Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

March 21, 2011

NPR mess reflects wider pandering to donors

By Todd Cohen

Regardless of the ideological politics behind it, the funding stink at National Public Radio shows the depths to which nonprofit fundraisers will lower themselves to get a gift.

NPR fundraisers likely stained the agency’s integrity, and put its federal funding at risk, when they reportedly got caught on tape pandering shamelessly to people they believed were prospective donors.

In the political equivalent of entrapment, according to published reports, the people talking to the NPR fundraisers were not donors at all but rather conservative Republicans who are harsh critics of NPR angry that federal dollars support the airing of what they see as the radio network’s long-standing liberal bias.

Recordings of those conversations released by the fake donors helped reinforce the arguments Republicans made in winning the vote in the U.S. House last week to end financing for NPR.

The NPR fundraisers also exposed, unintentionally, a particularly ugly secret about philanthropy: Like their counterparts at NPR, far too many nonprofit fundraisers are quick to grovel to prospective donors.

Under growing pressure from their bosses to bring home the money, nonprofit fundraisers think nothing of parroting the sentiments they believe donors want to hear, regardless of whether those sentiments actually reflect the nonprofit’s mission and values.

That approach to donors takes to an inexcusable and unsupportable extreme the fundraising profession’s current hyper-focus on donors, a focus that represents an important development in fundraising.

For years, consultants and researchers rightly have urged nonprofits to better understand their donors and engage them in the organization.

But saying anything to get a donation prostitutes a nonprofit’s otherwise good work.

It also erodes the trust and credibility essential to attracting and keeping loyal donors.

The key to earning and keeping that trust and credibility lies in communication that is open, honest and authentic.

A nonprofit must be able to tell its story in a clear, candid and compelling way that connects with donors’ values and needs.

That requires understanding donors’ psychology and identity, not playing on their fears and prejudices, or gushing over their ideas, however odd they may seem.

And donors can have ideas that seem truly strange.

Yet, attracted by donors’ wealth like flies to honey, hangers-on and other supplicants neither question nor criticize those ideas.

That, in turn, tends to enable donors in believing everything they say is thoughtful and wise, including whatever random ideas happen to pop into their head unsupported by logic or reality.

By pandering to wealthy people and overlooking their sometimes peculiar personalities and ideas, nonprofits also can end up having to deal continually with donors who believe their gift gives them a license to take a leading role in shaping the direction of the organization’s policies, programs, operations and strategies.

In fact, whatever their values and ideas, or the causes they care about, most donors are people who genuinely want to do good.

The challenge in engaging donors is to respect their values and ideas, not bow down before them, while also helping donors see how the nonprofit’s vision connects with their own.

And if there is no connection at all, or even a troubling disconnect, maybe the nonprofit should not be courting the donor, however heretical that might sound to fundraising professionals whose jobs depend on meeting their annual goals.

What the NPR fundraisers seem to have forgotten in their frantic chase for donations is that actions speak loudly and can have a significant impact on other donors: Responsible and informed donors do not want to support organizations that will say anything if the payoff is a big gift.

That is an important lesson all nonprofit fundraisers should take away from NPR’s unintended exposé of philanthropy’s ugly little secret.

Philanthropic psychology

Using philanthropic and donor identity to increase fundraising will be the focus of a Philanthropy Journal webinar on March 29 featuring Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang, philanthropy scholars at Indiana University. To learn more about the webinar, and to register, click here.


  • At 8:32 PM, Anonymous Rick Cohen said…

    Very important post, Todd. I have an article coming out for NPQ on the sting aspect of this, but when I asked people I know outside of our sector for their reactions to the NPR sting, they all said, oh, sounds just like fundraisers, willing to say anything, willing to play up donors of very questionable provenance. It's a sad commentary from the public that so many people have such serious doubts about fundraisers. As much as the NPR story makes us rethink the question of stings, the nation's nonprofit fundraising trade associations should be examining how the public generated such a low image of nonprofit fundraisers.


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