Giving Donors Power

After I first wrote about GiveWell, Holly of NTEN wrote a post complaining about the “tone” of the writing on the GiveWell blog. I myself had noted the “level of scorn” in the writing style and mentioned that it might turn some people off. But I also said it didn’t matter if people didn’t like the tone. The GiveWell blog is written by donors and nonprofits have to deal with the donors they have.

Holly dropped me a comment on Friday and since I had taken her to task for her original post, I am reposting her comment in full:

You’re right. Saying that your clients suck is not a nice thing to do – but I meant it tongue in cheek. Let me explain why and try to shift this debate around.

The issue for me is NOT that anyone is questioning Network For Good. I think that one of the most powerful things about new media is that so many people CAN question the sector and its players – forcing more transparency and accountability. I honestly appreciate it in my own work – it makes me better at what I do and I learn something new every day.

What I object to is having that conversation in an inflammatory, irresponsible way. The post that we’re talking about does not atcually ask any questions, it publishes assertions. And that’s disrespectful. So I decided to title my post in the same tone and manner.

Here’s the thing I think is most important to remember. Organizations are NOT going to become more open and accountable if they feel attacked. If that post had been framed as "5 questions for Network for Good" instead of being titled "Network for what now?" and if the content had been less inflammatory, it would have been an excellent overature to conversation. As it was, I think Katya was extremely gracious in how she responded, and gave folks more than they deserved in response.

It cuts both ways. If you want nonprofits to be more responsible to donors, donors have to communicate responsibly.

I appreciate Holly’s comments, but the fact is nonprofits have to be responsible to donors no matter how donors behave. There may be rare cases where a nonprofit decides to refuse to interact with an unruly donor, but for the most part nonprofits have to treat donors like businesses treat customers (“the customer is always right”).

I have to admit to my own lack of truly “getting” this concept. Last week, Jeff Brooks at Donor Power Blog wrote a post titled “If we don’t give donors power — they can take it”, to which I left a comment voicing my agreement. However, Matthew Monberg of Beyond Giving correctly scolded Jeff and me:

The concept of "giving donors power" strikes me as backwards. They are the ones with the power in the first place!

Marnie Webb of ext337 left a note on this blog pointing out that donors have always been saying negative things about nonprofits. Social media tools just allow those comments to be more visible. I think that rather than telling GiveWell to change their tone, nonprofits need to realize that being aware of donors’ feelings is a good thing. If you don’t like the what you’re hearing, find ways to give your donors what they want.

Somehow I keep picturing a waiter in a restaurant telling a customer who is complaining about the meal, “Sir, if you can’t complain nicely, I’m not going to serve you any more”. And then the diner leaving the restaurant and never coming back.


  1. Holden says:

    Let’s not let it be lost in all this that my post WAS obnoxious in tone.

    I do like the idea of a license to be that way, but I don’t like the idea that just because I’m a donor, the people I complain to should never call me out or criticize me. Criticism leads to improvement, in both directions. Criticizing the customer may sound weird, and certainly unfamiliar … I’m going to try to make a better case for it in The GiveWell Blog soon.

  2. Phil says:

    The customer is always right, until the transaction is over, then she returns to her own cubicle as a customer relations specialist and takes abuse from a customer in her turn. You have to ask if this “customer/provider” dyad is not in itself a strange way for citizens of a free society to bow to one another. How do we recover the language of common effort, of solidarity and peership in a good cause?

  3. Holden says:

    That’s a great question.

    Why not start with the nonprofit sector, where marketers and “customers” are on the same side?