Seems like an oxymoron doesn't it? Our whole profession is built on the premise that we do as much as possible to engage our constituents and have them move closer to our organization. But when is close too close? Recent events at the University of Virginia,(for more articles on this topic google it) and other stories (FSU, lawsuits galore elsewhere) remind us that while donors are partners in our organizations and trusted friends and allies in the good fight, there is a professional distance that needs to be demonstrated.
For those of us in universities, this is demonstrated mostly in donors wanting to establish a scholarship, and then have control over the recipients or the selection process. This is a big no no. Donors cannot be involved in the selection of students and cannot make the qualifications so restrictive that the scholarship can only be given to one student. This isn't a gift, it's a tuition payment and isn't tax deductible. If you have a situation like this work to remedy it immediately, it's not beneficial for you or your organization and can lead to disastrous results.
This may require some "crucial conversations" with colleagues, leadership, and even donors. Don't know what a "crucial conversation" is? I highly suggest everyone in the nonprofit world buy the book here and read it and then share it. I promise, I don't get a percentage of the sales, but if this book can help you the way it has helped me, that's all the benefit I need.
As donors and our relationships with them become more complex and their needs become more sophisticated, it is indeed our pleasure and our burden to help manage these expectations and desires with the realities, legalities, and organizational priorities. At its essence, it becomes an educational process for our constituents, our staff, and ourselves. What does this process look like? I would highly recommend you use the donor bill of rights and the statement of ethical guidelines as a beginning for your efforts and move forward from there. The great thing about these documents is that they set up a wonderful framework that can serve as a guide for your efforts. I would also say that there are elements of gut instincts and common sense that come into play here. The old adage about things too good to be true usually applies. More interestingly, this educational process will allow our organizations to enhance communications and break down silos to further productive effort that funnel back to the mission of our organizations.
At the core of what we do is engagement and relationship building. But like all relationships, boundaries must be established and built so that there are productive results for all involved. Donors don't want to be caught up in the fallout from a mess like UVA's and organizations cannot afford to lose the trust of their other donors by suffering the consequences of a relationship gone wrong. Learn from others' mistakes and make sure that you, as the donor's advocate and engagement officer keep these things in mind as relationships are built.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issues at hand.