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foundation giving

We Should Expect More From Nonprofit Donors

Many of the ills of the nonprofit sector can and should be solved by educating and strengthening nonprofit leaders, staffs and boards, but there is also work to be done with nonprofit donors. Those private individuals, foundations and corporations that support the nonprofit sector also need to change their approach if nonprofits are ever going to emerge from the starvation cycle.

There are some key things nonprofit donors need to do differently in order to make their gifts go farther:

  • If you want something, fund it. Over and over again a foundation or individual donor will tell a nonprofit that they want to see a program evaluation, or a strategic plan, or a stronger financial model, but they refuse to fund it. This automatically puts a nonprofit into a catch-22 of needing a key element to get funding, but not having the funding to get the key element. It’s an unwinnable situation and no donor should put a nonprofit in that position.

  • Invest in a management team you believe in, then back off. Foundations in particular tend to attach unnecessary strings (endless reporting requirements, benchmarks) to the grants they make. In theory, these strings exist in order to ensure a good investment. But in reality, the only way results will happen is if there is a great plan and a talented team to execute on it. If you are worried about a nonprofit’s ability to execute, then you probably aren’t comfortable with an investment in that team. Either invest elsewhere, or back off and let them perform.

  • Don’t expect big things from a little gift. Donors sometimes get a big head about the gifts they make. They expect a nonprofit to expand a $1 million program with a $5,000 gift, or create a brand new program from one donor’s one-year investment. Those are ridiculous, and possibly hubris-filled, expectations. You get what you pay for. Invest accordingly.

  • Understand that you hold the power and use it benevolently. Because you are writing the checks, you have the power in this funder/fundee relationship. A nonprofit leader will never be able to be completely open and honest with you for fear that you will take your money elsewhere. Recognize that fact. Don’t put undue pressure on the organization, don’t ask for special favors, and be as hands-off as possible.

  • Don’t just buy services, build organizations. It might seem more exciting to have all your gifts go to support direct services, but realize that those services will be stronger and more sustainable if there is a healthy, effective organization behind them. That means a nonprofit needs a capable, well-trained and paid staff; adequate equipment, systems and space; and efficient technology. Occasionally think about supporting those infrastructure items so that your program gifts can go even further.

  • Get others to give. If you are a philanthropist, chances are you know other philanthropists. Share your knowledge of the great management teams and infrastructure gifts you make. Don’t invest in a vacuum. Actively recruit your friends and colleagues to build on your investments.

If we really want to change the nonprofit sector we have to change the donors who support it. It is no longer enough just to write a check and be done with it. If you really care about the organizations you support, you’ve got to step up and make more thoughtful, necessary, smarter investments.

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