#162 Sybil Speaks: Philanthropy Success Stories and Blunders to Avoid

charitable donors effective donor philanthropy season 3 Jan 15, 2024

In the Season 3 opener of the Do Your Good podcast, Sybil recounts the best and worst philanthropy-related stories shared from nonprofit leaders and donors. Sybil will also share her top 3 dos and don'ts for donors. In this episode we will distill key lessons from the stories shared about philanthropy mistakes and also review success stories that can support donors in making a true impact through their giving.


Episode Highlights:

  • The top 3 most important things you can do as a donor. 
  • The top 3 blunders you can avoid as a donor.


Sybil Ackerman-Munson Bio:

With over 20 years of experience as a nonprofit professional and foundation advisor, I work with philanthropic institutions and foundations interested in successful, high-impact grantmaking so that you can make a real and lasting positive contribution to the world on your terms.




If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:





Crack the Code: Sybil’s Successful Guide to Philanthropy

Become even better at what you do as Sybil teaches you the strategies and tools, you’ll need to avoid mistakes and make a career out of philanthropy.

Sybil offers resources including free mini-course videos, templates, checklists, and words of advice summarized in easy to review pdfs.    

Check out Sybil’s website with all the latest opportunities to learn from Sybil at https://www.doyourgood.com

Connect with Do Your Good


Would you like to talk with Sybil directly?

Send in your inquiries through her website https://www.doyourgood.com/ or you can email her directly at [email protected].


Hello everybody. 

Welcome to season three of Do Your Good. I am so happy to be here and to continue giving you wonderful, fun, and interesting content on being the best funder and philanthropist possible.

So, for this season, I like to focus on things during a season, so for this season, my focus is … I have asked my nonprofit friends. I've asked them about their best and worst experiences in fundraising with donors. Can you tell us your stories? Please tell us your stories so I can air them on my podcast, and then I can unpack them and talk with you, all my loyal donor donors who are listening to this podcast every week and trying to be the best philanthropist and donor you can be. 

How can I use these real-life examples to help us all be better funders and contribute to the cause we care about? So, the theme this season is that I'm pulling out some of these keys. And then I'm leaning into specific issues my nonprofit friends have told me about.

I sent out a questionnaire to my e-mail subscribers who self-identified as people who represent nonprofits, and I asked them, "Can you tell me your best and worst stories?" And if you're a nonprofit leader listening to this, that survey is still open. You can still fill it out if you haven't already. And who knows? I might even profile your story on a future podcast in season three.

So, check out the link in the show notes. I'm also, just so you know, really careful because there are some hard stories that people share, stories where they're pretty upset over the donor or the foundation that asked them to do certain things. It just didn't seem to be productive. 

And so, just know that I'm trying to be very careful. Keep things anonymous, and I want to make sure that we're all above board and genuinely thinking about the mistakes as opportunities for learning to be the best funders we can. I'm not a gotcha kind of person. 

And so, just so you know, especially my nonprofit friends, as you are opening up and telling me about some of the challenges that all preserve this kind of good-natured way of thinking about the donor bloopers. I call them. So that we can all be the best we can be in the future. But we have to look through our mistakes and look at our mistakes to be better. The future, so what's this all about? 

All right, so the survey was really interesting. I got many comments from nonprofits about the best and worst experiences. I pulled out a few key things and learnings I wanted to bring up today. Then, I want to pull out some of the quotes so you can get a flavor of what I'm talking about and talk to you about how we will unpack all of the key themes, mistakes, and the best things. Also, what have donors done over this entire year?

So, the top three best things you can do as a donor to get invited to the party are ONE) to streamline your application process. Please do your research and ask educated questions of the nonprofit leaders about their work. Get the bare minimum necessary to donate, but don't go overboard. So that's the first of the top three best things. 

TWO) Be humble if you want more detail on an issue beyond what the nonprofits tell you, higher and intermediary. That's an expert in your field and knows how to navigate tricky relationships between funders and nonprofits.

OK, if you're not already an expert on the issue, be humble and ask for help, and we'll talk about how and why that's important in a minute. But that's the second one. 

The THIRD one is to be transparent; be as open as possible with a nonprofit about why they did or did not get a donation from you. Only be secretive for three reasons.

One, you're concerned for your or your family's safety, or two, you don't want your friends and family to know about your wealth. You want to be treated like a regular person, so you're working through an intermediary and want that person or organization to receive inquiries instead of your donations.

