Truth in Fundraising

Truth in advertising.  Ha!  I’m in London for 2 months, and wanted to join a gym.  That seemed like it would be both easy and reasonable.  Neither turned out to be true.  Despite all the ads—£60 for 60 days (the YMCA); from £24.99 per month (with, apparently, a lifetime unbreakable contract!); £99 for 6 weeks—it ended up costing more than the ads promised.  I hate that.  Just tell me the price and I’ll decide if I want to pay it.  With all these “deals”—which when you read the small print aren’t deals at all—I always feel cheated. Then there was AT&T, which said they unlocked my phone so I could get a European sim card for local calls, but they lied.  I could only unlock my phone, I was told once I got here, if I bought the upgrade for which I am eligible—and then my old phone could be unlocked.  In other words, you can’t unlock your phone if you are using it.  Fine.  Why not just tell me that? I can handle the truth—I just want to know what is what.

I feel that way with some nonprofits who are always asking for support for this or that “urgent” item.  If everything is urgent, then nothing seems, well, important.  Likewise, I hate when we in the nonprofit world talk about what a gift “could” pay for, when in truth, what it will pay for is general operating expenses.

But don’t get me started on that.  It’s the one thing that no one seems willing to pay for.  Salaries, I’m often told, should be coming from the organization (though no one seems to have thought through HOW); donors say they only want to pay for programs.  But programs can’t happen (or can’t happen well) without the necessary staff, or the equally unsexy paying of electric bills so lights can be turned on.

I’ve long had a fantasy that if I came into serious money I would start a foundation where I the support I gave to nonprofits would be simply to do what they did best.  I would, each year, ask them to tell me what the organization had accomplished and what—if any—new plans they had for next year.  What I would not do would be to ask them to account for every penny I gave them.  After all—a gift is supposed to be something you give someone (or some organization) with no strings attached.  If I don’t like what they did with the money (mine and everyone else’s), I would simply stop supporting them.

As with the ads that tell me I can get something for a particular price, but only tell me half the story, I don’t want these nonprofits to tell me that they can cure the ills of the world, only to fall severely short.  I simply want to know what they do and what kind of an impact what they do has.

I worked with an organization once that liked to talk about the thousands of youth they served.  But thousands was an exaggeration by many factors. Yes, there were thousands at the schools where the program was offered, but no school had more than 10 students signed up for the program.

It was still a good program, and the outcomes were impressive.  The numbers were just a lot smaller than they proclaimed.  And by not simply telling the truth, donors who discovered the truth were, shall we say annoyed.  As one of the donors told me, “I don’t mind that my support helps 35 kids;  I do mind that I was told it would help 2,500!”

In short, truth in advertising is not just a slogan.  It matters.  Tell your donors what their support will help you to do.  Of course you don’t have to say their dollars will turn on the lights—but do tell them exactly what happens in that well-lit room.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to build fundraising capacity and stronger, more committed boards.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the free newsletter.