Relating to Donors

February & May 2014

Thank you for the sacrifices you make of your time and energies. You are engaged in important and good work as you serve the LORD through your labors. Many lives are touched by the Kingdom work you do, often in ways you cannot fully see. Only eternity will reveal the full impact of your service.

Anabaptist Foundation partners in your charitable work by providing donors with a way to give anonymously to charities and churches. Serving as this link often involves more “behind the scenes” work than might be imagined. Our Charitable Gift Fund users tend to be serious donors who want to support charities that share their values. They want to know what their contributions actually accomplish in your organization, but often do not wish to ask you their questions directly to protect their anonymity. At their request, the Foundation often researches charitable organizations and reports back information to help donors make informed giving decisions. While AF serves as a neutral intermediary, it is in a unique position to observe how and why serious donors decide whom to support with charitable dollars. The purpose of this article is to share with nonprofit organizations some of the feedback we hear from donors, so that Kingdom partnership can be enhanced.

The term “serious donor” refers to a donor who is thoughtful and deliberate about his giving decisions. He budgets his contributions and looks for the best return on the funds he has to invest in God’s Kingdom. The term is not limited to mean a person who contributes a very large amount of money to charitable purposes, although many serious donors do fit into that category as well.

Generally the information we learn and report to donors is positive and encouraging, which is a direct reflection of your dedication and labors. From time to time, a donor feels that his concerns or questions are not adequately addressed. Donors generally give an opportunity for change, but often end up tapering down their support over a period of time while they begin to look at other giving opportunities. If a donor’s doubts about an organization’s ability, management, or values remain unresolved, he finally redirects his financial support elsewhere.

Generally, Gift Fund clients do not communicate to the charity their reasons for withdrawing financial support. They are using AF’s Charitable Gift Fund, instead of giving directly to your organization, because they wish to remain anonymous. Therefore it is unlikely they will reveal their identity by contacting you with their concerns, especially once they redirect their support. This puts you in a tough position. Unknown to you, your organization unintentionally created an offense, and lost a supporter and dollars needed for its ministry.

This article shares four suggestions for how your nonprofit organization may retain the trust of serious donors and resolve their questions. These suggestions arise from disappointments donors have experienced with conservative Anabaptist organizations. How might each of these benefit your organization?

Do What You Say, or Explain Why You Did Not

When an organization talks up and “markets” a project in its newsletter and public presentations, with touching stories of a need, steps that are being taken, and the number of dollars needed to make it all happen—and supporters respond—there is a legitimate expectation that the need is now being addressed. If, after a while, everything goes silent, the touching stories disappear, no results or updates materialize, and no explanations are offered, serious donors develop legitimate concerns about the organization’s discernment and credibility.

Don’t let that happen in your organization. Projects do not always work out as planned, but always clearly communicate. If a project falls short of expectations or fails outright, acknowledge it. Projects change in process and sometimes fail for a variety of reasons. What are “good reasons” for projects to fail? You are visionary people with God-given ambitions to do HARD things for the Kingdom’s sake, or you wouldn’t be serving on the board or working at a charitable organization. Challenges are real, and the devil actively opposes Kingdom work, placing roadblocks and hindering efforts. What are “bad reasons” why projects fail? Our nonprofit organizations are operated by fallible humans, and errors will be made. Organizations sometimes misjudge situations, miscalculate costs, overestimate their abilities, and underestimate difficulties. People in nonprofit organizations can even get lazy and fail to exercise due diligence, not catching problems that should have been foreseen or failing to acknowledge weak links until there are unavoidable and embarrassing consequences.

When something does go wrong and a project falls short or fails, we have a very human tendency to blame it on something other than our own mistakes (the devil probably gets more credit for “stopping things” than he actually deserves). But whether a project fails for “good” or “bad” reasons, donors heard you say something that did not come to pass, and that matters.

When a project fails, don’t cover it with silence. Determine why it failed and communicate clearly what you have learned. Serious donors respect sincere efforts and are very forgiving of human failures. They understand that unforeseen challenges arise in mission work and support your diligent efforts to overcome them! Many of these donors are businessmen who succeeded in business by learning from their own mistakes and failures.

