Your Supporters Know Things You Don’t. Ask Them.
One of the most dangerous pitfalls for nonprofit organizations is in coming to believe their internal narratives so much that they stop thinking about how their actions will strike outsiders.
It’s a natural human tendency. We keep ourselves motivated with pep talks about our intentions. We tell ourselves we’re doing the right thing. We believe in our choices…because if we didn’t, we would have made different ones.
But as organizational leaders, if we don’t reality-test these beliefs on a regular basis, the results can be devastating.
And yes, since you asked: I’m speaking from experience.
This year’s poster child was Susan G. Komen Foundation. Not only did the Komen leaders who drove the anti-Planned-Parenthood agenda within the organization grossly misunderstand their core constituency…they were blinded enough by their belief in what they wanted to do that they didn’t even bother to ask.
Susan G. Komen’s decision to cut off support to the United States’ largest nonprofit provider of women’s reproductive health services triggered a ferocious storm of protest from its supporters. The organization then worsened the problem by digging in its heels: Susan Handel, the Senior VP of Public Policy, told Komen’s upset donors and volunteers to “cry her a river”.
Whoops…no more Senior VP of Public Policy.
Within a few months, with brand and donor base in ruins, CEO Nancy Brinker was also gone, with the two board members most involved with her terrible mistake. But by that time, decades of goodwill, brand development, donor loyalty and capacity building had simply evaporated.
Without diving into the guts of this particular fiasco, there is a general point: don’t make assumptions about the perspectives or opinions of your support base.
Ask them. Regularly.
Make sure they feel included in the development of your goals and strategies. They aren’t mindless batteries for your engine: they are human beings who are voluntarily rowing the craft you are steering. If they decide to stop rowing, you’re dead in the water.
When you sit down with your major donors and volunteers, be sure to spend a few minutes soliciting their opinions about your organization’s trajectory, goals and strategies. Float those new ideas you and the board have been kicking around about changes to strategies or programs. Make sure they hear nothing significant about your organization second-hand. Be the first to talk with them about the Big New Thing.
With your broader support base, use free online polling tools like SurveyMonkey to gather perspectives about your organization’s priorities, positioning, and program goals.
The benefits of doing this are twofold. One may not be obvious.
First, the benefit for you as a leader is a healthy dose of reality from outside the bubble of your daily operations. Any competent strategic planning consultant will tell you that you can be the most effective executive in the world, but you still can’t see what your enterprise looks like from the outside. It’s impossible. Reality checking is a gift your donors and supporters are happy to provide…if you ask them.
Secondly, the very fact that you asked speaks volumes.
Your supporters are generous with their time, money, relationships and skills. They care deeply about your mission and they are believers in your approach to achieving it. Even if they have nothing to say about how they would do things differently, the fact that you asked shows them the respect they deserve. They own a share of your effort. Having a voice is a critical transactional component of their participation.
So ask them what they see. Ask them about the new direction you’ve been discussing with your board. Ask them what they think is missing from your programmatic approach.
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