Money does weird things to us, doesn't it? A lack of money leads nonprofits to a growing desperation. A feeling they "need" every donor. Anyone who'll give them money.

Including bullies.

But sometimes, the problem isn't hearing "no" from a donor. Sometimes the problem is hearing "yes."

Fire your bully donors

You've seen those costly yes's. Donors who make all sorts of demands on the nonprofit staff. Who take weeks to reply to messages but expect the nonprofit to reply immediately. Who seem to think the nonprofit is there to serve them rather than its mission.

Donors who are bullies.

A few years ago, I had a client who regularly raised about $500,000 a year. But every year, he'd bend himself into a pretzel for a $10,000 gift from one surly donor. The man would give, but not without putting my client through the ringer. The meetings would often become the donor haranguing my client with questions like an attorney trying to pick apart a defendant. There was no sense of respect or appreciation for the hard work of this leader.

After hearing him agonize about this donor for a few weeks, I asked, "Why don't you fire him?"

He was shocked. Fire a donor?

I asked him how much time preparing for the annual ask, doing the visit, and reporting back to this donor were taking him. With a staff of 3 FTEs, all that time was more valuable than the $10,000 the donor was giving. I tried to get him to see all the other people he could communicate with in the same amount of time, people who liked his work. People he enjoyed.

I tried to get him to fire that donor.

Fundraising isn't begging

Nonprofit leaders are not beggars. We do not exist for settling for the scraps from the tables of people who feel get ego boosts when demeaning others. We're professionals looking for people to partner with our organization's mission.

Partner. Even challenge. But not boss. Not ridicule. Not deride.

Nonprofit leaders get enough ridicule and derision as it is. Why actively pursue donors who seem to take glee in bullying us?

There are no guarantees

It can be hard to risk losing funding. There are no guarantees that the money will be replaced by someone else.

But if you are getting harassed by donors, you're creating a culture where it is acceptable for donors to treat you and your staff that way. (The Association of Fundraising Professionals found that one in four women report having experienced sexual harassment on the job. Two-thirds of that was from donors.)

But we're not in nonprofits to grovel for money and put up with people's abuse. We're in nonprofit to fix a problem. Why would we create more problems by permitting bullies to push us and our staff around?

This may sound woo-woo, but a powerful thing happens when we eliminate negative energy from our space. We open up the space for positive to flow in.

So while there are no guarantees, our staff needs to see us taking a stand. And we ourselves need the strength that comes from taking a stand.

It's your choice

Ultimately, it's your choice. You get to decide if you'll accept their money and all the baggage with it. Or if you'll stop pursuing them and use your time in other way.

In the end, my client decided not to fire the donor. He told me he'd realized the annual barrage of questions helped him be more focused. Not wanting him to forget that it was his decision to seek this donor's money (I hesitate to call it a gift), I made sure he realized what it was "costing" him to get that clarity. He felt it was worth his time.

And it was his choice.

As it it yours. Are there donors you should consider firing?


A note on privilege: I am aware that as a white, cisgender male, I benefit from centuries of of systems designed to afford me the broadest array of choices. For some, my "fire a donor" and my "it's your choice" comments may come across as naively flippant. It's not meant to. In my experience these are very hard decisions - as hard as any decision to fire someone. My goal is to use this unearned privilege to advocate for safer work environments for all nonprofit employees.

Have you had experience telling a donor their behavior was unacceptable? Or even going so far as to altogether stop pursuing a bully disguised as a donor? Let me know in the comments.

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