Philanthropy & Trust

Flaw #5 from the Project Streamline report:

Simply put, many nonprofits believe that foundations do not trust them, and they interpret the burdens of application and reporting as evidence of that distrust. Trust emerged as an important theme in nonprofit interviews and focus groups, particularly when fundraisers and executive directors contrasted foundation fundraising with individual donor solicitation. When working with individual donors, nonprofits fundraise through relationships. Donors typically put their faith and money in the organization based on a series of conversations and materials that the organization already has on hand, such as annual reports and brochures. Nonprofits commented that, compared to individuals, foundations are not always worth the effort. The difference, they hypothesized, has to do with trust.

According to a development officer from a large, international nonprofit organization, “Sometimes, I feel like program officers look at me as a used car salesman—like I’m smarmy. I wish there were a little more compassion.” And, indeed, foundations do regard development staff with suspicion. As one small foundation representative stated, “We don’t work with fundraisers… development staff are salespeople.”

Fundraisers ARE salespeople! There’s nothing wrong with selling, but it is incredible important when you deal with someone that you understand their objectives and incentives. In the for-profit marketplace, companies have an “investor relations” department. These groups still want to paint a nice picture of a company, but it is not so much their job to raise money as it is to answer investors’ questions. I’ve predicted in the past that a similar role will evolve at nonprofits.

But that being said, I do think it is important to trust your grantees. Don’t trust everyone and anyone, but if you refuse to give money to anyone you do not trust, you will be left with a handful of organizations that you do trust. In Grassroots Philanthropy, Bill Somerville talks about trust as one of the single most important issues in the nonprofit/grantee relationship.

If as a funder you do not trust the people you interact with at a nonprofit, walk the other way. There’s over a 1,000,000 other nonprofits you can look at instead.

Note: I want to elaborate on my statement that fundraisers are salespeople. Fundraisers get compensated to bring money into their organization. Not to assist donors in their grant decision making process. Now great fundraisers might reframe their role as a trusted advisor to their donors (just as many great salespeople do), but that doesn’t change the structure of the fundraising profession.


  1. Sam says:

    I feel deeply that words and semantics are extremely important. With that in mind, I want to offer that being “salespeople” might be the exact reason why POs – and donors alike – don’t trust development staff.

    What if, instead, fundraisers were knows as the Great Story Tellers of an organization? Because, after all that’s really what they are doing. They are the message-bearer, the one responsible for relaying the impetus of the organization.

    And while, to use an analogy, everyone in the village (the organization) is responsible for knowing and sharing the story, it’s the Great Story Teller that we all eagerly gather around the campfire to hear.

    Sure, it’s cheesy. But it’s at least a little better than the images that spring up with “salesman.”

  2. I agree completely. An authentic story teller doesn’t just “sell a story”, they tell the truth (warts and all). But as long as nonprofits judge development staff based on how much they raise, then they will be salespeople. But they can make great strides by framing themselves the way Charles Collier at Harvard does (as a trusted advisor to his donors). I don’t mean “frame” the same way a politician might use “spin”. I just mean understanding your place in the world as a storyteller, rather than as someone trying to get a donation.

  3. young staffer says:

    The development staff members I’ve felt the most awkward around (and, consequently, the least trusting of) are those I felt don’t appreciate that foundation staff members see themselves differently from how donors see themselves. Especially when the POs come from working in nonprofits and in the community, it’s awkward if you feel your being given the royal treatment or sold a slick pitch. That’s just not how you see yourself. POs may have spent time in the trenches and may not be particularly wealthy themselves; I think they empathize most with the people doing the work. Some of the kinds of things that appeal to an individual donor – the special tour, the slick pitch – are feel really far from the reality POs experienced working on the other side. So showing them only that side of an organization feels “off” to them.

    I think a good PO recognizes that a development staff member is doing their job by giving the salespitch. And certainly they’re not expecting to be treated as “peers” of an organization they’re considering funding. But recognizing that they were, perhaps for a while, as peers goes a long way.