Donors Must Recognize the Constraints on Nonprofits

To the Editor:

Theodore Wagenaar’s opinion piece — “Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization” — was interesting and informative and presented ideas that align with what most development directors would say are best practices. Unfortunately, it lacked self-awareness and failed to acknowledge the challenges nonprofits face.

It’s clear that many of his experiences were disappointing, but implementing his suggestions would require nonprofits to spend more on overhead expenses for staff, which most donors refuse to fund. Donors have every right to be treated with respect and have their questions addressed. But if a donor is contributing only to programming, then they are contributing to the problem.

My comments are not intended to excuse the poor service Wagenaar received. As a former executive director, I would be embarrassed if our donors had a similar experience. I recommend donors think beyond only funding specific programs. They should instead ask the nonprofit partners what they need to be more effective as an organization — and then fund it.

Michael Howard
Board Chair
Children’s Trust Fund of Missouri


To the Editor:

Theodore Wagenaar’s op-ed, while raising valid concerns from the viewpoint of a donor, might overlook the multitude of challenges that nonprofit organizations grapple with in today’s economy.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy shows that nonprofits across the United States are struggling with high levels of staff burnout and difficulties filling and retaining positions. This context is crucial when considering the ability of nonprofits to respond to questions such as those Wagenaar poses.

The kind of detailed and personalized communication he desires often requires general operating funds that many donors are unwilling to provide. In fact, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy points out that only 20 to 25 percent of grant dollars are awarded for general operating support.


I do agree with Wagenaar’s thoughts on galas. These events often underscore the social divide between donors and those benefiting from their generosity, rather than fostering genuine understanding and connection. However, it’s essential to tread carefully when suggesting that making donations should automatically grant you access to the people who benefit from the services that nonprofits provide. We should avoid engaging in so-called poverty porn, which can exploit the very individuals we are striving to help.

The expectation that beneficiaries should be available for donor interactions can lead to uncomfortable dynamics that further marginalize those we seek to support.

Sarah Stickney Murphy
Management and Fundraising Consultant
Stickney Murphy Consulting LLC


To the Editor:

While I share Theodore Wagenaar’s disappointment that some nonprofits have ignored his outreach, his points that organizations “need to listen, ask questions, and respond to donors’ needs” if they want to encourage further gifts is myopic. Yes, nonprofits rely on the generosity of donors, but they exist to serve a common good.

Many nonprofits do not have the bandwidth to implement the author’s suggestions, let alone a staff member in a dedicated role to execute them. A 2021 survey revealed that the “majority of the organizations surveyed had lost at least one professional fundraiser since 2018,” three in 10 fundraisers had vacancies on their teams, and “85 percent reported difficulty finding candidates to fill open positions.” Focusing on the long-term game means you have time to think about the future, a luxury that many nonprofits do not have.

And while I appreciate his suggestion that organizations should find alternatives to galas, even hosting an ice-cream social can be time-consuming for a small organization. If you’re operating on a shoestring budget, you can’t spend a few hundred dollars entertaining donors.

Moreover, the author’s desire to meet a nonprofit’s clients and know the names of scholarship recipients is white saviorism, a harmful trend in philanthropy. Instead of centering people he wants to help, he’s prioritizing his needs. Would the author prefer staff spend their time catering to donors’ requests, or would he rather they spend time helping clients?

Yes, transparency and financial reporting matter. But are financial statements such as 990s, independent audits, and annual reports insufficient? And how would Wagenaar measure “demonstrated effectiveness”? Is he going to ask about overhead rates or impact per dollar, which fail to tell the whole story? If so, he should realize that this is problematic.

The author has the right to dispense his money however he likes, but I hope he and others like him will reflect on their motives, explore new approaches such as trust-based philanthropy and community-centric fundraising, and overcome suspicions that are detrimental to the causes they support.

Organizations shouldn’t feel compelled to fulfill a donor’s wishes if it’s at the expense of clients, staff, and community. We need to work together to transform unjust systems and stop obsessing over things such as reporting requirements that don’t advance the cause.

Abegail Baguio
Development and Communications Director
Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition


Transparency and Prompt Responses Matter in Fundraising

To the Editor:

Theodore Wagenaar’s thoughtful op-ed about why he stopped donating to various organizations speaks to what those of us in the fundraising field know are best practices: responding to gifts promptly and accurately, sharing information with donors about the impact of their gifts, and listening to them when they want to engage more deeply. This is simply good stewardship.

Unfortunately, these practices are too often ignored. Many say they’re too busy to acknowledge gifts within a reasonable amount of time, say a week or two. Others believe it’s fine to only tell donors about the impact of their gifts when asking for the next gift. Some clearly feel that engaging directly with donors isn’t that important.

It’s true that some donors demand a lot of attention or ask for things that are not possible. But experienced staff should know how to handle this. Planning for ways to bring donors closer to the work on the ground, so they can truly see the impact of their gifts, should be part of every good fund-development plan.

Theresa Nelson
Founder and Principal
Theresa Nelson & Associates


To the Editor:

Theodore Wagenaar’s op-ed hit home in a big way. For 10 years, I worked at two major Atlanta Jewish community nonprofits. As an employee, I donated to each because I believed in our work and my direct contributions to those efforts.

