#164 Sybil Speaks: Advice from Nonprofits for Donors

donor effective donor effectiveness inspired Jan 29, 2024

In this Sybil Speaks episode, Sybil shares lessons learned from nonprofit leaders about good giving strategies. Sybil talks about how to avoid the challenges brought about by donor-nonprofit power dynamics and common misunderstandings between both parties. Sybil also shares positive examples of Nonprofit-Donor relations.


Episode Highlights:

  • Common challenges faced by nonprofits and donors 
  • Positive examples of Nonprofit-Donor relations


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.




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To set the stage for season three, I interviewed three nonprofit leaders. And as you probably know, I batch my podcasts. And so I had really interesting conversations with these folks, and I will publish each full interview for the next three weeks. 

But before we do that, I wanted to do a Sybil Speaks to set the stage. Specifically, these conversations are really interesting to me. And the first thing you need to know is I sent a request to my e-mail subscribers. I have about 12,000 nonprofit leaders. And I asked them to send me their best and worst experiences working with donors and philanthropists. And I got a lot of interesting responses, and I pulled out a few folks I wanted to interview. Based on those responses. 

So, I talked to Natalie. I talked to Linda, and I talked to VU. Now, a side note, Vu. Is somebody just a leader known for talking to donors with hard truths, saying, hey, you guys, you got it? He has got a whole blog and everything. 

So, I sought him out because I wanted him on my podcast for the other two. Who are the folks from my e-mail subscriber list? And Natalie herself? She's also been a student because I have a whole training series for nonprofits, and she's just so delightful in that area. 

And Linda is someone I met through my e-mail subscriber list. 

These stories are so inspirational to me. And honestly, because I work with donors, it was hard to hear because I'm like, oh, I must have done some of this stuff, especially Vu. He said some things where I'm Like, oh no, I'm doing some of this as well, and I just really, as a donor, we need to put ourselves in those uncomfortable positions to evolve and learn constantly. We must tell ourselves it's OK to be raggedy, that we're neither perfect nor break those things down. And sort of try to think through how to improve by making mistakes. 

So, let that be said, let me just talk a bit about some of the key things these nonprofit leaders brought up that I want to unpack with you during this Sybil Speaks.

The first thing that it felt like all three of them talked about, especially Natalie and Vu, is that the most challenging experience for donors is when we, as donors, seem to use the power dynamic to try to control the outcome of their actions. Doing it without experience or knowledge of how to get there, but we think we do. We think we know how to do it, and so we get in there, we say we're going to give you a substantial donation or contribution, and we want to tell you we think we're going to give you this donation, but we are experts in XYZ. 

So, we think you should be able to succeed based on our assessment rather than the fact that you guys may think it to get there and to get success would be different if there's a different path to it; we don't, we won't give you the money if you do it the way we don't think you should do it. 

So, for example, Natalie has an example where she said she was getting funding from two donors to implement an app. Both donors had ideas about implementing that app and conflicted with each other. One of the donors had such specific ideas of how to implement the app that her staff who were doing it and were in charge of doing the work were like; this isn't going to work for us. We don't see it this way. And so, it ended up meaning that everyone was unhappy, and the donor didn't feel that the donation they gave was impactful, so they left unhappy. The staff were unhappy because they were burnt out and didn't feel they were meeting expectations. Then, the two donors contributing to the app's development weren't talking to each other. And so, they were also conflicting. 

But the nonprofit leader, Natalie, in this case, is trying to navigate between those two donors. But they weren't... They just weren't seeing eye to eye. And they didn't even know it because I don't think they were talking to each other. I'm saying all this because I just want to remind you that maybe I don't need to remind you, but I just want to say this out loud. Natalie and everyone else who's putting up these hard truths? We're purposely being anonymous. And mixing up facts just a bit, but these themes I'm talking to you just so that you don't, we can't, I don't want to, this is not an I gotcha kind of podcast. 

So, I want to talk about some of these challenges. About being like this donor. Did X you know? Because that's just. That's not productive in my mind. So anyway, I'm telling you these narratives, but remember that I am mixing them up. The facts are just a little bit. I think this narrative is a good one. For you to understand. 

So in that hypothetical, it was. It's really interesting. Because if you start unpacking it. You see that there's a whole bunch of stuff that went wrong. Donors are not talking to each other, so they're giving conflicting advice to the staff at the nonprofit that those donors care about. The power dynamic is there, so the donor is like one of the donors, at least, saying, you need to do XYZ to accomplish the task. The staff don't feel like that's the pathway to get there, but the nonprofit staff don't feel they can push back enough because they're getting the money from this person. 

Those are challenging thing when I've seen them work well. When something like. Those two key elements haven't happened. It's when. I work with. Let's say I'm. Working with other donors on a particular issue, we're all talking together as donors, so by the time nonprofits get funding. They're not hearing conflicting outcomes and needs from donors who support that cause. 

