The Fundraising Executive

ACCOUNTABILITY ATTITUDES: Why You Can’t Fool Experienced Donors

By Eddie Thompson | March 3, 2015 | Donor Communications

leadership-and-accountabilityCreating a positive culture of accountability is not something accomplished by decree, i.e., the values we “decided” to adopt at a recent strategic planning meeting. Cultural values develop through time, particularly over difficult times. Leaders who stick to their standards when it’s costly demonstrate what they really believe. That’s why leaders who create distinct cultures of accountability (whether empowering or toxic) do so because they have so thoroughly internalized those ideas.

Below are three attitudes about accountability that can eventually turn into positive or negative donor relations issues.

ATTITUDE #1: Straightforwardness
To be straightforward is very different from simply telling the truth—more like “the whole truth and nothing but.” It’s being intentionally forthcoming so as to prevent a donor from walking away with a false impression about you or your organization. Eventually, you’ll become accountable for overly optimistic donor expectations.

Sometimes fundraisers feel it’s their job to always be promoting; only telling the good stuff. However, in real-world sectors, both for-profit and nonprofit, everything is not always awesome. As Kate Walker of Trimtab Communications says in her presentations-skills trainings, “Accountability sucks when the news is bad.” Donors understand that. What they love are fundraisers who are honest and straightforward about the impact of their partnerships.

Many years ago a gentleman generously funded an initiative for a nonprofit I represented. However, what was seemingly a very doable initiative turned into a colossal failure. The night before my day of reckoning with our chief donor, I couldn’t sleep. I hate disappointing a man I so admired and kept telling my wife how badly I felt about wasting his money. Having grown weary of my stewing, Sheryl finally said, “Look Eddie, just tell the truth as honestly and straightforwardly as you can. That’s all you can do.” Whenever Sheryl begins with a deliberate, “Look Eddie,” I know it’s time to pay attention. And so I gave him the news as honestly and straightforwardly as I could.

“Accountability sucks when the news is bad.”

Our donor was disappointed that our plan hadn’t worked out, but as a successful businessman he had heard his share of good and bad news. With the same graciousness that he had initially made the donation, he thanked me for my candor. I think our relationship actually deepened through the failed initiative.

That meeting taught me an important lesson. I was right out of college when I got my first job as a nonprofit fundraiser—no experience in business or investing. I had no frame of reference to understand donors as partners and investors—let alone, venture capitalists. To me, they were just financial contributors.

When it comes to accountability, great fundraisers don’t equivocate or dance around the truth. Experienced donors will sense that pretty quickly. At the same time, they recognize integrity when they see it.

ATTITUDE #2: Humility and Frugality
The opposite of humility and frugality in a fundraising context are displays of conspicuous consumption in order to identify with those you wish to impress—often at the expense of identifying with those you serve.

I once consulted with another nonprofit CEO, a college president who drove a brand new top-of-the-line BMW provided by the organization. Board members assumed that the car would help him gain entrance into a circle of high net-worth donors. However, the inappropriateness of that particular situation became more and more apparent as we visited the modest homes of donors. Some of them were middle-class families that we were asking to make sacrifices to support our mission. Others were high net worth individuals who simply chose to live modestly.

Strategic donors are attracted to fundraisers who passionately identify with those they serve.

One of those was a wonderful lady I wrote about in a previous article [See: TWO KINDS OF MATERIALISM: Strategic Acquirers Hiding in our Midst]. Mary and her husband funded scholarships for scores of needy college students at several institutions in the community. Because she worked in the college registrar’s office, she knew exactly which students were in real need. She lived a modest and frugal lifestyle, even turned off the air conditioning in the sweltering summers so that she could help more students.

That extreme example illustrated for me another important lesson about internal attitudes of fundraising and accountability. The BMW-CEO’s primary goal seemed to be to identify with a circle of affluent donors. In contrast, this gracious lady lived modestly and gave with extraordinary generosity because she so identified with students’ needs. Here’s an axiom of donor relations: strategic donors are attracted to fundraisers who passionately identify with those they serve. Those non-profit representatives have taken up their case of their constituents and passionately championed their cause. If you have that attitude, great donors will be attracted to you whether you drive a new BMW or an old Ford Pinto.

Great leaders create a culture of accountability by remembering that they are simply managers or stewards of donor contributions. The story of wicked tenants is about a man who planted a vineyard, rented it out to tenant farmers, and went on a long journey. In time he began sending representatives to collect some of the returns on his investment. Each rep was turned away. Finally, he sent his son, but they killed him and assumed ownership of the vineyard.

This story from the Gospel of Matthew (21:33-45) is loaded with religious meaning, but it can also be applied to businesses and particularly nonprofits. Those who were awarded a stewardship of the owner’s property over time forgot who was who. Ownership and stewardship became foggy in their minds. Eventually, the stewards assumed themselves to be the true owners.

It seems the foundation had become foggy in their understanding about who owned the potential gifts and had over time developed an attitude of entitlement.

Several years ago a major donor decided to no longer fund a very high profile nonprofit. The organizational representatives bitterly complained and went on a highly publicized campaign of outrage against the donor because “their money” was being withheld. It seems the foundation had become foggy in their understanding about who owned the potential gifts and had over time developed an attitude of entitlement (literally: to give one the title and rights to ownership).

I am familiar with one organization that designates staff, donors, and other stakeholders in terms of “ownership groups.” Great nonprofit leaders never forget or allow themselves to get foggy in their understanding of stewardship and ownership. They create cultures in which there is a genuine attitude of respect, appreciation, and ownership accountability.

The attitude about accountability among organizational leaders is as important as your words (if not more important). To the extent that organizational leaders are less than straightforward about program effectiveness, foggy in an understanding of stewardship, or lacking identification with those they serve, donors eventually figure it out. At that point, the organizational attitude and culture of accountability become big issues among donors. On the other hand, when organizational leaders have deep convictions about humility, stewardship, and straightforwardness, donor eventually figure that out too.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D
Founder and CEO
Thompson & Associates

Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson