initial contact.  I believe they need to do a better job of making more personalized attempt to find out what it is about their organizations’ mission and programs that attracted the supporter, and use that information to build upon, so the organization can increase the donor’s support, both emotionally and financially.  Organizations have to make donors feel more personally involved, if they want the supporters to stick around and continue to be more involved in their missions, instead of simply assuming that a donor will continue to support at their initial level.  Year after year, I read reports indicating that for the new gifts that organizations receive from new donors, they lose nearly as much by past donors which do not come back.  That is a failure of organizations to truly engage their supporters, and is the price paid for continuously searching for something or someone better than what they have already.

If you are part of an organization, especially a smaller or new organization wishing to grow, I recommend spending more time and energy communicating with your supporters, donors and volunteers, and encourage them to stick around and take part more in activities, and be real partners in your mission and programs, and avoid being guilty of “relationship attention deficit disorder.”  Don’t put more emphasis on finding new and better donors and supporters than you do on involving and stewarding the people who are already part of your organization’s family of supporters.

 

 

 

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True Believers and Mercenaries

When I was a student teacher my senior year in college, I was trained by a first grade teacher I observed the previous year.  When I observed him in action with his students, I admired how he worked with and dealt with his young students.  I could tell he loved what he did.  He found teachable moments in mistakes and set aside lesson plans when an opportunity arose. I thought could learn a great deal from him, so I requested him as my mentoring teacher.

When I returned to his classroom as a student teacher, I found he had changed.  Over the previous summer, he had started working on his MA in School Administration, and he no longer was as passionate about teaching his students as he was before, showing more deference to school policies regarding the children’s conduct and behavior in the classroom, and he did not stray from the curriculum.  He was still a competent teacher, but the profession was no longer a passion, and classroom teaching was now merely another step in furthering his career.  While I could not criticize him for doing what he needed to follow his career path, the enjoyable learning experience I had hoped for turned out to be quite unsatisfactory for me. As for me, I tried to maintain my idealism and taught because I loved it.

Over the years that I have been involved in the nonprofit sector in one way or another, I have noticed that boards that are charged with hiring new leaders have two basic choices.  Either choice can work out well, according to the short-term and long-term needs of the organization, or either can end up a disappointing disaster that a board may not want to repeat the next time around.

I call the first option the “true believer”.  The “true believer” is the one who identifies the problem they wish to solve and is driven by the mission,  then comes up with ways to make that happen.  The “true believer” is often personally affected by the issues they wish to address, for instance, they have a loved one who was stricken with some particular disease, or perhaps they were a student at a particular college or university, and they are personally passionate about their particular cause.  “True Believers” often start their careers in other fields, but because of their personal attachment to the cause, they change careers and join an organization as a volunteer or board member, then work their way up the ladder.  Often, if not usually, they learn their skills and responsibilities while serving at the organization, or they bring their transferable skills and knowledge from jobs outside the sector.  Sometimes, they will go back to school to earn a degree in Nonprofit Management, going into debt later in life so they can follow their passion.  For the “True Believer”, most of what they do is for the organization and its mission and will often, but not always, stick around for a long time.

The second option is what I call the “mercenary”.  Just as it sounds, the “mercenary” is highly skilled and educated to perform the job effectively, in order to get a higher income.  They went to school specifically to get the skills and knowledge to run a nonprofit smoothly, but their interest in the mission is not as strong as their interest in the paycheck, and when a better paying opportunity comes along, they are out the door, regardless of the mission.  Many times, the organization they left the first for is nothing like the organization they joined.  “Mercenaries” see each professional move as an advancement, another rung up their professional ladder.

When hiring for a leadership position, a board should consider the organization’s needs carefully, looking at both the short-term and long-term needs of their organization.

If the organization has been failing with certain aspects of running their nonprofit, hiring a “mercenary” to improve things may be the route the board should go.  As I noted previously, most “mercenaries” know what they are doing, they know what needs to be done, and they get it done.  “Mercenaries” can be excellent interim directors, contractors, and consultants.  I am acquainted with some excellent individuals in the sector that I consider mercenaries and would trust them to do a great job for any organization that hires them.  Unfortunately, many of these same people will only stay with the organization until they find the next opportunity a year or two later.  Then, the board must go through yet another search to replace them.  Supporter relations tend to suffer, morale slips with the employees and board, and soon the organization is back where it started.  Honestly, I would not suggest a “mercenary” if the board is seeking a long-term leader.

