Top 3 Mistakes Organizations Make When Communicating With Donors

The original post is on Times of Israel. Written by Hadas Sella, MBA, Executive Director of The Adam & Gila Milstein Family Foundation

My job is to say “no” about 90% of the time.

It’s not that easy — there are so many great projects out there: projects that help diverse communities in Israel; projects that are tempting to support because they have so much impact; projects that speak to me, personally; and simply projects that could help people who’ve had tough luck and are struggling financially.

Projects of all kinds find their way to my email inbox because I run the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation. The reality is that I work for two extraordinarily generous individuals, who not only support more than 100 organizations every year, but also dedicate 100% of their time to philanthropy. My job is to help them focus on the high-impact, high-return projects and organizations by researching and holding meetings to identify what is relevant to their mission and what isn’t.

When we reject a project, it is not necessarily because it is not good or worthy. The vast majority of the time, it simply isn’t a good fit. Unfortunately, when the Milsteins decide not to contribute to a specific organization, some people misinterpret it as “stabbing them in the back.” I often receive messages to the effect of, “Why does organization X receive money while I don’t?”

When I first started working with Gila and Adam, I had to figure out how they picked the organizations they support. I would relentlessly ask questions and make them defend their decisions. It took me months to understand the exact formula, and then I also learned that the formula isn’t set in stone, and things change all time.

We look for very specific attributes in the projects, organizations, and individuals that the foundation invests in (yes — invests in — not just donates to). In general, we look for organizations and projects that create synergies with existing work in the field. We also subscribe to the principle of Life Path Impact, where we can fund an ecosystem of projects that continuously engage our target audience from youth through adulthood. Each major program that we support precedes or follows another one.

Interacting with numerous nonprofits whose proposals I had to kindly reject provided me with a range of insights about what nonprofit organizations fail to acknowledge when they don’t receive funding. These are shared below in my blunt, Israeli style, and I hope they can help you:

  • Donors don’t owe you anything: not their money, not their time, and not their feedback. Just because they are wealthy and generous people, it doesn’t mean “everyone gets a share.” It is totally up to the donors who they want to work with, who they want to support, and who they want to contribute to. They don’t owe you an explanation as to why you were not selected to receive a donation from them and — if you think about it — expecting that they do is really asking them to invest more time in a direction they already decided does not fit their mission and philanthropic philosophy. Out of respect to the time that people invested in the applications, I do my best to provide a little bit of feedback when relevant; however, this is not what I am paid to do. I am paid to help find the projects that Gila and Adam would want to fund.
  • Donors — and their staff — are people, not bank accounts. This means that you can develop a relationship with them. You can send them a thank you note or say “hi” at a conference. You can include both Gila and Adam in your letters and acknowledge that they make their decisions together. You can send them information that would be interesting to them. They are not the type of people who give money in order to get their names on buildings — they are driven by their passion to help the State of Israel and the Jewish people in ways that they find to be most impactful. Gila and Adam embrace the ethos of “active philanthropy,” which means that they don’t just write checks, but they also contribute their unique expertise and relationships to make each project they support successful. In other words, they like to get their hands dirty! Thus, receiving communication is not a burden to them, but rather what keeps them going. It doesn’t look good if you omit one of them or forget to update them on your ongoing progress.
  • Talking badly about other organizations does not make you look better. It’s quite the opposite. We understand that fundraising is challenging. There is so much going on in the pro-Israel non-profit world, and unfortunately there is redundancy and inefficiency. Therefore, when yet another organization is taking students to Israel (for example), the right approach is not to talk badly of someone else’s trip, but rather to explain why yours would achieve the impact that we want to achieve.

Fundraising is tough. Every donor and foundation has their own way of doing business, with their own mission, application process and ways of reporting. We try to make our process as easy, friendly, and accessible as possible. However, just as we respect the tremendous work and passion of our applicants and their organizations, I believe that applicants must respect a foundation’s right to be focused on its mission, as this is what makes us impactful.

Although my job is to say no more than I say yes, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. Even if you do not receive funding, building relationships is the key to success in the non-profit world, and there are many ways that we can work together. Maybe our Foundation can be helpful with introductions or ideas? Maybe we can be in touch later down the line to revisit opportunities for funding? Whether you are a funder or an applicant, maintaining a positive attitude, an open mind, and honest communication can make a huge difference in advancing your organization’s mission.

for Hadas

To learn more about the philanthropic work of Adam Milstein and the Milstein Family Foundation, visit http://milsteinff.org. Also — check out Adam Milstein and the Milstein Family Foundation on Facebook!