Credibility and Crisis

Readers of the  Denver Post opened the metro news section this morning to a bold headline, “Cancer fraud for donations?” The story describes a local woman who has apparently been given $60,000 over a five-year period from individual donors, and now it appears she was lying about having terminal cancer. It looks like she may have been secretly funding a prescription drug addiction with the money; she has been arrested and charged with theft, charitable fraud and forgery.

Whether this case is proven true or not, one fact is clear. Such stories, and even if a reader only sees the headline, hurt any and all of us who legitimately raise money from donors. It is appropriate that the news media cover the story, of course–we’re not questioning the Post’s journalistic perspective. But any time that illegal or unethical behavior nibbles at the edge of the reputation of the nonprofit sector, it is cause for concern. Even if your mission has nothing to do with cancer or the Denver metro community, such news coverage warrants consideration of whether you are doing enough to establish, reinforce, and protect your most precious resource: your reputation.

Here are ten ways to ensure that you are protecting your brand and helping to instill trust in your organization–and the sector as a whole:

  1. We joke about nonprofit PR people driving around with copies of their annual report or program brochures in the trunk of the car, always ready to hand them out. That kind of evangelical enthusiasm for communicating your mission is no joke, however–it is a wonderful spirit. Never miss an opportunity to provide quick, provocative facts about your work.
  2. Make sure your web site is current and crisp. An outdated site with poor navigability suggests that you are careless or disorganized. Again, we’re talking about your image and your reputation here. Of course you’re a busy person with limited funds, but if you can’t promptly maintain your 15-page site, then pare down to a crisp four-page one that is easy to use and provides essential facts about your mission, program, and board.
  3. Polish your elevator speech . This is a frequent message from us, but it always bears repeating. Keep it short, pack in facts, have a colleague give you feedback, and practice until it’s perfect.
  4. Make sure you are as data-specific as possible in your reporting to donors and the community at large. Vague or unclear reporting about program outcome is a red flag to a skeptical donor.
  5. Be ready, when asked, to describe precisely how a dollar donated to your organization is used . In fact, don’t wait to be asked.
  6. Work on your relationships with other nonprofits in your community as well as with reporters and editors. These relationships are critical in times of crisis when the public may look askance at our sector, rightly or wrongly. If a reporter calls you unexpectedly, be responsive and willing, even if you are surprised or uncomfortable with the question(s). Operate on good faith and tell the truth.
  7. Invest more in your board, remembering that they are your best corps of “ambassadors” and “cheerleaders.” You may be the most eloquent, best informed executive around, but there is only one of you. For message reinforcement, there is strength in numbers.
  8. Audit your donor management process. Are you thanking donors quickly enough? Are you contacting them appropriately in the months that follow a gift so that they know what difference their gift made? Are you mindful of the delicate bridge between your credibility and their trust ? Don’t take their faith in you for granted; the next time you seek a gift, they might remember that painful newspaper headline instead of your last e-newsletter.
  9. In some cases, depending on the size and nature of your nonprofit, you can even coach prospective donors about what to look for when determining what kinds of charities to support. It isn’t hard for a savvy donor to identify a false charity–but some donors, particularly young people, haven’t been exposed to how frauds and schemes occur.
  10. When you are out in public and field questions from people, there are probably trends about what they are curious about. Again, why wait to be asked? Anticipate what people need and want to know. Build your answers into your communications, including speeches, print, and electronic.

Here’s hoping your industry and your community are spared such scandals as the one making news in Denver. Realistically, however, these things do happen and they can be a valuble “teaching moment” for nonprofit professionals.

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