Balancing Organizational Needs with Donor Interests

Donor interests and the needs of an organization can have conflicting priorities. When an individual is invested at the major gift level, it is possible for their philanthropy to tip the scales away from an organization’s best interests. Having a strong understanding of the core activities and priorities of your mission, articulating them well, and building a strong case for support can prevent mission creep from putting a donor in the driver’s seat.

Seemingly benign examples of donors with good intentions and creative ideas are what fundraisers need to look out for. Rarely will a major funder hijack your organization’s activities and bankroll a new program. More likely, dozens of minor distractions will stretch your resources thin and make the organization start to serve donors over the mission.

One of the most common examples I have seen is where donors become interested in personally supporting an existing program or fund, but also ask to create a fundraising appeal for broader support. While peer to peer fundraising can be enormously effective and engaging volunteers in this activity is a huge opportunity, these ad hoc appeals burden fundraising staff with an equal or greater responsibility. Consider the time taken to revise an appeal letter (if you aren’t asked to write it yourself), build a solicitation list, distribute the appeal and follow up on donations. The greatest cost, of course, is the opportunity cost of how that time could have been spent raising money for the annual fund or top-priority programs. Instead, a well-meaning donor has taken your eyes off the organization’s priorities in favor of their own passion. 

The worst case scenario for this example is when a donor has an idea for a new purchase or program - let’s say buying a new vehicle for the organization - and they are willing to donate part of the cost, with the rest needing to be fundraised. Because it is a totally new expense which they are not fully funding themselves, the benefit of their donation depends completely on the success of the fundraising appeal. I have worked on numerous group-fundraising appeals that fell short of their goals because the original donor was not prepared to give enough to guarantee the project’s success. In hindsight, thorough analysis of the idea’s benefits and costs, along with clear communication with the donor, would have brought both of us in closer alignment with the organization’s needs. 

Another example of when donor interests can tip the scales away from an organization’s best interests is with in-kind donations. This is a notoriously expensive arm of fundraising with historic origins and broad public appeal among older generations. Instead of worrying about whether your charitable dollars are being used efficiently, just drop off supplies that you think are needed and pass on the overhead cost of sorting, transporting, and storing these items to the organization. Food banks and Goodwill have enormous budgets for processing in kind donations, which are at the core of their operational models. But the trickier examples are with unique, unusual donated items, typically something that a donor just wants to get rid of. I have coordinated the transportation and reassembly of a few pool tables that might not have been worth the time, cost and effort of taking off a donor’s hands. Although exchanges like these are mutually beneficial, it is possible to ask for a monetary donation to cover transportation and maintenance costs along with the gift in kind.  

The disconnect between organizational needs and donor interests comes down to an understanding of the mission and strategic priorities. What are the most urgent needs of your nonprofit right now, and how can an individual best support them? These questions are not for donors to answer themselves - it is incumbent on the CEO and fundraising staff to clearly and consistently articulate these needs and shepherd resources to address them. One cannot fault donors for trying to help and going about it in an inconvenient way - our job is to light that path for them. 


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