If the board is looking at the long-term needs of its organization, they might consider a “true believer.”  Because their passion for the mission is what drives them, a “true believer” has a vision for improving the programs and adding new programs to further the mission.  The “true believer” will actively seek new ways to attract more support from a wider audience, and they will be eager to share their enthusiasm with employees, volunteers, board members, and anyone willing to listen.  “True believers” are in it for the long haul, and long-term leadership is something any organization needs.  The downside of hiring a “true believer” is that often they are not as well versed in the business side of the organization, and often overlook the details involved in running their organization.  They might not have the complete training they need, so they will need to further their education by returning to school or attending professional workshops to get up to speed.  They may not be aware of things like professional ethics, bookkeeping, or human resources.

The best choice an organization can opt for is a candidate with qualities of both, the “true believer” and the “mercenary.” As a board, you want someone who is competent in the day to day duties of a leader, someone who can manage their employees effectively, someone who understands the importance of building relationships with individuals, businesses, private foundations, and government.  But, a board should also seek someone who has a personal stake in the goals of the organization, someone who looks at the big questions and seeks the answers through innovation and collaboration, someone who will stick around long enough to effect that positive change.  I have known a few leaders that have the qualities of both “true believers” and “mercenaries,” but they are a rare commodity in my personal experience.

 

 

 

 

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Reactionary Giving

Source: Reactionary Giving

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Reactionary Giving

2016 was a hell of a year that many would prefer to forget.  It featured a contentious presidential race featuring two of the least liked candidates in modern history, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as well as some smaller party candidates that got little attention from the media.  There were accusations of wrong doing by both major party candidates, releases of hacked embarrassing communications, and fake news stories released by both sides of the political aisle.   As everybody knows, Trump won the Electoral College and the election, while Clinton won the popular vote, much to the surprise and chagrin of Progressives.

Since the election, something interesting has happened, and it continues to happen as a result.  Giving to Progressive causes has increased at an amazing rate.  Progressive favorites, like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as many other nonprofits, large and small, saw year end support soar like never before.  In the six weeks following the election, Planned Parenthood received over 300,000 more donations than they normally received during that time period, and during that same time period, the ACLU received over $23,000,000 in just online donations alone.  Many of those donations came from first time donors. That’s amazing news for the employees and clients of those organizations.

More recently, since the Trump administration has announced its first budget which includes potential funding cuts, reactionary giving has done a great deal for another well known organization, Meals on Wheels, which brings meals to homebound seniors and other shut ins.  The new budget would cut or eliminate Federal grants to states which has been distributed to social service agencies since the Ford administration.  Since that announcement, Meals on Wheels America has received a healthy spurt of unsolicited online donations.

The inspiration of this surge in giving, in my opinion, seems to have little to do with actual philanthropy, but is more intended as a political poke in the eye of the current Trump administration.  Maria Godoy at NPR has referred to it as “Outrage Giving.”

While I don’t care what reason a person has to donate to the worthy cause of their choice, I do wonder some things about these reactionary donors.  Will these donors continue their gifts annually, or is this a one and done gift?  Will these donors increase their involvement with the organizations as volunteers for projects and events, or in the case of Meals on Wheels, will they spend time driving meals to seniors or prepare meals?  Will the donor only support the national umbrella groups, or will they act locally?

How will those organizations react to this situation?  Will the organizations take advantage of the opportunities and nurture these new donors for future gifts and support for their missions?  How will the organizations communicate with these new donors and what will be the tone of those communications?

I also wonder how the government will react to this burst of giving.  Will they see this new support for Meals on Wheels as a signal that they should rethink their cuts to the HHS grants, or will they think that so many people have stepped up to support the organization that they can leave the cuts in place?

The same thing can be asked about Planned Parenthood.  Congress has wanted to cut funding for that organization for years, and since Planned Parenthood has garnered a nice windfall, will Congress feel emboldened enough to cut its support for the women’s health provider?  I guess, time will tell.

