Giving and Getting Effectively

At the gym this morning I was listing to an older Planet Money podcast .  The topic?  How hard it is to give away money.  Well, giving it away is easy—but doing it effectively is hard.  A big part of the problem is that donors often don’t understand how to best help those they want to help.  The ambiguity of it all makes many donors only want to give to specific projects.  And the projects they like best are ones that are concrete—or of bricks, steel, stucco, whatever buildings are made of. Oftentimes, alas, this is the worst possible scenario for everyone.  Building something may not be the best thing for the organization, their clients, the donors themselves.  Or the program that sounds so sexy and enticing to the donor, may at best bring mission creep to the organization.  At worst it might make liars—or at least master manipulators—out of the nonprofit.  What typically happens, of course, is that the organization twists and turns and tries very hard to honor the donor’s intent while using the money in an effective way that meets their mission and their needs.

This is why I think that for major giving, long courtships with honest and specific conversations are necessary.  Even more necessary is for the nonprofit to know what is n the best interest of their clients, and be very clear about that to their donors.

This doesn’t mean that you lead with what you think you need and refuse to listen to anything else.  Listening to your donors is critical; but so is responding honestly.  We need to be willing to say “Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.  Let’s talk more in depth about this and see if it will really fulfill both our needs.”

That conversation implies that you will both keep an open mind. You may, at the end of it all, have to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” At least not for the project your donor is envisioning.  On the other hand, you may decide that something you hadn’t considered really is of benefit.  What you cannot do is focus only on the amount that the donor is dangling before you.   It will do no good for you to get many times what you typically raise to do something that will take you away from your core purpose.

More than anything, this shows why fundraising cannot solely be some other guy’s responsibility,  or that the development department can in any way, shape or form, stand apart from the rest of the organization.  If your director of development is not involved in organizational decision-making, he or she cannot wisely guide volunteers and donors in their charitable choices.

Beyond involving development, it is crucial that the organization invest in it.   One development director will not have the time to manage the fundraising and be part of the executive team.  That director needs staff—both administrative AND fundraising—even if a modest two in number, to be effective.  And just as you shouldn’t focus on the amount a donor might give, you shouldn’t focus on the outlay of salary and expenses. The true value of both the gift and the development department is the benefit both bring to the organization’s ability to meet its mission, serve its clients, and have  a meaningful impact.


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