Lying to Donors—all the time

In a recent blog post Nell Edgington gives her list of the most common lies that nonprofits tell their donors.  Yes, lies.  I will suggest that these falsehoods—a couple of them real whoppers—are as much self-deception on the part of nonprofits as they are misrepresentations of reality to their donors.

My personal favorite and perhaps the most common is some variation on “100 percent of your donation goes to our programs.”  All organizations have administrative costs—even fundraising costs.  I believe this three-Pinocchio, whale’s tale is often born out of a deep-seated fear that donors will only give to a need—not an idea.

Donors do want to see an organization use their gifts responsibly, that’s true.  To be sure, there is a line that charitable organizations can cross that sends the signal to donors that the administrative or overhead costs are “too much”.  That line is one drawn from perception not a fixed percentage, however.  How’s that?

Donors, first and foremost, want to see real change, effective outcomes and community betterment.  If your organization is succeeding on these fronts, and your executive isn’t taking expense-paid world cruises, you’ve no concerns on the “overhead” question.

The deep irony is that an obsession about “low overhead” is much more about the attitudes on the inside of your organization than those of your donors.  Get in touch with reality.  Give your donors the good news they yearn for—that their gifts are doing good work in consonance with their personal values.

By telling whoppers that are indefensible and no one believes, you undermine the very thing you are trying to promote—the good work you do.  So stop, look and listen.  Your donors will tell you what they want to hear—if you’ll ask.