Hey, Nonprofiteer, here’s my beef:
I would like your advice on dealing with the interfering donor. We don’t want to lose their money, but their advice gets tiresome and wastes my time. Once in a while they do have a good idea that we can use, but not very often. What to do? Signed, Having My Ear Chewed Off
We’ve all heard the old saying “If you want someone’s money, ask his advice,” but perhaps we didn’t understand that it was describing an actual quid-pro-quo rather than merely a method of being a charming pickpocket. Your donor doubtless feels that s/he’s earned the right to give advice, what with all those checks and all, and we certainly agree to some extent: the reason Board members get to give THEIR advice, and govern the agency in general, is that they provide the juice that enables it to run.
But your point is well-taken: lots of advice is useless, and some of it is worse than useless because it takes up the valuable time of people who should be doing something else. So there are two keys to solving your problem: confining the time in which advice is offered, and redirecting the advice.
To confine the time, consider creating an Advisory Board that will meet quarterly or twice a year and asking this donor to chair it. Then, every time s/he says, “Why don’t you . . .” you can say, “That’s a great topic for the next Advisory Board meeting: please put it on the agenda.” As the biggest challenge of operating an Advisory Board is having something for people to talk about (so they don’t feel their time is being wasted), suddenly your annoying donor becomes a font of useful topics.
It’s not worth creating an Advisory Board solely for this purpose. But if you have government officials whom you need to butter up, or long-time Board members you want to move out of the way, or a number of donors whose advice you find intrusive, this may be the way to go.
As for redirecting the advice: remember that old children’s saying “I’m rubber, you’re glue, everything you say sticks back to you”? When I was an Executive Director, the thing that annoyed me most about advice was that it came prefaced with, “Why don’t YOU. . . ?”, concerning which my attitude was, “I’m already working 100 hours a week–if you want that done, why don’t YOU do it?” Try responding to the donor’s suggestions with a polite version of that: “I’m not sure how that would work; but if you’d write up a proposal I’d be glad to take a look at it [OR have the Board/fundraising office/program staff take a look at it].”
One of two things will happen: either the donor will write up a proposal and you’ll have a chance to see if it’s one of the rare good ideas or just more hot air; or the donor will be taken aback at being expected to do some work instead of just blathering, and will think twice before opening his/her trap again. Either way, you win.
If the donor gets affronted and says, “I don’t have time for that!” you can just smile and say, “Of course, we’re all extremely busy,” and let him/her draw the necessary conclusions about the utility of advice that doesn’t come with executive muscle attached.
Readers: What’s your beef? What drives you craziest about trying to manage your agency or serve on its Board? Is it the bully who won’t let anyone else speak? The budgeting that features revenue everyone knows you won’t get? E-mail your problems to the Nonprofiteer, subject line “Where’s the beef?” and she’ll solve them for all the world to see.