What Donors Want Vs. Org Capacity To Provide

Today Margy Waller posted a link to an opinion piece from the Chronicle of Philanthropy with that comment that the piece was not satire. While the piece was apparently posted in June, a version of it appeared in print last week.  Yesterday Vu Le made a post that was indeed satire as it poked fun at the opinion piece without naming it directly. I just happened to see both pieces within minutes of each other.

In the original, Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization Theodore Wagenaar makes various criticisms about how slowly organizations respond and acknowledge donations. In one case, he suggests an email immediately upon receipt. He also says groups are slow to respond when asked about how money will be used.

In his post, Why I’m no longer donating to your no-good, very bad nonprofit, Vu Le basically says given the lack of resources and personnel, effectively delivering services to those in need and handling donor communications and paperwork are close to mutually exclusive.

I have been very disappointed to say the least. Some nonprofits don’t respond at all. Some wait excessively long periods of time before getting back to me. One time I had to wait a whole month like an animal for a handwritten thank-you note. Another organization received a huge grant from another donor, and I expected them to know immediately how that money would affect their operations, and more importantly, how it would affect me.


Be prompt in your responses: Whenever you get a donation, make sure to immediately stop whatever you’re doing, such as helping a child find food during the summer or saving democracy or whatever your mission is, and make sure the donor feel properly thanked.


Be transparent how you use donations: Every donor has a right to know down to the penny how and when their money was used and toward what end. What percentage of my donation was used on electricity? Did some of this money go to staff pay? If so, which staff, how much, and what did they spend this portion of their wages on? I hope it’s not caviar or fancy CD players, because I don’t want my money going to those things.

That first paragraph above was in response to the following in Wagenaar’s piece:

For example, one of the organizations I support received a multimillion-dollar donation from MacKenzie Scott. I expected some information about the award and how the organization would use it. I wanted to know if I should redirect or reduce my contribution to ensure it did the most good or went where the need was greater, but nothing materialized. I contacted the director but never heard back.

Six months later, I shared my disappointment with the director and said I would temporarily stop donating. That led to a discussion about the reasons for the delay, why it was important to share this information with donors, and a resumption of my support. Had I not followed up, I would have likely stopped donating.

The next few parts of Le’s post that I quoted seem aligned with this:

Be transparent about where donations go. Donors want to hear how their funds will be used. Share immediate plans for the donation when it’s received, and later explain where it ended up and the impact it had. This might include information such as the number of meals delivered, types of assistance provided, how many schools received funding, and more…

I fund several college scholarships for low-income students. I want to know who received the scholarships and the amounts. I don’t want my donation to displace financial aid that the college would have already given. I’d rather my money provided additional aid beyond what the school allots, and I’ll donate more to scholarships that do that. I cannot, however, make that decision if the colleges don’t supply the relevant data.

Clearly, Wagenaar is deeply invested and engaged in making sure the funds he provides are being used to degree he feels is effective. He wants a degree of granularity that other people would flip past in an annual report. Some of his concerns have some validity. A lot of state lotteries were sold to citizens as supporting education, but the reality turned out to be that the lottery funds replaced what the state legislature was providing rather than being on top of state funding. He seems to have similar concerns regarding scholarships. Similarly, some non-profits are really organized in sending out their appeals on time, but aren’t as diligent with the follow up communications, even after a significant time has past.

But as Vu Le suggests, organizations don’t often know exactly how they will employ funds the moment they come in and often have a broader view of how the funds can best advance the organization’s work than donors do. As a student, yes I would have loved to have more scholarship money on top of what the school was providing. But the school can see an opportunity to provide funding for an additional person they couldn’t have before.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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