So those are the top three best things. You can do it as a donor; I got these from my nonprofit—friends who sort of talked to me about the real-life stories. 

OK, so first. The top three things—let's repeat—are to streamline your application process, be humble, and be transparent. OK, the top three worst things you can do as a donor are: don't be the one who gets the eye roll.

ONE) bury the nonprofit and busy work. You ask for information you don't need or don't even review. And if you organize in-person site visits for a project, don’t even plan to fund it.

So, you spend a lot of time asking people to spend a lot of time, and then you just don't fund it. The SECOND one: you think you're an expert. You have a strong opinion based on web research or books and articles you've read that you don't have any professional experience in the cause. Your funding, and then? You go in, and you boss around the nonprofit leaders about what you think is the best course of action. Even though you don't have personal experience, that's the second thing you shouldn't do. You think you're an expert when you're not.

THREE, you're secretive. You leave a nonprofit in the dark about why they're rejected or ghosted or give them a large donation. But you don't offer prep work. Don't do the prep work to set the stage for that gift. That can still be a challenge. All right.

So. Let me just do a top-level repeat of the worst. Things you can Do as a Donor: one buries the nonprofit and is busy. Work. You think you're an expert when you're not. That's the second one. Then, the third one is that you're secretive. 

OK, I created this free and fun course, and it's on my website. I have the link to it in my show notes that get into even more detail about staying out of it. What I call a funder bubble is where you don't get the truth from nonprofits because you're just not acting in a way that gives you the inside scoop. You're just sort of doing things where you think you're right and you're not. You're getting the job done. You're. You are standing in your way. So, check that out. The link is again in my Show notes.

But let's get into this more by the focus of season 3. 

All right, here are the top three things I think you should focus on to do well as a donor. And then there are the top three worst things you can do as a donor. And these were based, as I said, on my research for this season, season 3. 

All right, let me pull out some of the great quotes that I got from my nonprofit friends. Who did fill out the form? Forum and told me their best and worst experiences. 

This one is from Will, he says. The amount of information requested from the foundation of this foundation that he is talking about—we keep the foundation name anonymous as part of our application—was absurd—exclamation point. We had to answer more than 25 questions about our project. Complete a special input. The foundation provides activity outputs and outcomes. Submit our project and organization budgets using a special template I like, and I am losing my breath just going through. The foundation provides a special template, and our Executive Director and Board President submit and sign an executive certification document. This is all in addition to audited financial statements, board and staff lists, and our IRS determination letter. 

On the other hand, we recently submitted a proposal to another well-known national foundation, the process of which was simple, straightforward, and accommodating of small nonprofits that may not have the time and resources to devote to lengthy and involved application processes; this foundation even followed up on our submission with a short survey attempting to gauge the amount of time needed and the information requested compared to other funders, clearly in an attempt to streamline the process of making funding available to a more diverse set of grantees, I love that. Thank you. 

I've just reached out to Will. I will interview him for my podcast. We can talk about this more. But Will reflects something that many nonprofits talk about: the desire to give donors. Information about what they're doing. But when it gets too much, it takes away from the nonprofit's productivity, and the nonprofit leaders themselves start to quest.

And, like, is the foundation using all this information? Is it necessary? Do they even trust us to get the job done? That kind of thing? So, I'm looking forward to talking to you. What about this? Have you heard about the conversation? 

Here's another one I thought you'd love to hear: a story from Natalie. OK, and so let's talk about this. 

So, Natalie talks about her best experience: a female donor found us through our work on plastic pollution. After meeting us, she decided to fund two campaign-type roles for two years, supporting us with core staff funding and allowing us to get on with what we do best, which was the best kind of philanthropy experience we've had. She is Psyched about this, Natalie.

However, the worst experience for her was that a tech entrepreneur supported us with a large donation to develop our tech platform. He wanted to be. We are involved in weekly meetings. And steer how the project was delivered and was unwilling to listen to why. We wanted to do it. It's our way first before doing anything—his way. We're hugely grateful for his financial support, and the weekly involvement of a big character in managing his expectations put a lot of stress on the team. 

OK, so I'm sure there are reasons why the entrepreneur wanted to lean in, but there were challenges that Natalie brought up in this quote. I will interview Natalie for my podcast, trying to unpack this in her experience—her best and worst experiences, and even more.

