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Season 2, Episode 53

What should you do when your values and a donor’s values are in conflict? In this episode, campaign experts Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt discuss strategies for handling donors who say things you might find offensive.

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Amy Eisenstein:
What would you do if a donor says something racist, sexist or homophobic? We’re going to discuss what you can do when donors are offensive.

Hello, I’m Amy Eisenstein and I’m joined today by my friend, colleague and co-pilot of this podcast, Andrea Kihlstedt.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Hi, there. I’m Andrea.

Amy Eisenstein:
All right. So we came up with this topic because in a recent team meeting, one of our expert campaign advisors raised an important topic and an important question. And she wanted to know how to advise her clients on how to handle donors who behave offensively and what do you do when a donor says something that goes against your principles?

This is a really knotty subject and I think we need to really brainstorm here how to manage it because there’s no easy or obvious answer, but we want to broach the topic. So Andrea, why don’t you kick us off?

What Should You Do if a Donor Says Something Offensive?

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Sure. Thanks, Amy. This isn’t a new topic but somehow it has a new importance in this time when people are so at odds with one another. I mean, people are politically at odds. It just seems that everybody is sort of on edge much more and disagreements are easy to have them erupt. So I think it’s incredibly important that we have some very clear strategies in mind should that happen.

Should you be asking a large donor for a gift and he starts to say things or she starts to say things that you know you totally disagree with. In fact, the things that the donor says go against the mission and the principles of your organization. And you need to know how you’re going to think about how you’re going to deal with those things. Should you pretend to agree? That’s a good question, right?

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. I’m sure there’s plenty of development directors who have felt pressure because they were talking to a huge donor that they had to pretend to agree with some racist, homophobic or misogynistic comment. And so, yeah, we’re here to…

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Good question. Should we —

Amy Eisenstein:
Probably say you don’t have to agree. You don’t have to pretend to agree.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
You don’t have to pretend but it’s not so simple. Let’s go over all the questions first and then we’ll cycle back to some approaches. So should you let the donor know that you disagree with what they’ve just said? Should you raise that?

Amy Eisenstein:
Right.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
If the donor says, “Those people you serve are just lazy,” for example. If they’re other people that your organization serves, right? Should you say something or should you just let it roll?

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. So that’s two things. Do you pretend to agree versus letting it roll or letting it go? Those are different things, right? Or let the donor know that you disagree, three things.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Or you could say to the donor, “I really don’t agree with you,” right? “You’re wrong because of X, Y, and Z.” You can argue with the donor. You can actually take the donor on. That would be a strategy. I’m not sure it’s the best strategy but it would be a strategy and you may actually be inclined to do that if the comments are egregious and hurtful and go against everything you and your organization believe. It may be tempting to get into an argument. Right?

Or should you just let the offensive language go and shift the conversation back to the gift, right? That’s the other option. You have a number of choices here. And I think that rather than letting these situations happen and being caught kind of blindsided by them, you should think about, well, what should I do? What will I do? How will I handle situations like that?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think it’s important. You know they’re going to come up. It shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the age that we’re living in that we’re going to disagree with people from time to time or frequently. So we should be thoughtful and intentional about how we respond. All right. What are the options? What are our brainstorms, Andrea, on how a development director should or can or might appropriately respond to offensive talk?

Do Not Pretend; Do Not Debate

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. Well, so first that comes to my mind is that you should not pretend. You should not pretend to believe things or be a person that you are not. It’s injurious in many ways, it’s injurious for you. You may go to bed at night and think that you behaved in a way that is not true to who you are and you don’t want your job or a situation to put you in that position.

So don’t pretend. You don’t have to pretend to be the donor’s friend. You don’t have to pretend that the relationship is other than it is. You need to be very clear about what the relationship is and you don’t have to say, “Yes, I agree with you.” You don’t have to be who they are. You can be who you are. So that’s point number one.

Amy Eisenstein:
Right. So don’t pretend and don’t debate. I think there’s a way to respectfully say, “Listen, what you just said is not appropriate and it’s offensive to me.” But you don’t have to get in an argument either. You can acknowledge it, you can say that language doesn’t work here because it’s against the principles and the values of the organization.

So I think not pretending hums with being an upstander, right? Not bystanding, but actually saying, acknowledging and mirroring back without getting hopefully into a heated debate. You don’t need to go on and on. You can just say, “That’s language that we don’t use around here. It’s offensive to me.”

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yeah. And I’m not sure I’d say it’s offensive to me. I don’t know that you need to say that but you can say that’s language that we tend not to use around here. We work hard to make our language really, really constructive and positive.

Amy Eisenstein:
Inclusive, not exclusive.

Use: Feel, Felt, Found

Andrea Kihlstedt:
And inclusive. So I think you can phrase what you say in a way that is not … What’s the word? Does not light up the fire of anger but simply says, “Here’s what we do.” Now, there is a marketing or a sales strategy that’s very well known to anyone who’s been in marketing and sales. Sometimes we use it in the fundraising field when we ask for a gift and someone gives us an objection, that’s where we use this. It’s called feel, felt, found. And here’s how it goes.

You say, “Amy, I know how you feel,” right? “I’ve felt that, too, sometimes when something just doesn’t look right to me and it’s outrageous me,” right?

That’s feel and felt, right? I know how you feel. I’ve felt it, too. But here in this organization with the work that we do, we have found that the people who may outrage it, outrage you. We have found that they are remarkably hardworking and capable. That they’ve had multiple setbacks in life but when we give them half a chance, they really can make incredible process.

