Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Donors Versus Nonprofits

My postings on fundraising fees and rates get a lot of hits, and sometimes some heated discussion. My recent posting Yet more on percentage-based fundraising was no exception.

While some people have agreed with me that, "it's about time that donors put the needs of nonprofits ahead of their own," others have taken great exception to that. One such person is Barbara Ruth Saunders, who this morning wrote:
Aren't nonprofit organizations, in fact, supposed to be the vehicle by which DONORS direct their resources to goals which are socially important to the DONORS? The board should be determining how the organization can serve the goals. The staff should be executing the programs that support those strategies. But, I have a huge problem with the notion of nonprofits as being a means for a handful of grandiose people to exercise their social aims with other people's money!

That said, the immediate client of the fundraiser is the organization; the fundraiser helps the organization assure the DONORS that it is aligned with the DONORS' ultimate intentions.
To which I replied:
Thank you, Barbara, for your impassioned post, but I do respectfully disagree with your assertion that "nonprofit organizations [are] supposed to be the vehicle by which DONORS direct their resources to goals which are socially important to the DONORS."

I'd put phrase it more like, "Nonprofit organizations are supposed to be the vehicle by which a COMMUNITY achieves the goals that are socially important to it."

If a donor finds that particular nonprofit is doing work that he/she/they/it believes in, they should support that nonprofit.

But when the donor becomes the focus, nonprofits drift from their missions and only chase the money. Program decisions are made, not based on what is most needed or most effective, but based on the question, "What's fundable?"

Donors need to actually trust the professionals within nonprofits to know how to best achieve their mission. If donors don't trust nonprofits, they should simply invest their money elsewhere.

Your notion that nonprofits are "a handful of grandiose people [exercising] their social aims with other people's money" is simply insulting and only demonstrates your incredible disdain for nonprofit staff.
Was I out of line here? Have concepts of charity and philanthropy become so antiquated that there is no longer even a pretense of the donation being a gift?

Do donors really think that it is their place to mold nonprofits in their image and that the people who've dedicated their careers and their lives to serving their communities require such direction and babysitting from people who've never done such work?

Apparently so. Personally, I've had just about enough.


  1. I don't think you're out of line Ken. If the missions and activities of non-profits were entirely based on the goals of potential donors you would see programs and services changing with factors such as media attention to certain issues.

    For example, I live in a community that is struggling a great deal with vehicle theft by teens. It's an issue regularly in the media. There is a strong and vocal lobby advocating a severe "crime and punishment" approach to the problem.

    Non-profit social service agencies working with these teens see the larger picture at play---teens mired in poverty, disenfranchisement, histories of family breakdown and cognitive impairment due to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. A crime and punishment approach is not going to work with these kids--they already feel they have nothing in life to lose.

    There's no question that donor money would flow to a particular approach to this problem right now. This is the time that the agencies involved need strong boards and a strong voice. They know the problem best and need to provide the direction towards a solution.

    You're bang on when you say that the donor has to find the non-profit that he/she can support. It's not the other way around.

    Deborah Zanke

  2. Ken, I think your response is fully justified, especially where you say "If donors don't trust nonprofits, they should simply invest their money elsewhere."

    Nonprofits operate in this weird quasi-market world where the goods we produce (our services) aren't actually paid for by the people who consume them (the community). And the feedback going back to the purchasers (the donors) is coming from the nonprofits and not the community. So it's all built on trust.

    If the donor doesn't trust the nonprofit they *should* take their money elsewhere. And I think nonprofits need to have the confidence to tell them that, too.

  3. Actually I am a nonprofit staff. And manager. And board member. I do not see donors as rich folks exercising their will via these organizations. My problem is with being a nonprofit staff who joins an organization in order to serve a community goal - with the community putting its money and time behind that goal in terms of donated energies - and finding that I am not serving the cause but the whims of the managers. I can see that I voiced this in an ineffective way, but -- nonprofits are private corporations, and too many of them are run like restaurants whose owners assault and harass the staff. The managers and staff should be there to serve the community, the benefiting customers/clients, including and the people who demonstrate their support by putting their money where their mouth is. They should not be serving the self-righteous ideas of the people in them who have the most power to subordinate the staff, confuse the board, and mislead the donors. The passion in my comment comes from often feeling used, underpaid, and actually working against the influence in the world I long to have -- all under warm and fuzzy lip service to the public good.