Be very careful what you say you are going to do. Our people generally take you at your word and expect you to fulfill it, so don’t do all of your dreaming in the public eye. Serious donors assume your organization researches opportunities for ministry carefully before plunging in. It is good organizational discipline to develop a written plan in which you consider the experiences of others who have attempted the same types of projects and create a realistic budget. Evaluate your ability to perform—do you have the manpower and skills? Avoid the hasty decisions, poor planning, or weak execution that can undo good intentions.

Our people listen and remember, so be very careful what you print in your newsletter. Choose carefully who speaks in public on your behalf. Not all passionate supporters can effectively communicate your organization’s goals to the public. Sometimes, when they run out of things to say, they keep talking and communicate more than you intended. To keep your public message aligned with what your board of directors has approved, prepare “talking points” that outline what your speakers should and should not say in public presentations.

Without dreamers and visionary leaders, your organization stagnates, so value these people. But surround them with practical realists to keep the organization from promising things it will likely under-deliver. Don’t carelessly over-promise on a vision. Instead, put vision through a disciplined planning and budgeting process before it is publicly communicated.

Exercise Sound Stewardship in your Spending

Why might serious donors think your organization is exercising poor stewardship?

Sometimes, donors believe your organization spends money too freely. A donor once remarked, “Those men are spenders.” His personal knowledge of the habits of board members colored his opinion of the organization they served. Some organizations have spent themselves into a hole and then solicited the conservative Anabaptist business community for funds to pay off the resulting debts. This does not go over very well.

Sound stewardship involves learning how to forecast costs, control expenses, and live within a budget. Conservative Anabaptist businessmen have expressed deep frustration with nonprofit organizations which don’t seem able to do those three things consistently. Serious donors are generally careful stewards. As a board member or administrator at a nonprofit organization, you must serve as a careful steward of the Kingdom resources committed to your care.

Surprisingly, “spending unwisely” may have a seemingly opposite meaning for some serious donors. Some donors believe that nonprofit organizations fail to spend enough money on certain important things. Again, it is helpful to remember that many serious donors are experienced, successful farmers and businessmen. They understand the long-term paybacks for investments in quality infrastructure, efficient equipment, and good processes. They know the importance of retaining qualified, long-term workers. When a nonprofit organization continually operates on a shoe-string, cuts corners, and suffers frequent turnover of key staff due to inadequate wages, some donors perceive that to be poor stewardship. In the big picture, they view that organization as likely to yield a poor return on their charitable investment and adjust their giving accordingly.

Does your organization pay fair, living wages to the people you need to continue effective ministry? Voluntary service is a noble and worthy tradition among our churches, but it is also true that some aspects of ministry are better performed by people with long-term experience, specialized skills, or the capacity to carry very heavy responsibilities. The laborer is worthy of his hire. For example, parochial school boards may express their vision for long term male leadership in the school, but then they fail to pay wages sufficient for a man to raise a family. Serious donors, who know better than to operate their own businesses that way, question whether it is wise to offer substantial support to organizations that habitually under-spend in critical areas.

Stay True to the Values of Your Constituency

Serious donors generally know what they believe, and want their charitable contributions to work in harmony with their faith, values, and practices. They notice and act upon your organization’s commitment to a shared conservative Anabaptist identity. Some organizations have to invest substantial efforts in finding new supporters because the donors they already had felt like the organization left them.

If something appears in your newsletter or public presentations, viewers legitimately assume your organization has a level of endorsement for what was shown. Every picture you print in your newsletter or show in a slide presentation, for good or ill, is a building block in your organization’s reputation. It is acceptable to show that you are ministering to people with spiritual needs, but you need to exercise care that “showing something” isn’t misconstrued as your endorsement of it. Your values and the donor’s values may actually be very similar, but you may have unintentionally caused the donor to doubt that by carelessness in what you published.

Thoughtful consideration should be given to the standards your organization holds for the conduct and dress of your staff and voluntary service workers. Sometimes organizations rely on the conscience and good judgment of their workers, but, in reality, much of the staffing, especially in our mission organizations, is comprised of young volunteers who are in the earlier stages of their walks with God. Just like the rest of us, they need help and counsel to shape attitudes, actions, and behaviors. Serious donors will make judgments about your organization based on how your staff dress and conduct themselves, and have, in the past, withdrawn financial support from organizations because of the way the staff were dressed or portrayed in newsletter pictures. These donors don’t expect everyone to adhere to their own personal or church standards, but they do have an expectation that a conservative Anabaptist organization will present a conservative Anabaptist testimony, in whatever place it is ministering or regardless of the type of work it is doing. If your staff or organization are heading in a direction that does not reflect the values of your supporters, either work at reforming your direction or determine to be honest in your presentations and understand that financial consequences may result.

