“Stay in touch.”
“Center the donor in your storytelling.”
Do you use any of these as your nonprofit development strategy? Of course, you do. And so does everyone else.
These are helpful strategies, but they aren’t going to make you stand out to your donors. Best practices aren’t exactly unique.
As organizations struggle with connecting with their donors and growing generosity, we all tend to rely on the same things. But among all the possible nonprofit development strategies, there’s one that most organizations never even touch on: radical candor.
“Radical candor” is being honest with your donors. It’s about letting them in instead of keeping them out. It’s about being completely transparent about what’s going on at your organization. Radical candor requires taking down some of the walls that separate donors from your nonprofit.
Does that sound scary? Vulnerable?
It also holds tremendous potential for nonprofits to truly connect with donors.
In an age where people crave authenticity, getting real with your donors sets you apart from the crowd of organizations vying for their attention. It can build donor trust and loyalty, plus give them the opportunity to understand your cause or organization more deeply. Trust, loyalty and understanding all drive greater generosity.
Imagine you had a friend who never seemed to have a bad day. Anytime you asked how they were doing, the answer was, “Great, so great!” Every year, they sent you a holiday letter, filled only with highlights. Whenever you saw them, not a hair was out of place.
Now imagine you found out they’d been sick or struggling with a big problem that whole time.
You might feel like you never actually knew them. Maybe you’d feel robbed of the opportunity to show them how much you care. Or, you might simply conclude they didn’t need you, or be impressed with their self-sufficiency. But you wouldn’t feel included or part of their inner circle. You’d probably never trust that, “Great, so great!” ever again.
This is what a lot of nonprofit development strategies end up doing to donors. When donors never see the nonprofit they are committed to confronting a challenge, they’re left to draw their own conclusions —that the organization didn’t need them or want them to participate. Donors might assume that your nonprofit has no problems.
“Improving the truth” cheats your donors out of being able to actually help you. It gives them a false understanding of how nonprofits work and can result in unrealistic expectations of you and any other organization they support. It cuts off their generosity before they have a chance to extend it.
As you think more critically about your your nonprofit development strategies, look for opportunities for radical candor. Can you tell more of the story? Is there something you’re not mentioning, that would actually give donors more of the big picture?
Financial transparency is an established best practice for nonprofits. You’re probably sharing your 990, reporting annually on your finances and following a nonprofit audit progress. These are all standard, but not a substitute for being candid in your communications.
How candid are you with your donors? Consider this scenario:
You’ve raised money for a new program. Donors were excited to contribute because you made a great case for how it would make a difference for your cause. But your planned program site fell through. The launch date got pushed back again and again. You found a new program site, but it had more costs associated with it and suddenly the ROI of the entire program wasn’t as good as it used to be. In fact, it was pretty bad. This program is no longer a responsible use of your funds or time.
“3” is the candid answer, but if you can’t picture telling your donors that something has failed, you’re certainly not alone. There is a lot of pressure for nonprofits to prove that they’re responsible and worthy. This can lead to an organization working hard to maintain a facade that suggests nothing ever goes wrong.
So how do you approach radical candor? How do you connect with donors with candid communications and brave honesty?
If you’re shaking your head wildly right now, I understand. There’s a reason we call this kind of candor “radical.” It’s not intuitive and it can feel very risky. Radical candor requires thought and skill, like other nonprofit development strategies, but also asks that we get a little personal.
The biggest fear about radical candor is that if donors find out your nonprofit is not perfect, they’ll stop giving. It’s a risk you can’t bring yourself to take. But reality shows something quite different. Donors actually value accomplishments and transparency from their nonprofits. They never expect you to be flawless or avoid all setbacks. In fact, Guidestar found that transparent organizations raise more money.
It’s important donors see your candid communications early as some research suggests many people don’t trust nonprofits to begin with. The sooner you build trust by giving donors the full picture of your operations, the easier it will be to inspire a second and third act of generosity.
Talking about failure isn’t fun. Nobody sets out to fail and it’s disappointing when we do. Still, radical candor requires addressing failure head-on. When you talk about failure in the right way, you can bring your donors closer to your cause instead of scaring them away.
First, identify what the failure is. Did you make a mistake? Were circumstances out of your control? Were you missing a vital piece of information when you made your plans? Communicate that failure accurately and straightforwardly.
