Generous but galled

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Maybe this is just an etiquette question.  But etiquette matters!  At one time, a friend of mine served on the board of an ambitious new nonprofit.  A few months ago this friend, "and guest," received from this nonprofit a nice-looking invitation to a reception.  No charge to attend.  The invitation warned that because of tight security on the premises, invitees would have to provide the full names of their guests.  My friend called within the deadline time to say she was coming, intending to name me as her guest.

"Uh," said the young man at the other end, a person new to her.  He then said that the event had been oversubscribed.  He was keeping a waiting list; perhaps everyone could eventually be allowed in.  My friend, stunned, asked, "Will you be giving all the names on the waitlist to the security people?"  "We hope we can," said the young man.

I’m all huffy.  Told my friend to bring someone else should they let her in; I won’t get dressed up for a not-ready-for-prime-time operation.  My  friend says I’m overreacting and should chill.  Because she still gives this outfit some money, and I had been thinking of donating too, we chatted a little about the problem of the dynamic founder who inspires excitement but isn’t terrific at building infrastructure.   

If this business were a for-profit I guess I’d take my custom elsewhere, but I like the mission and they apparently have done good work.  Should I figure the screw-up reveals basic administrative trouble, or treat it more lightly?  If it were you, Nonprofiteer, would you be willing (in the short run) to try to go to the reception and (in the long run) continue to think about being a donor?  For the reception, I think our deal involves calling every couple of days to check on our status on the waitlist.  Which is either an outrageous indignity or just a way to cut some slack to a promising if boorish young enterprise.  I can’t tell.  Is this a nonprofit that needs "exit" (that is, I stop thinking about supporting it), "voice" (I complain, but to whom?), or just less attitude from this peripheral figure?  signed, Generous But Galled In Georgia

Dear G.B.G.I.G.:

Don’t bother with the event but also don’t think that the charity is incompetently run just because the event is being incompetently run.  This is a microcosm of the problem with charity events: they call for skills the charities don’t necessarily have, that is, tact, communications skills, the ability to manage crowds, the ability to control donors of money (on the one hand) and space/food (on the other), etc.

Of course you shouldn’t be put in the position of hanging around hoping to be allowed to attend–that’s just weird.  And you may even want to drop the charismatic founder a note and mention that it’s a bad idea to use cultivation events to cultivate feelings of resentment and exclusion in donors and prospective donors.  But if you think the work of the institution is worthwhile, you may also want to consider enclosing a check and saying, "If you’d just ask me for money directly you wouldn’t have to waste your time and my good-will on these events."


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