Charities Aren’t Being Honest With You

You’re being lied to, friends.

Not maliciously or even deliberately, but it’s happening because it’s hard to tell someone the truth if: a) we don’t think they want to hear it; and b) they have some sort of power over us.


Say it ain’t so!

This dynamic is rampant between charities and supporters. The charities want to maintain good relationships; plus keep the donations and other support flowing. So they’re very leery of telling us anything that might rub us the wrong way, even important information that would help everyone to do more good.

This piece from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (*This link has been broken since the posting of this piece – the Centre for Effective Philanthropy has removed this article for reasons unknown to us. Please accept our apologies.) shows that even Jimmy Carter isn’t immune. As the CEP asks, “If A Former President Can’t Give Funder Feedback, Then Who Can?”

Charities’ reluctance to be honest with donors is no reflection on the donors as people. It’s more about how difficult it can be to bring up difficult topics, and our society’s long-standing habit of treating charitable givers as above reproach; as if giving entitles you to thanks and praise only – never criticism. This is how things work – for now, at least.

This hit home for me when I tried to invite some corporate giving people to an event I was co-hosting. One of the goals of the event was to encourage self-reflection; help each participant examine their work with new perspective and insight.

This was a tough concept for the corporate giving folks. They asked me if I wanted them to speak at the event. They seemed to think they would be doing me a favour by showing up. They were not excited by the idea of workshopping their own work.

They’re clearly conditioned to see themselves as the experts, as the sources of all funding, wisdom and power. They’re not used to being treated as equal partners in a process that includes a diversity of players, or asked to examine their own work with a critical eye.

This doesn’t mean they’re bad people; any more than charity workers are bad for sugar-coating supporter communications. It just means they’re locked into this old structure of benefactor and supplicant – playing out traditional roles.

So what can we do? For givers, the first step is to simply be aware of this dynamic; to know that the charities we support will tend towards painting a rosy picture of how things are going. Then, we can put some thought into asking more probing, more difficult questions to draw out the other side of the truth to get a fuller picture.

By Nadine Riopel -