But when I left more than six years ago to lead a for-profit travel company, they suddenly ignored me. No one at the organizations acknowledged my donations or contributions to donor-advised funds.

Recently, my husband sold his business for a nice profit. We have married children and grandchildren living in another state who support themselves and aren’t waiting for a big inheritance. We now have disposable income, more time on our hands, and newfound passions for many worthy causes outside of our immediate community that value and benefit from our donations.

Needless to say, I don’t feel it’s my job to teach these nonprofits how to do theirs. If they truly cared about me or anyone as a donor, especially knowing what I know about their important work, they’d reach out.

Cheri S. Levitan
Kenes Tours Global Services


To the Editor:

I always want to know both why a donor makes a gift and why they stop making gifts. At my organization, we talk to our donors at least twice a year and have at least two to four more points of contact through emails, cards, a video clip of our mission in action, or free, feel-good functions with no fundraising asks. This is why Theodore Wagenaar’s piece resonated with me.

A donor is investing in our mission, and I owe that donor a return on their investment. I often use those terms and thank them for investing. I write a personal note on every thank-you that shares how their gift contributed to the mission. Donors tell me that’s why they give: because they hear or read what their gift is doing. One donor shared with a board member that in his 83 years no one has ever called to personally thank him for making a gift before my call. He was surprised and impressed and shared that he would be a consistent donor.

Most people give because they care and hope to make a difference. This holds true for my giving as well. I give to organizations that I see truly helping the community they serve and are willing to take the time to share that impact with me.

Barbara W. Auten
Executive Director
Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, Louisiana


To the Editor:

Thank you for Theodore Wagenaar’s wonderful article. I found it completely true and a salient reminder about the importance of acknowledging, respecting, and being transparent with donors. I’ll be sharing this with my team and with my colleagues across the fundraising industry.

Rochelle Kwiatkowski
Director of Development
Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado and Wyoming

Some Things Are More Important Than Giving Donors Attention

To the Editor:

Customer service is undoubtedly part of the field of fundraising, and the author of this opinion piece definitely sounds like he’s in the major-giving realm, so he probably expects extra attention. Calling out unprofessionalism and reminding us about good communication standards is important.

But when I read a critique like this, I’m compelled to ask: What would be enough communication for you? If the first person responded to you, would you have continued donating? If you had received three newsletters instead of four? What would you need to feel you weren’t being slighted? People don’t know what they want.

Being a professional fundraiser is taxing, and sometimes we forget things. I try to respond to every email within 24 hours. When I don’t, I apologize. It’s not a sinister sign that someone’s not important to me. It’s a sign of humanity.

The standards are shifting because how generations receive information is shifting. Millennials and Gen Z might get answers on social media or the website. Phone calls aren’t the only way people can learn about funding sources, and donors shouldn’t expect one.

Rachel M. Reis
Donor Relations/Fund Development Coordinator
Methodist Richardson Medical Center Foundation


To the Editor:

I agree with some of Theodore Wagenaar’s op-ed. Donors want to know that their funds are being used toward the organization’s mission. And yes, organizations should acknowledge the generosity of their supporters. But as I lean more into trust-based philanthropy in my work as a program officer, I recognize the need for donors to do the homework.

Donors should gather information about the organization, versus asking the organization to provide it, because nonprofits, particularly small, community-led, grassroots organizations, are understaffed, underfunded, and overwhelmed.

When donors demand individual attention, they take staff away from the mission-based work that the donors wish to support. Many small nonprofits don’t have dedicated development personnel. Staff who raise money may also develop strategy, do the financial planning, and run programs. They may be busy trying to find housing for a single mom without safe shelter or seeking care for a young person with a mental-health emergency. Donors should know these organizations are putting their donations to use doing the work they initially invested in, rather than spending hours hosting meetings with supporters.

The pandemic and the fallout from the nation’s racial reckoning has forced most nonprofits to pivot so often, they must be suffering from vertigo. Emergency funds are basically gone. Organizations that rely on earned income have found that those dollars are slow to return. Inflation has made everything more expensive, including personnel costs, and has caused individuals to cut back support after extending their gifts in 2020 and 2021. Even some large foundations, worried about the stock market, have slowed their giving.

Please give these organizations some grace. Learn what you can about the organizations you’re interested in. Ask other donors and foundations who support them what they think. Read about them in GuideStar and charity review sites. Trust that they are doing good work, and support them as generously as you have been. And know that they are grateful for every dollar.

Sharon DeMark
Program Officer
Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation


To the Editor:

As a former nonprofit executive director and the current CEO of a foundation, my immediate response to a donor saying “show me more love” is simply: It’s not about you.

Most executive directors and development directors understand the importance of donor management and responsive communication and do it well. Perhaps in a perfect world, every donor would receive a handwritten thank-you note, but in the real world, most nonprofit leaders are severely overworked and underresourced. Many are managing staff, donors, a board of directors, volunteers, and constituents while focusing on program development, service delivery, compliance, reporting, and impact.

As a funder, I’d rather they prioritize any of those tasks than making sure I felt good about my donation. Instead of telling organizations what they should be doing differently, why don’t we as donors ask ourselves and the organizations how we can show them more love.

Lior Ipp
The Roddenberry Foundation