Dear Nonprofiteer, I hear tough times don’t last and tough nonprofits do, but I doubt it

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m in the unenviable position of Executive Director of an agency serving ex-cons.  We help them find housing, support services and jobs–though all three are in incredibly short supply right now.  And so, of course, are funds to keep us going.

Here’s my problem: whenever I tell donors how desperate we are, I get a sob story about how desperate THEY are.  (The next person who tells me he simply doesn’t read his 401K statement is getting a swift kick in the pants.) It’s obvious these people have money; they just don’t want to share it with us.  What’s your advice?

Signed, Getting Conned on Two Sides

Dear Con:

First, my advice is to get the chip off your shoulder.  If you’re no longer able to bring commitment and enthusiasm to your work, that’s an infectious disease that will soon lay low your entire organization.  Maybe you just need a weekend off–how long’s it been since you’ve had that?  Take a day or two, and then come back ready to rumble with the problem rather than with people who constitute the solution.

Second, remember this: people don’t give to agencies they think are desperate; they give to agencies they think are successful.  Of course they understand that you need resources, and of course they want to be assured that you’re not wasting those resources on wine, women and song; but beyond that, they don’t want to be asked to feel sorry for you.  In the current economy, they’re too busy feeling sorry for themselves.

It may be accurate to say, “Without your $100, we won’t be able to house our clients tonight.”  But it’s just as accurate, and twice as effective, to say, “With your $100, tonight Charles and David will have a place to sleep and access first thing tomorrow morning to telephones and computers to continue their search for a job.”  As the song says, “Ac-cen-tu-ate the positive . . .”

Finally, talk about Charles and David–not about “clients” or “the men” or (God forbid!) “ex-cons.”  People like to hear–more, people NEED to hear–concrete stories about actual individuals who’ve been helped in specific ways by your program.  “When Charles showed up in November, he was really pretty desperate.  But we helped him put together some decent job-hunting clothes and he went through our interview workshop, and he found a job at the Pick n Save.  Now he’s working on his G.E.D. at nights.”  If you can, figure out whether the prospective donor’s $100 would underwrite those same services for James, who sleeps in the next bed.  Make it real for your listener.

And really, really finally: of course you feel resentful of people who are actually well off yet complain about their financial circumstances.  But these people are genuinely shaky about their long-term financial futures, as are we all.  You can acknowledge their concerns–and share them, putting yourself in their corner–without accepting those concerns as a refusal of your pitch: “I know, it’s the same with me.  Even those of us who have education and assets and jobs are feeling nervous; so you can imagine what it must be like for people who are on the edge to begin with.  Anything you can spare will make an enormous difference,” and then offer a specific.

There’s never a good time to be poor; but in a tough economy it’s easier for the well-off to identify with the poor and therefore be motivated to assist them.  Why do you think Social Security passed during the Depression?  If this be Depression II, let’s make the most of it!

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, I hear tough times don’t last and tough nonprofits do, but I doubt it”

  1. Amy Bernstein Says:

    Nonprofiteer, I’d like to congratulate you on a spot-on argument for the power of positivity. When a challenge arises, focusing on the negative is an easy trap to fall into and a hard one to climb out of. But successful fundraisers find the positive and use it to appeal to people’s sense of hope and desire to make a difference, rather than their guilt and fear. (Isn’t that the message we just learned from the presidential campaign?),

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    And of course it’s a lot easier to be positive with a friend (to community organizing and effective government) in the White House.

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