OK, here are some of the things I will focus on based on the submissions I've gotten so far, and again, be sure if you're a nonprofit leader and you're listening to this, and you want to submit, I've got the link to the submission form in my show notes. Submit an example of the best and worst experiences you've had with donors, and I will hopefully be able to talk about it. I really, really would be excited to hear from you. Anyway, here are some of the themes I've picked up from my submissions so far and my experience supporting clients and donating to wonderful nonprofits. Alright, and then talk about how, as a donor, you can offer productive advice to nonprofit leaders. I'm going to unpack this. I will offer you some fun and interesting quotes and experiences from nonprofits. 

I will interview nonprofits about how they've experienced this in a good and bad way. You heard some of the quotes I mentioned earlier, but we'll get into them. I'm. I am going to talk to you. Natalie, especially very soon, about all this anyway.

So, I will talk to you about how to offer productive advice to nonprofit leaders. I will talk to you about asking for relevant information that doesn't create busy work for nonprofits. I will discuss bringing other donors to your cause without marginalizing yourself. I'm also going to discuss how to be effective at supporting nonprofits to work collaboratively. 

Together, without exacerbating any relationship problems that these nonprofits might already have, I will talk to you about how to ask for help from an expert—intermediary when you need it. You can be the best funder to move the needle on a cause you care about in the best way possible. 

I will also talk to you about how you recognize when you've overstepped and caused more harm than good. What are the warning signs there? We will discuss when to be present when to be anonymous as a donor, and how to do it well.

I also want to discuss navigating conflict and disagreement among your favorite nonprofit leaders without exacerbating the problem. Importantly, it would be best if you didn't fall victim to the belief that there's a silver bullet to a major problem. 

And if it's just discovered. Then we'll just say everything will be rainbows and unicorns tomorrow. Nonprofits, my nonprofit friends, continue to tell me that they're frustrated about this. Us as donors. What we do is read a bunch of articles. Well, we'll hear that there is a specific solution to this major societal problem, and we'll go to the nonprofit and ask, why aren't you doing XYZ? Let's say we'll give you much money if you do XYZ. As you can probably guess, the nonprofit and nonprofits are working on this issue. And they know that there's no silver bullet. There is rarely a silver bullet. And if it's a long-term issue, it's one that you have to keep working on year after year. 

And so, I'm going to discuss how we, as funders—you know, we get excited about stuff because we want to see solutions. But how can we discuss the solutions in the context of the issue where, so often, the issue is long-term, the solutions aren't short, and how do we ensure we can align our interests and why we're excited about the issue? With the nonprofits' interest in working on this issue, Over the long haul,

So how can we do that? Well, so I'm going to interview people about the key things. Think about it. That we can make these relationships go well. And the list will continue to develop over the year as I get more and more submissions, so please submit. I've said the word submission ten times in this episode. 

Anyway, I want to thank everyone who gave me their input. I'm doing active interviews right now for this podcast series. And the way it will be is very similar to season 2, where I will do a Sybil speak at the beginning of a specific theme. Let's say I will have a theme about how to offer productive advice to nonprofits. 

So, they will, Sybil, speak specifically about how to do this. Then, I'm going to interview both nonprofit folks and donors about how to do it well, talk about the mistakes that people have made and the bloopers, as I call them, and how we can overcome that in the future.

And then I'm also going to have a friend, and Sybil speaks about the particular theme. Also, you all have told me that you really like my conversations with my husband, and I love them, too. They're really fun. So, I'm enlisting him again for this. 

So, I just hope you all have a wonderful day and that you're thinking carefully about how to be a good donor. And I hope this season will be as fun for you to listen to as it will be for me to create; I love that I'm now combining my nonprofit friend's stories. With the donor interest, you all, as donors, have an interest in being the best funders possible.

I've had a lot of fun talking with my nonprofit friends about this. They want to talk about it. They want to be like, oh my gosh, I had such a bad experience, or, Oh my gosh, I. I had such a great experience; let me tell you about it. And that's all about bringing in my nonprofit friends, donors, and listeners and making us the best we can be. I think they are. You know this already. But I do want to remind you. That is me. I now have 18,000 e-mail subscribers, which is awesome, so I don't want you to forget if you haven't already subscribed to my e-mail list.

Please do so. I also have the link to that in my show notes. I also do if you're a nonprofit person considering listening to this. I have monthly training to help you hone your pitch. They're free, and you can sign up for those. My website is Well, and it links to all the stuff in my show notes. All right, everybody. Have a great day. And until next time, do well. Be good. I will talk to you soon.