So while I feel, I understand what you feel, I’ve had that feeling myself in some ways. What we found is quite to the contrary, feel, felt, found. It’s a very nice, positive, constructive way of taking someone on without their even knowing that you’ve taken them on.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, I think that one probably takes some practice. So think about how it applies to your organization and how it might come up because it won’t be natural or impromptu the first few times. You will have to think through how you’re going to use that and how you might use it. I think role playing is wonderfully important. I don’t ever recommend development directors using scripts but practicing different scenarios is a great idea, so that you are prepared in some of these circumstances.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Well and feel, felt, found is a wonderful framework. Talk about a fourth F. Feel, felt, found, framework, right? Actually, if you want to know more about it’s well enough known so you can just Google, feel, felt, found. And you’ll find a whole lot of material written on it, we did not make this up. It actually is in the marketing and sales parlance and you’ll see lots of examples from different fields so you can start to practice with it. I like that as an approach. Number three.

So number one is don’t pretend, but don’t debate. Number two is get good at feel, felt, found responses. And number three is acknowledge differences and focus on the mission. So you can say, “I don’t really agree with you but we’re here to talk about your gift to the such and such organization. You’ve supported us for a very long time.” You just acknowledge that there is a rub here and you walk right around it to what the reason you were sitting there together with a donor.

Amy Eisenstein:
One of the ways you have taught me over the years, Andrea, of transitioning a conversation and not alienating someone is using the word “and”. So you can say, “I don’t agree with that and we’re really here to talk about the arts center, so let’s focus on that.” So you don’t need to say, but, right?

In your example, I think you used the word. “We don’t agree on that but we’re just here to talk about this something.” And is much more positive, right? It brings things together. It’s a good segue. So that comment you made is not something that feels like it’s on topic for this conversation and we’re really here to talk about your gift.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Yes.

Amy Eisenstein:
So let’s draw our tension back to the arts center, the cancer center, the afterschool center, whatever it is that you’re talking about. And so that you can say, “I heard what you say.” You can acknowledge it’s not something I want to talk about with you now, it doesn’t feel right and let’s move the conversation back to what we’re supposed to be talking about.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
Right. I mean, given this sort of framework for improv … As Amy knows, I take improv classes and the framework for all improv is, yes and. So you don’t have to say, “Yes, I agree with you,” but you can say, “Yes, I hear you and let’s talk about this such and such.” It’s really a remarkable way to just shift a conversation, move a conversation over.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah.

Accepting Gifts from “Dirty Money”

Andrea Kihlstedt:
There’s another topic that comes up around this subject. It’s a slightly different topic but I think an important one. And that’s the question of should your organization accept money from people who have made that money in ways that are very much against the basis of your organization?

Now, that’s not a decision that you as a development director are going to make. But if you see that there might be a problem, you may want to take that to your board and actually encourage your board to have conversations about when the organization does or does not accept money from a particular company or donor. There may be times when it’s just not appropriate when the organization is going to say, “Thank you very much but we’re not going to accept your money.” But that’s a different topic. It’s a bigger topic, I think. Amy, are we going to come back and do a podcast on that someday?

Amy Eisenstein:
Yeah, we can do a podcast on that. I’ll just give a quick example. And it’s like a drug rehab center deciding, the board deciding, not to take money from alcohol companies or something like that. So it’s sort of in the same vein of how do you manage donors that are doing things that are contrary to your values and belief systems. So it’s on topic but I think we’ll save it for another day.

I just want to remind people that if you’ve enjoyed this podcast so far, I hope that you’ll click to follow in your favorite podcasting app in order to get future episodes as soon as they are posted. We would so appreciate you listening to future podcasts where we talk about all things related to capital campaigns. And certainly today’s topic about dealing with donors that may have different values than you absolutely comes up in probably every campaign that we’ve ever worked on.

Final Thoughts

Andrea Kihlstedt:
It’s interesting to think about why this is so related to capital campaigns. And the capital campaign business is a big donor business. A huge amount of the money you raise through a capital campaign comes from a very relatively few large gifts. And large donors often have a sense of entitlement about their views and are not shy about sharing them. So this topic, I think, comes up more often than it might in other parts of the fundraising world. And you do need to be prepared to answer it in a way that will let you sleep at night because you’re true to who you are and true to who your organization is. But at the same time, not light a fire of contention with your donors when you don’t have to.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. And that being said, sometimes it is appropriate to let a donor go if they are being totally contrary to the values and the mission of your organization.

I’ll never forget, at my very first fundraising job, it was at a domestic violence shelter and we had this donor that was totally verbally abusive to the staff. And I finally said to the executive director, “I don’t care how much money he gives, we have got to cut him loose. We cannot tolerate the stress that he is causing us.” And we did. And so sometimes it’s appropriate and necessary to let those donors go.

All right, So we want to encourage you to be an upstander, not a bystander. When you have the opportunity, don’t feel like you have to kowtow to whatever outrageous or offensive things your donors are saying.

Andrea Kihlstedt:
But to the extent that you can, you should do that in a positive and non-argumentative way. You don’t want to pick a fight with a donor just because you don’t agree, right? Many people don’t agree on many things. It’s not the disagreement that’s bad, it’s that you want to be able to move past that and keep conversations open. You can be a great fundraiser and work with donors with beliefs that are different from your own without undermining who you are.

Amy Eisenstein:
Yes. All right. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next week.

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