Serious donors understand and give allowances for cultural differences in application of Scriptural principles in foreign missions, especially if you make an effort to help them understand national customs. Good explanations of cultural differences may give donors a healthy appreciation for the challenges you face and the efforts you are making. However, serious conservative Anabaptist donors notice if an organization avoids making Scriptural applications related to modesty, the headship veiling, nonresistance, teaching against divorce-and-remarriage, or the use of women in leadership positions. These donors choose to support conservative Anabaptist missions, and they are concerned when foreign mission churches appear to be more “Americanized-Protestant” than Anabaptist in nature. Evaluating any situation from a long distance is always subject to misinterpretation, so proper care must be used to communicate accurately. Donors do care about this issue and express that in their giving.

Donors also recognize and support positive trends. They express heart-felt appreciation for missions that consistently produce three things in mission churches: (a) churches that endure over time with orderly transfer of control to native leadership, (b) native leadership that perpetuates conservative Anabaptist applications and values with good teaching, and (c) churches that show an ability to retain their youth and young families. These are good and reasonable expectations for donors to have as they evaluate your programs.

Keep your Organization Fresh and Responsive

Serious donors enjoy engaging with nonprofit organizations that have a living and growing vision, and they withdraw from organizations that seem tired and faltering.

Many conservative Anabaptist organizations were founded by visionary leaders who saw a need, stepped forward, and attempted to do hard things for God. Their vision drew the support of others, and a ministry blossomed. Some of these “founding fathers” intentionally built organizations that focused squarely on the mission and infused vision into others who could perpetuate the ministry after they were gone. Other ministries came to feel, in some ways, like the ministry of a man or a small group of men, subject to their limitations and mortality. The latter organizations seem to have difficulty moving past the shadow of their founder and struggle to maintain a new vision for the organization.

Your organization may have had a founder with a good and noble vision, but is the focus now on the vision, or on the charisma of the founder? Is the mission of your organization—what you do—more visible than the people involved? It helps to keep the attention focused on the work at hand rather than on individuals.

Experience is a valuable thing, but so are new ideas and the energy to take on new challenges. Is your board of directors in touch with the constituency, or is it more of an “old boys club,” where the same men are re-elected for years-on-end without the balancing effect of younger blood? How often are new board members added? Do board members stay active in raising support for the ministry? Do your board members represent and speak with authority for their church constituencies? A good balance of experience mixed with new vision and ideas is necessary for growth and change.

Is your organization actually accomplishing change? Are your programs proven to be effective? How often do you conduct a cost-benefit analysis on an existing program to decide if it should be continued? As a very general example, relief work has been a major mission focus among conservative organizations over the last several decades. Relief work is very appropriate—in its time and place. But it is also fair to ask if your organization is actually creating solutions, or perpetuating the problem by administering handouts. A particular country where many conservative Anabaptist missions work is plagued by chronic poverty, and frequently referred to by donors as “the bottomless hole.” Supporters of these organizations are expressing some “donor-fatigue”—a weariness of giving year after year without seeing substantive changes, and they are getting more vocal about it. Again, relief work is proper in its time and place, but donors are eager to see a new vision emerge for dealing with root problems and creating sustainable change. Organizations that provide this new vision will attract the financial resources they need to implement it. Mission organizations that are perceived to be administering only handouts may see their resources diminish over time as serious donors look for a better return on their charitable investments.

Do serious donors see leadership with a vibrant vision in your nonprofit organization? Do they see an organization that continually applies Band-Aids to problems, or an organization that works on root causes? Is your vision fresh or stale?

In conclusion, a word of encouragement is much in order: conservative Anabaptists are well-equipped to do Kingdom work. Our theology is grounded in a plain reading of the Scripture and applied to real life in practical ways. Our people are nurtured up to value serving others. We are not afraid of hard work. And, very practically speaking, we have no shortage of financial resources. Nonprofit organizations that do what they say or explain why they did not, that spend wisely, that maintain standards and values, and that display vision will accomplish much for God’s Kingdom.