How To Connect with Donors Even When Times Are Tough

Guest Written by Leila Fitzpatrick, Inkwise

May 1, 2023

Have you ever had to share some lousy news with your donors? Maybe one of your Board members is being investigated for fraud… Or a high-level staff member got arrested… Or any number of other cringe-worthy possibilities that demand explaining­—or at least acknowledgment.

The Importance of Communication

Fortunately, even an awkward, uncomfortable scenario has a silver lining. Because every touch point gives you a chance to remind donors of your values. And why they care about your values. So even a tough situation can be an opportunity to build a connection. And loyalty.

I recently got an email from my alma mater that prompted me to think about that silver lining. I was scanning my inbox to purge e-clutter when my cursor hovered over a message from the president of my college. The subject line oozed with a formality that reeked of scandal.

Naturally, I clicked.

Sure enough, the tone was serious, even solemn. Controversy, without a doubt. So, I kept reading. Sure enough, a Bigwig closely affiliated with the college was in what my kids would call “serious troubs.” And recent news headlines had broadcasted Bigwig’s close ties with a notorious convicted sex offender.

I’d never heard of the guy. I didn’t know he was friends with the college’s current president. I didn’t know he was affiliated with my alma mater (and a major donor, no doubt). But none of that mattered. What did matter to me was how they handled a sticky, potentially ugly, situation.

I skimmed over the lawyerly explanation of the steps the college had taken since learning about the whole mess. As I untangled the play-by-play, I uncovered the golden nugget: the president had publicly praised Bigwig for embodying the essence of the college and its values.

That one line made me pause. I read it again. The voice of some past college president, long retired, echoed in my mind, rekindling my pride in a community that nurtured my own sense of identity. I thought about the college’s values. And that’s when I realized why I care about any of it. It made me think. It made me nostalgic as I thought about my own values and how they were influenced by my time at the college. Ultimately, I felt re-connected.

How To Effectively Communicate Bad News to Your Donors

Certainly, not every negative situation warrants a communications strategy. There are times when it’s best to stay quiet and let the storm pass. You certainly don’t need to debunk every unfounded rumor and shouldn’t fuel the flames every time the haters take to Twitter. But sometimes an issue lands in the public sphere, and the best strategy is to communicate about it with your donors—or, at least, some segment of them.

Communication Builds Trust

The email from my alma mater reinforced an important tenet of donor relations: communication builds trust.

 The most important elements of a successful communications strategy don’t change when things are tough. Demonstrating transparency and honesty while reassuring your donors of your shared values and commitment to ethical practices is vital to your long-term relationship with them. So, for that reason, even sticky situations offer an opportunity to strengthen your connections.

Here’s what to remember about communicating with donors when sharing challenging news:

Trust is paramount.

Every relationship is rooted in trust, and your relationships with your donors are no different. Donors expect you to deliver honesty and transparency—along with whatever outcomes you promised—in return for their gift. Ultimately, if you erode your donors’ trust, you lose your credibility—and, likely, their dollars.

Acknowledge the situation.

As tempting as it may be to ignore the situation and pretend it’s not happening, that strategy will likely backfire. If you downplay the situation, you’ll raise suspicions when the truth comes out. Start your email by acknowledging the situation and explaining what sort of affiliation occurred. Be transparent, honest, and factual.

Reiterate your commitment to your mission—and your values.

After acknowledging the situation, it's important to reassure your donors that your organization's mission and values remain the same. Remind them why your mission matters—to them. And explain why the person’s behavior doesn’t align with your values.

Every touchpoint is an opportunity.

While it may seem like a difficult situation to navigate, even an organizational misstep can also present an opportunity. Use this time to demonstrate your nonprofit's commitment to transparency, accountability, and ethical practices. Highlight actions you have taken to address the situation and prevent something similar from occurring in the future.

 Thank your donors.

Tell your donors how much you appreciate their support. Acknowledge that their contributions are what make your organization's work possible and assure them that their support is still critical to achieving your mission. By thanking your donors and showing appreciation for their contributions, you can maintain a positive relationship and build trust with them.

How to communicate bad news with donors.
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