Are you and your non-profit “Gotcha” proofed?

24 03 2011

From the people who brought you ACORNgate, we now have the NPR video.  These folks are not alone; look at the Wisconsin Governor who took a call from someone claiming to be a wealthy republican donor and the researchers looking for bias as they made “fake” applications to graduate school.  We live in an era of cell phone cameras, spy pens (yes they have spy pens that record conversations), and you tube — we are under constant surveillance.  In many cases we are asking, “shouldn’t they have seen through this?” or in the case of the Wisconsin Governor, “did his staff really let that happen?”

The real question should be … why do these things happen?  Each non-profit should have principles about what we do or do not discuss.  As philanthropy professionals we develop personal relationships with many of our donors, prospects, and volunteers.  We need to be examining what we share with them and when is our personal opinion relevant vs. the organizational perspective.   My first boss at the University of Minnesota told me that you should never talk about religion or politics, which is tough because they are pretty big topics. 

Our personal opinions matter less than the organizational perspective. If NPR had refrained from personal commentary about the Tea Party or whoever, they would have been perfectly fine.  For example, who could have taken offense with, “NPR appeals to individuals who like to evaluate pertinent information and significant analysis” vs. comments about intellect.  We can become very isolated with like minded people at any organization we work with — it seems natural to agree on topics ranging from global warming (or climate change) to healthcare.  All of these areas offer challenges for us as we interact as a representative of our organization.

So keep in mind these simple guidelines for you and your staff to discuss:

  • What are issues we need to have a stance on? And do we actually have one? (for example an environmental organization probably needs a stance on climate change, a children’s hospital does not, but they may want one on sustainability and environmental footprint)
  • How much personal information should one share? (Prospects need to have rapport, what should they know about your family, background, et cetera?)
  • What are boundaries that a development officer, volunteer, or other staff member should observe about listening to topics from donors? (What about racist, sexist, or other inappropriate remarks? – and sadly they do still happen).
  • If you are concerned about a potential interaction, what is your plan?  Do you have a colleague to attend the meeting with you?  Where should a meeting should be held? Can you role play potential scenarios?

There is not a magic bullet for these risks, but actively preparing to manage these issues will ensure that you and your staff are not surprised.  If we are always seeking the higher ground in these conversations — we will always insulate ourselves and our organizations from intended or unintended harm.




One response

24 03 2011
Dennis Kelly

I never imagined that fundraisers would be the target of such spy games, but here we are. These incidents are a good reminder that our ethics and our common sense need to be top of mind in every donor and prospect interaction. Unfortunately, we also need to be on the alert for this kind of public relations trap. Perhaps we are witnessing the sad beginning of a new chapter for our profession: defensive fundraising.

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