Maybe President Trump will be good for the nonprofit sector.  A lot of organizations sure seem to be benefitting from his election, so far.  Any bets on which organization or cause will be the big winner and financially benefit from his next Twitter outburst? Only time will tell.

 

 

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Toilet Seats and Piece of Mind

Many years ago, back when I was working in the field of Early Childhood Education, I met a woman who was the mother of one of my students.  She was a single mother working on her degree at Oregon State University.  She had recently moved into a new rental home, and had hired me to help her with some of her moving, as well as do some babysitting on the side.

Since I did not get paid a great deal for my work at the childcare center, I had no qualms about getting side work to supplement my meager wages.  After helping her carry and place furniture where she wanted it, and unpacking the contents some boxes onto shelves, she handed me a screwdriver and a new toilet seat she purchased at a local hardware store.After I removed the old toilet seat which was not damaged in any way, I installed the new one.

I asked her why she replaced the old seat.  She told me she didn’t know anything about the previous tenant, where they had been or what their cleaning regimen was like, and it made her feel better having her own toilet seat that nobody else had used previously.  She considered it a health precaution for herself and her young daughter.  I’m not sure it was necessary, but if it put her mind at ease, and that was the important thing.

Recently, I interviewed for the position Executive Director of a small local nonprofit.  If I had been hired, I would have replaced the founder of the organization, and hoped I would bring that nonprofit to the next level of success.  The interview went pretty well in my opinion, but because it was close to the winter holiday season, I had to wait several weeks for the full Board to meet to learn the next step in the hiring process.

While I waited to hear from the Board, I spent a great deal of time researching the organization’s past, looking over the organization’s website, and investigating the organization’s social media presence.  Other things I didn’t have easy access to, including the financial information.  In case I was hired, I put together a 30/60/90 day plan of things I wanted to do.  I wanted to run reports on the donors who have given the largest gifts and donors who have supported the organization the longest, then set up appointments to interview those supporters to gain a better sense of why they donated money and what their passions about the organization truly were. I planned to meet with those the organization serves and with those the organization partners with, in order to get their opinions about what the organization was doing right, and what it could improve.  I looked into the chambers of commerce for the local communities to find out about business networking opportunities to increase business support for the organization’s programs.  I researched foundations and trusts that support the mission of the nonprofit so I could start looking into potential funders for the organization.

One last thing I planned on doing was to get the Board to agree to an audit of the organization’s finances.  I think this was my toilet seat moment.

My thoughts were, that due to its size and that it was founder run, this was an organization that could possibly have some issues, and for the sake of the organization and for my reputation, I believed it would be a good idea before the transition.  After all, I didn’t know what the founder’s financial record keeping habits were like, nor if he was the bookkeeper or if someone else was.  I have no reason to question his honesty, but one never knows about the one he/she is replacing.  I just think it is prudent to know where things stand before you take over.

I recall a story about a different nonprofit in another region in the country where the new Executive Director required an audit before he hired on for the position.  Fortunately for the new ED, the audit uncovered misappropriation by a former employee which could have been later blamed on the new hire, so it was worth the cost of the procedure.  At this point in time, I honestly don’t recall if that new hire chose to stay and clean up the mess from the previous administration or not, but either way, the decision to choose an audit was a good one for the employee and the organization.

Whether installing a new toilet seat when one moves into a new abode is truly a necessary health precaution or not, it can actually do a lot of good for one’s piece of mind, and that is important.  Whether requesting an audit before taking on the responsibilities as a new nonprofit leader is necessary, it’s hard to say, but it also gives one piece of mind and let’s one know the true standing of the organization’s finances, and that is important.  Nine out of ten times, you will discover nothing terrible, but just that one time that something comes of the investigation is enough to make it a worthwhile effort.

Are there any other precautions you might think are important but often overlooked?  Please share your thoughts in the comments. I and my other readers may benefit from your opinions.

 

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I’ll be Back in 2017

As many of you have noticed, it has been a while since I have posted. I needed some time off to deal with family health issues. Although many of those issues remain, I believe, I know, it is time to return to blogging.

Look forward to my return in the coming year.

Richard Freedlund

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