The One Thing You Should Never Discuss with Your Donors

If you’ve read any of our stuff, tuned into one of our webinars, or even just been in the same room with us lately, you know we’re on a get-to-know-your-donors “kick.” Authentic relationships that go beyond sending an email or liking an Instagram post.

By Jim Bush, Winkler Group Principal and President; Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and EVP

As you develop the art of question-asking and intentional listening, a word of caution. There’s one topic that can undo all your good work. It’s the third rail of relationship building.

Of course, we’re talking about politics. And since it’s election season, landmines are everywhere.

It may be tempting to build rapport with your donors based on what you think are aligned political beliefs. DON’T DO IT. Unless you work for an organization like the ACLU or the NRA where politics are baked into the mission, resist the urge.

Promoting a political view or candidate on behalf of a nonprofit can jeopardize an organization’s 501(c)(3) status. It’s also one of the quickest ways to destroy a donor’s trust.

Here are four simple reminders that will keep you out of trouble through November’s election:

Keep Your Political Agenda to Yourself

The AFP Code of Ethics encourages us to put philanthropic mission above personal gain.  

It’s not about you. Donors don’t give to your organization to hear your views on gun control or about the candidate you believe will do the least harm to our democracy. They want to hear how the organization they support is solving the problems they’re passionate about.

When you cross the line and fail to maintain a neutral and inclusive environment, you risk alienating the donors you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

Find Neutrality in Your Mission

This may seem like the most obvious recommendation, but in a presidential election year, the mission too often takes a back seat.   

Your donors—progressives, conservatives, and those in the middle—support your organization because they believe in what you’re doing and who you’re serving.

Let’s say your organization addresses homelessness. Those on the left may support you because you help the most vulnerable. Those on the right give because your employment programs help homeless people help themselves. Regardless of the reasons behind their support of homelessness initiatives their goals are the same despite their political party. Focus on those goals instead of their motivations.

Educate Donors Instead of Persuading Them

Approach potentially divisive topics with care.

If your organization or institution is unveiling a new program that advances the mission but could be seen as having political bias, spend time educating your board and your donors on its importance. Help them see beyond the division and find common ground centered around those you serve.  Take the politics out of it as much as possible.

Respect Donors' Diversity of Political Thought

Your donors come from diverse backgrounds with many different political views.

You may not agree with them and that’s okay. You can try to stay in the dark about their party affiliation, but chances are good you’ll have some die-hard donors ready to pull you into their political orbit.

If it becomes impossible to avoid their political conversations, listen politely. Never agree or disagree with their stance, and whatever you do, do not engage in a debate. Because if you win, you still lose their trust.

Good luck out there. This election season is going to be a circus, so try and stay out of the ring. Remember “not my monkey, not my circus.”

Curious about fundraising during an election year? Schedule time to talk with Jim or Jessica about a strategy that maximizes revenue…in red, blue, and even purple states.

About the Author

Jim Bush, Winkler Group Principal and President, has been a fundraiser for more than 30 years. Recognized as an expert in his field, he’s helped nonprofits, universities, and healthcare systems raise more than $300 million and increase their organizational capacity through strategic planning. A noted lecturer, trainer, and teacher, Jim’s articles on fundraising have been published in leading nonprofit journals. He serves on the Giving USA Editorial Review Board and holds a bachelor’s degree from Elon University. Connect with Jim on LinkedIn.

Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and Executive Vice President, has helped lead nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years. An award-winning case statement writer, Jessica is a specialist in donor communications and a former member of the Giving USA Editorial Review Board. Jessica received a B.A. from Duke University as well as an M.A. and M.B.A. from the College of William & Mary. Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

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