Own up to any responsibility you bear, without any passive voice or shifting accountability elsewhere. Then, and this is the important part, talk about how you’re changing. What’s new, in response to this failure? What have you learned and what are you doing differently?
Consider the difference:
Due to unforeseen circumstances, we’re canceling the community concert in the park on Saturday. Sorry to all who were looking forward to it.
We dropped the ball. There’s no other way to say it. We didn’t learn that we needed a special permit for the community concert in the park until Wednesday. We should have checked sooner. Permits must be filed a week in advance, so we have to cancel Saturday’s concert. Our heartfelt apologies to everyone who was looking forward to it — we were, too. We’ve made a new checklist for concert planning, so this won’t happen again. In the meantime, please come to the office on Saturday for a shorter concert, featuring our smaller ensembles.
Which would you rather receive from a nonprofit? They’re both true and they’re both bearing bad news. But the candid one makes a connection with the donor, shows the problem and solution while demonstrating a change in the organization’s process that will stop the problem from happening again.
Radical candor isn’t just about talking about mistakes or failure. It also gives you permission to ask for help when you need it to grow.
Nonprofits like to be authoritative. In part, this is because so much of fundraising relies on proving that not only is the cause worthy, but also that you are the most deserving organization serving that cause.
Turn that one-sided information stream into a real conversation by talking about what you don’t know. You don’t have to be an expert in everything to be worthy of donor support. Your community has many experts who would be happy to help you, but how can they offer their help if they aren’t aware of the need?
If you pretend to know everything, at a minimum, you’ll waste a lot of time trying to learn things on the fly. If you open up about the skills and knowledge you don’t have, you’ll give your donors a chance to get involved in a meaningful way and streamline your own processes.
Look for knowledge gaps are in both your organization and your cause. Are you hiring your second staff person and wish you had an HR background? Do you need a lawyer to look over the contracts before you commit to a vendor? Are you absolutely flummoxed on how to get access to a certain part of your city? Is your DIY graphic design making people miss your messages? Tell your donors!
You can talk about the skills you don’t have and ask for advice on social media, in your emails and letters and in conversation with your donors. Consider the power of a message like this:
Right now, our programs are growing. We currently have 2,000 kids in our afterschool program, from five different neighborhoods. Our partner schools report that the kids who attend the program are improving their reading scores and classroom engagement. This is so exciting!
Our biggest problem is also an opportunity. We could expand to include 500 more students from our partner schools. Currently, we have the capacity to welcome them tomorrow, except for one thing: we do not have enough Spanish-speaking volunteers.
Right now, there are five Spanish-speakers on the team, but we really need ten for the best support. If we add those 500 additional students, we’d need at least 12. We’ve recruited at churches, community groups and colleges and just haven’t had a response. Does anyone have any ideas? We’d love to hear them.
This nonprofit acknowledges the problem that is slowing them down. They are also being proactive about solving it. They’re presenting donors with an opportunity to help in a real way. It’s tied to impact (an important nonprofit development strategy) and it shows how they could scale up their program if they solved the problem. It’s radically candid, which makes donors want to help.
Finally, something that’s unabashedly fun: when you’re radically candid, you don’t have to hide your joy. You can celebrate success freely and openly.
First, if you’ve been radically candid, your successes will have more meaning to your supporters. Instead of maintaining a ruse that everything was easy and there were no issues, you can send out a “Holy cow, they approved all the permits, finally, let’s start building!” email, or host a “Welcome to our facility in the new neighborhood we never thought we’d get to!” party. Your supporters will know how important these successes are and they’ll feel like they’re a part of things.
Secondly, joy itself is radically candid. Don’t mistake coldness for professionalism; there’s nothing unprofessional about sharing how happy a success makes you. Did your office break out into a dance party when you announced some good news? Post the video to your social media with your announcement. Show your donors how much you care and they’ll care more, too.
Radical candor isn’t solely about losses. It’s about being authentic throughout your interactions with donors. Greater authenticity invites greater generosity and it gives you the opportunity to build a true community with your supporters.
Radical candor is an ethos you can apply to any nonprofit development strategy. Face your fears and share your failures, questions and successes with your donors. It will deepen your connection to each other, which improves donor retention and giving.
To get started building better donor relationships and learn more about how to connect with donors, check out Virtuous’ webinar Grow Giving and Increase Donor Retention in 2019.
Traditional fundraising strategies no longer work. This blueprint explains why today's donor expects more, and how nonprofits are shifting to responsive fundraising.