Best donor responses to charity alarms

Published on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 10:10 - Written by DAWN FRANKS, Your Philanthropy

The alarm, blinking lights and a voice loudly announcing we should vacate the building immediately interrupted what had, up until that moment, been a productive morning. The unwelcome interruption to my workflow caused all manner of mental acrobatics.

My first reaction was to go to the hallway to see if anyone else was vacating the building. I wasn’t alone in that reaction. My next thought was to decide whether to take the alarm seriously. By then my co-worker who had left the office just minutes before came back in to grab her purse and the mailbox key since there was no sense in wasting a trip downstairs past the bank of mailboxes.

I followed out of the office only to realize it would be a good idea to go back and get my purse if the building went up in smoke. I then joined a crowd in the stairwell of our five-story office building growing with every floor we passed. I had started on the fifth floor, so the stairwell was full by the time I reached the third floor.

Have you found yourself in a similar situation as a donor when suddenly alarms go off? You’ve been supportive, intentional and maybe even what I would call a smart donor. The charity you invested in suddenly receives bad press or experiences a service-threatening liability issue. Embezzlement or poor leadership is exposed at the professional, board level or both.

My fire-alarm reaction is not terribly different from how donors react to alarming information.

Here are three typical responses to charity alarms.

- Allow confusion from mixed messages and unclear information to cause a donor freeze. No donation feels better than a bad donation.

- Ignore the alarms, red flags and voices warning us not to donate, and write the check anyway. We reason if there is a crisis they must need our financial help to continue services.

- Make a smaller donation than originally planned to feel good about our continued support while taking a watch-and-see position.

From time to time charities experience situations that might cause any donor to freeze, ignore the alarms or watch and see. There is no wrong or right in such situations, but some reactions and actions are certainly better than others. That creates what I call a “best” response.

The “best” response it how you choose to react. It sends critical messages to the charity and fellow donors.

- The donor who freezes and makes no donation sends the message that I need clear communication to help me make a donation decision that is best for us both.

- The donor who writes a check despite the alarm telegraphs the message of financial support and loyalty to the mission.

- The watch-and-see donor is throwing out a lifejacket and waiting to see if the charity can swim its way out of the situation. Will other donors follow? That’s the question the watch-and-see donor needs answered.

Safely out of the building and waiting for the all-clear sign to re-enter, jokes, elementary school drill memories and stories floated through the crowd. We moved past the annoyance of the interruption to the shared feeling we had responded correctly.

Days later, I learned from someone in the elevator their company had not reacted to the alarm because there was an all-hands-required meeting taking place and they were not allowed to leave. That’s proof positive we react very differently to alarms. We take calculated risks.

Donors take calculated risks when an alarm has been sounded. We ask ourselves all kinds of questions. How bad is it? How much can I get hurt by making the donation? Am I supporting a sinking ship? Do I care if it’s sinking if services are still being delivered right up to the moment the door closes?

Your answers indicate the level of risk you are willing to take. Alarms should be heeded and action taken. You decide the action. The actions you decide to take are your donor “best.”

Dawn Franks, CEO of Your Philanthropy, offers advising services to families, businesses and foundations to enhance the giving experience and maximize impact. She writes a blog, the YP Journal, at www.your-philanthropy.com . Comments and questions are welcome. Send to info@your-philanthropy.com.