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Are Donors Prioritizing Themselves or the Organizations to Which They Donate?

Date: May 31, 2022

Ellie Buteau, PhD

Director of Research Projects and Special Advisor on Research Methodology and Analysis, CEP

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In a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, one of the donors interviewed suggests that, “When fundraisers approach donors with the idea that they’re going to help the donor do what the donor wants to do, that’s what works.” I must admit to shaking my head as I read that. “Works” for whom, I wondered.

Admittedly, there is much advice out there urging such a donor-centric approach to fundraising and, indeed, some nonprofits build their fundraising strategies around this mindset. But most nonprofits cannot simultaneously prioritize what donors want and put their organization’s mission, goals, and strategies first.

That it feels somewhat blasphemous to write this speaks to how much power donors still hold in the nonprofit sector — power that should be in the hands of nonprofit leaders and community members, the people with the most knowledge and experience to address the systemic issues many nonprofits seek to address. When donors who lack such knowledge and experience take a top-down approach with nonprofits, they are undermining their own efficacy as philanthropists. As Socrates wrote, “Wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”

Even if it leads to more giving in the short-term, donors wanting nonprofits to prioritize their individual wants is a recipe for organizational ineffectiveness, too. If multiple donors expect a nonprofit to prioritize their individual goals over the organization’s existing goals and mission, they collectively undermine the nonprofits’ health. When we surveyed nonprofit leaders in 2021 about how funders were helping — or not — during the pandemic,  one nonprofit leader told us, “We have more major donors than we used to, and they don’t seem to understand exactly what we’re doing. They’re demanding. They want to control what we do, and they want special treatment.” Imagine the time this takes from nonprofit staff. Time that could otherwise be spent serving those most in need in our society.

Now, to be fair, there are many individual donors who do prioritize the needs of the nonprofits they support. They find an organic match between their own funding goals and the needs of the nonprofit they wish to support. During the pandemic, our research shows that more than half of nonprofit leaders experienced stronger relationships with individual donors. Yet, about one quarter experienced weaker relationships.

To truly support nonprofits, donors need to understand the current reality of nonprofits. Since early 2020, nonprofits have faced increased demand for services, burnout of their staff, and the challenge of how to deliver services in new ways. When we surveyed nonprofits leaders in 2020, we learned that the negative impacts of the pandemic were even more severe for those that provide direct services and serve historically disadvantaged communities.

In a spring 2021 survey, we saw that most nonprofit leaders reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had negative impacts on their organizations and has affected their programming, revenue, demand, and costs. Arts and culture organizations have experienced more negative effects from the pandemic than nonprofits focusing on other issue areas.

To boot, nonprofits that rely on individual donors or earned revenue have experienced more negative impacts and less stable funding than those relying on foundation funding. While much has been made of record 2020 giving, that was mainly a result of increased foundation giving.

It isn’t a mystery what donors can do to be more effective in their giving and to help nonprofits be more effective at working toward their mission. And it’s certainly not taking a top-down approach and expecting nonprofits “to help the donor do what the donor wants to do.” Over 20 years, we’ve collected candid, anonymous feedback from more than 100,000 nonprofit leaders and here are five things nonprofit leaders want their donors to know, but may not be telling them directly:

  1. Understanding the needs of the constituents that nonprofits are serving is essential for donors and nonprofits alike.
  2. Strong relationships between donors and nonprofits are grounded in understanding and openness.
  3. Generous, unrestricted financial support best enables nonprofit leaders to strengthen their organizations.
  4. Most nonprofits want to assess their performance so they can learn and improve, and they could use more support to do this.
  5. Providing support beyond money can help nonprofit staffs strengthen their skills, make important connections, and better pursue their missions

Donors who heed this advice from nonprofits are more likely to be effective — more effective, certainly, than donors who expect nonprofits to prioritize them over the organization’s mission.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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