No! Donors can be wrong, abusive, over-demanding, distracting.

Sean Stannard-Stockton at Tactical Philanthropy has been presiding for a few weeks now over an important, well-articulated and stimulating “debate” amongst fellow bloggers on the issue of donor accountability … in this case, meaning accountability to donors. I commend him for persisting on the theme.

In a nutshell, Sean's view, shared by a number of commentators, is that “the customer is always right.” And with the Internet providing a ready platform for donors to broadcast their complaints, nonprofits had best “get over it” and learn to accommodate.

I've been tossin' and turnin' as I've read the posts on TP, trying to figure out where I stand. It's tough, because I've spent a big chunk of my checkered past advising corporate clients that, indeed, the customer is always right. And I honor donors.

But I respectfully disagree with Sean's absolute application of this principle to nonprofits and their donors. Why?

Corporations exist to satisfy their customers, from whom all profit derives. Products & services are a means to an end … extracting dollars from customers.

Nonprofits exist to serve their causes and clients. Of course donors help fuel their capability to do so, but still the donors are not the “ends” … and there's no need to treat each and every one like a prima donna when there are extenuating circumstances or other priorities to be considered.

What might be those other circumstances or priorities?

1. Donor demands for information or interaction that are wholly out of proportion to the value the donor is contributing.

ABSOLUTELY … nonprofits must be transparent, providing ample financial reporting and performance information in readily accessible form (i.e., online). A nonprofit with whom I'm quite familiar has donors giving anywhere from $25 to $10 million annually. Do they expend as much effort explaining their innards to each of these donors? Of course not. Do they respect each one, of course.

2. Serving the cause or client ranks first. Serving the donor comes second.

Particularly in small nonprofits, the priority of the one-armed-paperhanger is to pour his/her energy into the mission of the organization. And the “mission” cannot be fundraising, as important as fueling the engine is. If you're big enough to have a development office (and some are staffed in the hundreds), then of course, accountability to donors can become more robust. But when a $500 or $1,000 donor wants to backseat drive a $200,000 or $1 million nonprofit, more than consuming the resources they're putting in … no way.

3. The nonprofit and its mission and strategy came first, then the donor appeared.

What this means is: “to thine own self be true.” For better or worse, the nonprofit has chosen its goals, thought about its strategies and tactics, prioritized its use of resources. The donor either “buys” that approach or not. The donor can “shop” elsewhere. No enterprise — nonprofit or business — can be successful if it tries to be all things to all people.

Sure, the wise nonprofit leader listens and learns. But the donor isn't the “enforcer” of the nonprofit's core values or strategies; that role belongs to the nonprofit's board (and hopefully not merely because trustees might be donors).

4. Accountability is a two way street, being based upon mutual respect.

No enterprise, nonprofit or otherwise, needs to subject its employees to personal abuse, either verbal, online or otherwise. Period. Even customers recognize abusive customers … and often rise to the defense of the beleagured service rep or saleperson. Donors with bigger megaphones — be it a personal blog or a “donor site” like GiveWell — aren't necessarily smarter, more justified, better informed or more accurate. They're just louder. But a blog isn't a license, particularly when it operates behind anonymity.

Sure, these days all nonprofits must come to grips with the possibility of being publicly attacked or ridiculed over the Web, fairly or unfairly. However, by behaving honorably, faithfully and smartly pursuing their mission, and responsibly stewarding the resources they've been given, nonprofits should be meeting what most outsiders would agree is an appropriate standard. There's no need (beyond accurately and respectfully setting the record straight) to hyperventilate for the sake of every web-empowered loudmouth.

Perhaps this all sounds anti-donor. Believe me, I'm not. I usually counsel going the extra mile to satisfy the trust each donor has placed in the agency through whom they are hoping to accomplish good works.

But still, any good principle can become counter-productive if pursued in the extreme or without judgment. And “the donor is always right” is one of those principles.

Whatever your view, you'll find the debate hosted on Tactical Philanthropy stimulating. Give it a look.

Tom

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