Accepting Donations Is Increasingly Complicated Business

While I have written about this before, of late it seems that the decision to accept a donation from someone is increasingly one requiring deliberation. An article on The Conversation lays out a case for either having a morals clause or time limits on any donation that involves naming rights.  Citing the number of non-profit arts, cultural and educational institutions who have refused to accept donations from the Sackler Family due to their ownership of opioid maker Perdue Pharmaceuticals, author Terri Lynn Helge notes it is easier to refuse a donation than to refund one.

As a nonprofit law scholar, I have seen that it’s much harder to sever prior arrangements with donors embroiled in scandals than it is to stop taking money from donors who are the object of public outrage.

[…]

When these scandals strike, charities face a dilemma – keep the money given by the now-tarnished donor or return the tainted funds. But returning the funds may be easier said than done.

Once the money is given away, it’s committed to charitable use. Returning that money just because the donor’s reputation is now sullied may get the charity in trouble with state regulators.

Helge mentions donations from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby as cases where organizations began to experience negative perceptions of their brand and were faced with refusing a donation or making public statements distancing themselves from the donors.

Increasingly these are issues non-profits of any size need to consider as they accept and recognize donations from a variety of sources. Both returning the donation and grinning and bearing the bad publicity can be equally bad options:

They can give the money back, perhaps with interest. They can suspend programs or professorships named after the donors whose names have become an embarrassing burden, perhaps with threat of litigation from the donor for not fulfilling the charity’s end of the bargain. Or, they can continue to maintain the donor’s name and face public outrage.

[…]

Once the cost of doing nothing gets too high in the long run, charities may implement costly options to terminate the association.

That is why in my view, museums and other recipients of the drug-making family’s philanthropy could eventually redirect their donations. But that won’t happen until what they lose by honoring Sackler gift agreements becomes more exorbitant than satisfying all of the anti-Sackler movement’s demands.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

Who Knows The Problem Best, Makes The Decision

Recently over at Nonprofit AF, Vu Le talked about the problem of decision fatigue experienced by executives and other leaders. He mentions that his organization has been using an alternative decision making process called Advice Process though he doesn’t like that name and suggests,

Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL)

[…]

In the FINAL decision-making process, whoever is closest to the issue area is the person who makes the decision, provided they do two things: Check in with people who will be affected by their decision, and check in with people who may have information and advice that might help them make the best decision.

The web page Vu links to explaining the Advice Process makes it clear this is not consensus building.

It is a misunderstanding that self-management decisions are made by getting everyone to agree, or even involving everyone in the decision. The advice seeker must take all relevant advice into consideration, but can still make the decision.

Consensus may sound appealing, but it’s not always most effective to give everybody veto power. In the advice process, power and responsibility rest with the decision-maker. Ergo, there is no power to block.

Vu lists a number of benefits to this approach including cultivating an environment where there is better decision making, critical thinking and relationship building. He also says employees feel more empowered and supervisors’ role in the relationship is more focused on coaching and support.

He also admits there is definitely a learning curve that requires trust, restraint, tolerance, and permission to fail as a result of poor decision making. He mentions it can occasionally be difficult to discern with whom decision making should reside and there are some decisions just too big to be made by one person.

There is also the issue that some people and organizational cultures may not be in a place to adapt to this approach. Shifting from a familiar dynamic is not always easy and people want to maintain known roles.

One of the commenters, A Nia Austin-Edwards, shared an anecdote about an organization whose executive director ceded decision making in a similar manner. The staff wasn’t educated and prepared in the process and consistent coaching wasn’t provided to guide the staff. This was exacerbated by some traumatic organizational history.

But overall this may be something your organization might want to consider adopting. Some of the burn out staff may experience may be attributable to a feeling a lack of control and authority within the organization–that they are subject to the whims of others whose motivations they don’t understand. A structure that allows people to become more involved in decision making may help alleviate some of that.

“Change Starts From Within” Means You

Cyndi Suarez wrote a piece for Non-Profit Quarterly that bears considering as non-profit organizations make an effort to have the demographics of their staff and boards better reflect that of the communities they serve.

In writing about the challenges faced by people of color entering organizations predominantly staffed by Caucasians, she notes, (my emphasis)

“…they’re expected to both bring a particular value as a person of color and fit into the dominant culture. This puts the person in what one described as being at odds with “the truth in my heart.” The organizations don’t expect to have to change, and it’s extremely difficult for these people of color to address the challenges from within the organization, in isolation from others like themselves or any other support.”

Seems a little silly doesn’t it given how often the phrase, “change starts from within,” is blithely thrown around?

While I have heard discussions about the disconnect between wanting to expand involvement and participation by groups without considering that it will mean changing things about the organization, I hadn’t considered that the following problem also exists:

“…even though that person of color is a symbol of the potential change that often ushers in the money, she usually has no decision-making authority over how that money is used, and it is rarely presented as a budget at her disposal. Or, even worse, as with Carlos, the person is expected to take the lead in identifying the money himself.”

An organization in the initial phases of trying to expand involvement and participation may not be in a place to put a new hire in direct budgetary control of funding, but there should be consideration of creating a strong relationship between the funding and the scope of the new hire’s responsibility/decision making in its use.

Suarez makes other worthwhile observations about the changing dynamics in the work place in her piece. These are the ones that primarily jumped out at me.

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