Nonprofits, philanthropy and fundraising have been my life for a long time now. During this time, I have been through periods of growth and economic downturns, leadership resignations, and even some times of crisis. As I sat down to think about the common threads that have helped organizations weather the ups and downs, the common themes are transparency and stability. Especially in recent months, the news and focus have taken a drastic shift as nonprofits, like so many other businesses, are operating under additional scrutiny, criticism, the cloud of sexual harassment accusations and an increase in leadership resignations or terminations.
How do you prevent public criticism, scandal or leadership change from derailing your organization’s mission-focused fundraising success? What if you are in the middle of a major capital or fundraising campaign and you are confronted by an unplanned scandal? I believe the key is preparation.
♦ Don’t Panic – Be confident in your organization’s mission, purpose and vision.
♦ Communicate – In this day and age, when news spreads like wildfire, you would be better served to control the message with transparency. Bill and Melinda Gates recently used their foundation’s annual letter to answer the “tough questions” raised by critics of the couple and their foundation. The Washington Post published an article following an interview with the couple. Melinda Gates emphasized the importance of communication when she said that “you build trust over time, if you’re knowable, if you’re transparent.” The article found that “there is a growing demand by the public for institutions to be transparent and accountable.”
♦ Focus on the Future – Remind yourself, your staff and the community of the importance of your mission. Emphasize that the current challenge is real, but will pass. The work that your organization does is critical and cannot be overshadowed or forgotten.
♦ Lean on Your Invested Leaders – This is one of the reasons you have built relationships with your supporters. After meeting with them individually, ask them to help control the message. Consider asking them to make a public statement or contribution to demonstrate their commitment to the future of your organization. If building relationships with your donors has not been one of your main focus areas in the past, now is the time. Meet regularly with your leadership donors and advocates. Ensure that you understand what is important to each of them. Be sure to communicate with them regularly about the role that their support plays in the success of your organization.
♦ Create a Succession Plan – A succession plan will be critical if you are ever confronted with an unexpected leadership staff change. However, succession planning is also important to building donors’ confidence in your organization. In our work, we hear from major funders that they are more likely to make a leadership gift knowing that an organization has plans and policies and stable leadership in place.
♦ Seek Advice from Fundraising Counsel – We have seen a lot in our 29 years of consulting with nonprofits. By asking our advice, you have years of experience to back you up. For example, what do you do if a donor wants to withdraw a pledge? What should you do if you have a leader publicly speaking poorly of the organization? What do you do if no one is willing to step up to lead? We can help you think through these questions calmly and strategically. Fundraising counsel can help you with much more than campaign planning and execution. If you don’t currently have counsel, please reach out to The Curtis Group team.
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