And I can't say that I did. I've done that perfectly, too. Looking back on it, that's a solution to this problem that Natalie brought. The second one, though, is the second issue. Natalie and Vu bring up a lot: is this a power dynamic challenge, and have you heard me talk about it a little in my example? There is the app development with Natalie, but she goes into another story about how she was trying to raise money. And there was this one process she went through where it was a lot of time. For her to develop the proposal and everything else. Then, she finally went to present the proposal to the donor. She said it was like going to, I don't know, royalty like she would. She walked into the room, and they said, "Now you shall be presented the donor, and like, while she was talking about it, I mean, I don't do the video portion of my podcast. I just do audio. But I could see over Zoom her shoulders tensing up while she was talking about it, and he was bringing back serious trauma. 

And she was like, we spent tons of time on this proposal. I went in and liked the presentation, but in the end, they didn't get the donation. We talked a lot about how it was that power dynamic piece. Not only is there a challenge regarding the donor trying to tell the nonprofit what to do when it may not think it's the right path, but it can't tell you, like in app development. 

But then there's also just the trauma of trying to articulate what you need as a nonprofit leader but going into a situation where the power dynamic is so strong that you can't even articulate what you think is the right way to go in a way that you think your nonprofit can effectively implement. 

Then, what ends up happening is you don't get the donation anyway, and you spend a lot of time and energy trying to move in this direction. And that's a really big deal. And you know, I look back on my experiences, and I do see one of my clients, even when I was a nonprofit person raising money, this client of mine. We sort of laugh about it now, but when I tell this person, you know, that when I first went to pitch you, it was like I'd go up in the elevator. I'd go into the office as your desk was set up. You had this big, high, tall desk, and you looked behind it, and your chairs were where you had the nonprofits like when you sit low, and so I'd be sitting down in this low-slung back chair, I am talking to you about what I wanted to do. And you'd be up there in this big desk and, even the elevator ride going up, I'd start getting increasingly nervous and come in and say, OK, here it is. Here's what we need. 

And I wasn't my full self. I didn't explain the real challenges to you - I was talking to this person... I was just trying to pitch all the. Good rather than like. Here's uh, like. Here's some stuff that may not work, and here's stuff that I think needs to work, and here let's talk together about it because the Whole way it was Set up was where you wouldn't get full truths from me about it, and so that means that's just a recipe for disaster, really In terms of the relationship and where things need to go and. 

And so that's what I heard from some of the folks I interviewed in these three interviews that I specifically had: It pulled out that power dynamic. When it can go wrong, these three folks also talked a lot about when it goes right. We had many interesting conversations here, but the theme about when it went right was when the donors looked at the nonprofit work and did their due diligence. Then, when it came down to the actual process of giving funding, they just made it as streamlined and easy for the nonprofit to do the application as possible. And I loved the stories here. Linda had a great story about how a friend referred her non-profit to a foundation that then a. Community that gave little community. It grants about $5000, which is a ton of money. For the work she's doing. 

So, it might not sound like a lot if you give a lot of money away, but it is quite significant to support somebody like Linda's nonprofit where she's supporting cancer… cancer… People who are women who are navigating cancer, breast cancer, and while they're in treatment right away. 

And so, she's trying to support these mothers and these moms. Women working women. Who are, you know, struggling with the bills because they have to go through this intensive treatment? And when she got that donation, I can't wait for you to hear my interview with her. She's just. It might have meant the world to her, and she didn't. She did have to apply. But it was a recommendation from a friend and a colleague. She still doesn't know who it is, but someone who—vouched for her organization. And that's the reason she got the grant. 

Vu talks about how one of the folks that wanted to give his organization money, they said, hey, can you just submit to us an application you wrote for somebody else? He said it took him almost no time to submit that, and he got a big grant that supported him. 

Natalie has similar stories. And so that's a way that nonprofits love to talk about this because it's when you reduce the paperwork and the busy work. You have meetings with nonprofits where they feel it's productive for them and helps them, not just you. And in another piece of these conversations, as we talked about, when is it convening or a meeting with a nonprofit productive? 

And though when a donor calls it and when they're productive is. When the nonprofit feels like they come to the meeting, they can network with other nonprofits and talk about those working on the same cause. Compare notes when. The donor that cares so much about the nonprofit is bringing other donors in who are like-minded, and they're all having a really good, open, honest conversation. 

OK, so. This is a shorter Sybil speech because I was hoping you could think about everything I'm saying here, which I know you are. Because you're listening to this and you. Care and. And tune in to the next three weeks' worth of episodes because I'll be. Talking to Natalie and Lou and Linda and we're. You are going to be unpacking these exact key issues. It's in-depth, but I love that you will hear directly from nonprofits and what they have to say and their struggles. They're open and honest conversations. All right, so have a great week, everybody. 

And please tune in in the future because, gosh, there's going to be so many good conversations. I'm going to have throughout this season, and I want you to join me in the journey. Have a Great day.