I’ve Got No Strings

Smiling older couple

Building Healthy Relationships Between Donors and Charities

No matter why a person gives to charity, the organization they support is certain to be grateful. Financial contributions are what enable charities and nonprofits to do the good work they do. When I work with people giving to charity, they often know which charities they want to support, but the bigger conversations have to do with how much and the timeliness of their gifts. One question that gets less attention is ‘why’. Rarely do people want to talk about why they support charity and make gifts. Over the years I have learned that understanding motivations for giving is an important part of developing healthy relationships between donors and the charities they support.

Motivation for Giving Matters

People give to charity for lots of different reasons. Some give because they are committed to a cause. Other people give as an expression of their faith and values. Some give to support a friend’s fundraising efforts. Others agree to make donations because it offers exposure for something else. A corporate donor may sponsor a charitable event to get their name out into the community. A large legacy donation may be fueled by aspirations of naming a building. This quid pro quo approach to giving is not inherently bad. In fact, it can be beneficial for everyone. The key is in acknowledging our motivations for giving. When we do, it is much easier to ensure the expectations of both the charity and the donor are met.

The quid pro quo approach to giving is not inherently bad. In fact, it can be beneficial for everyone. The key is in acknowledging our motivations for giving.

Giving with Impossible Expectations

Many years ago, I met with a man who was prepared to give to the charity I worked for, but only if I could guarantee that not one cent of his gift would go to overhead expenses. I explained that this was an impossible request. Every charity has costs associated with their work (paid staff, rent for physical space, operations, supplies). This man would have none of it. It had to be 100% of his gift going directly to the cause, or he would give nothing. I tried to explain that the charity I worked for ran efficiently, but that there were costs that simply could not be avoided. At a minimum we needed to process his gift and physically get it to the people running the program he wanted his gift to support. Even this conversation I was having with him was connected to supporting the cause. Nope. He wouldn’t budge. Eventually he left my office disappointed, but I simply couldn’t meet his demands.

I sat at my desk a bit bewildered at his position. His requirements for giving were out of alignment with the charity he had approached (although I doubt any charity could completely meet his demands). He wanted to be able to say that 100% of his gift was used exclusively for a very narrow portion of the organization’s overall work, even if that meant someone else would have to pay for his ‘generosity’. Looking back, I wonder if we had discussed why he wanted to give within such narrow parameters whether I would have been able to address his underlying concerns? I believe in this case, like many others, it comes down to trust.

Trust the Charity, Trust the Donor

Sometimes donors are caught up in the belief that if they don’t spell out precisely how their donation is to be used, the charity will squander the gift. However, Canadian charities are required to follow clear guidelines with respect to how they use donations. For example, if a charity identifies a specific initiative for which they would like to raise money, such as a campaign to send underprivileged kids to camp, they are obligated to use all donations collected in response to that specific appeal for the stated purpose (and specify how they will use any excess funds if donations exceed the amount they require). Even when no specific initiative is identified, charities are obligated to use donations they receive only for purposes within the charity’s stated objects.

People who give with strings attached often do so because they don’t trust the organization to use their gift well, or because their motivations are misaligned with the donation they are proposing to give. If a charity accepts a donation with conditions, the charity is obligated to meet those conditions. Charities are wise to have clear gift acceptance policies in order to avoid expectations from a donor that can’t be met.

Giving with Strings Attached

A couple I once worked with really wanted to leave an estate gift to their church, but only if the church agreed to use the gift to build a gymnasium. As they were healthy and only in their 40s, I challenged them and said, “Perhaps the church won’t need a gym when you die. Your church might be better able to use your gift for some other kind of project or outreach into the community.” However, this couple was insistent. It had to be a gymnasium, or there would be no gift. They didn’t trust their church to decide the best way to use their future donation, so what they had hoped would be an act of selfless generosity turned into holding the church hostage to their short-sighted conditions.

If a donor is questioning whether they can trust the organization to use their donation well, or if they are feeling that they are not getting what they had hoped out of donating to the cause, it might mean they need to sit down and clarify the relationship with the charity they are considering. Perhaps the charity can offer some assurance to the donor? It’s certainly a call worth making. If this conversation reveals that the values and needs of both the donor and charity are not in alignment, it might be time to give to a different charity rather than giving gifts with a bunch of strings attached.

Cut the Strings on Your Donation

Like in any relationship, trust between charities and their supporters is built through honesty and openness. Donors need to be open and clear about their motivations for giving, and charities need to be transparent about how they are using the donations they receive. With a little research and some frank communication, any misalignment between a potential donor and the charity they are considering can be identified and addressed. When starting out a relationship with a new charity, a donor might be wise to give a smaller amount and allow the charity an opportunity to prove itself. By the same token, as a donor, have some faith that the charity you want to support is doing its best to use your support wisely. Act in good faith as you give the relationship time to grow and develop. Then, you can increase your donation as you get to know the charity better.

Once a positive and trusting relationship is in place, I recommend giving to charity without any strings attached – usually this means checking the box that says, ‘to be used as most needed’. In my experience, most charities have a pretty good sense of where and how they can use the money so that it does the most good. And I think that is something all donors want in the end.

Contributed by Darren Pries-Klassen

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