Can you find a balance between what donors want and what charity managers want?
The Charity knows best
Charity managers are busy people. They have spent years honing their skills and their understanding of their beneficiaries, so they know what's best to spend the money on and how best to tackle the issues at hand, right? Sometimes this is true, but it can also lead to assumptions when it comes to making decisions about what the money should be spent on. It can also lead to them dismissing the ideas of donors. It's true that some donors are only excited by the new. They may want to feel that there is no way a particular project could have got off the ground, if it wasn't for them. So that can be frustrating, especially as no-one wants to pay for the toilet cleaner in the office. But should charity managers listen to donors more?
Sometimes donors and charities agree
Sometimes there is no problem. Someone wants to donate money for a holiday of a lifetime for a dying child. There are several charities which offer this to families and the transaction looks as though it is simple. But even within that relationship, there are different desires at play. The charity needs funds to pay for the employee whose job it is to arrange the holiday. They need money to pay for for the employee who liaises with the beneficiary family and the hospice where the child is being cared for. They need to pay someone to carry out a full needs assessment of the child in question and so on. Although the donor and the charity may have the same desire - to give a trip of a lifetime to a life-limited child, you can almost guarantee that the donor, if questioned, would not want their money to go to a risk assessment. You could take the time to explain to them why it's needed. And with major donors and trusts and foundations, there may be the time and the willingness to understand the complexities involved. But with a £5 a month donor, there is the fear that if you tell them these things, it may put them off.
Too much money for the "nice" projects
Within each cause, there are projects which attract donors and those which are harder to attract support for. For example, at the NSPCC, I never managed to persuade a corporate donor to support the paedophile rehabilitation programme. This clearly does not mean it's not a worthwhile project, but that it is only going to appeal to a limited number of people. On the flip-side, there are projects within each cause, which you could fund 10 times over. People love donating toys and Easter eggs to disadvantaged children, for example. There is a charity locally, which collects donated Easter eggs for the children's ward at the local hospital. They are inundated with Easter eggs every year. This to me is an example, where the desire of those giving may not be meeting the needs of those they wish to help. Do ill children really need 3 Easter eggs each, or would they rather there was more "home-from-home" accommodation, so their Mum could stay over more often?
No money for the vital day-to-day services
A charity I worked for recently provided a variety of services. Many of the donors were people who had also been beneficiaries of the services. Most of them, when they became donors, did not want their money to go towards the support service which they themselves had benefited from. They wanted it to go towards "research". What they wanted was to find a one-time cure, so that no-one else would have to go through the devastation of their child dying. They didn't want to pay for the patching up, they wanted to stop the wound happening in the first place. I totally understand this and have enormous sympathy with it, but who is going to pay for the post-death support service, which is obviously also meeting a need?
In the above example, the donors are still very supportive of the project which they themselves don't wish to fund, and the charity is able to run the service from "general" funds.
But what if the donor is right?
Sometimes as fundraisers, we know in our heart of hearts that the donor is right. They may be swayed by emotion. They may have a personal passion for something which has the potential to skew their judgement. But sometimes charity decisions do not reflect the wishes of our donors - and we think they should.
This is tricky territory for all of us. We know the charity does good overall, but it can be difficult to be the voice of the donor in the organisation and feel you are not being listened to. So sometimes we dress up our projects to look more like what the donors want. If we have the time to educate our donors about the reasons behind some of these decisions, then usually they will end up content. But often there is not the time to resolve these frictions between expectation and reality and this is when donor dissatisfaction creeps in and leads to the kind of loss of trust which we have seen in the last year between donors and charities.
As a fundraiser, I always feel that I understand my donors, care for them and want their vision for change to become a reality. The hard part of the job is not the getting of the money. That's always been easy. It's making the money do what you said it was going to do that's harder.
Yes donors sometimes have unrealistic expectations. But aren't hopes, dreams, and expectations exactly how we can change the world? Can't we find a happy balance between that and what charity managers think matters?
Let's meet those expectations and exceed them.