A Guide for Institutional Leaders in Turbulent Times

  • Published December 13, 2023

By Consulting Partner Melissa von Stade & Associate Consultant Bree Muehlbauer, CFRE

In an era of global unpredictability, institutional leaders find themselves confronting unique challenges, particularly in discussions with donors who may have specific expectations for their institution’s response to external events. Here, we delve into how institutional leaders can navigate these discussions, emphasizing the importance of relationships over gifts.

Acknowledge the Challenge

Begin by acknowledging the complexity of the situation. Recognize that external factors affecting your institution are beyond your immediate control, requiring nuanced communication with donors who may have specific demands or expectations.

Recognize That You’re Not Alone

Remind your teams that they are not isolated in facing these challenges. Encourage open communication among colleagues and peers at other institutions to create a supportive network that promotes resilience.

Prioritize Relationships Over Gifts

Shift the focus from the immediate impact on gifts to the broader relationship with donors. Emphasize the importance of prioritizing relationships, recognizing that while gifts may fluctuate or cease, a strong relationship can endure and potentially recover.

Prepare the Facts

Enter these discussions well-prepared by gathering relevant facts about how your institution is addressing challenges. Being well-informed ensures you can articulate your position without fumbling for information during the conversation.

Engage in Active Listening and Empathy

Focus on active listening and empathy during donor meetings. Allow donors to express their perspectives before presenting institutional facts. Acknowledge and validate their feelings by reflecting their feedback with a wish statement. You might say “I am sure you wish we didn’t have to…or wish we had handled this differently…” which allows you to express understanding without promising immediate solutions.

Seek Support

Don’t face challenging conversations alone. Involve trusted colleagues, trustees, or other leaders to provide additional perspectives and support. Communicate in advance that others will be joining the conversation to ensure a collaborative and open dialogue.

Silence Can Speak Volumes

Recognize the power of silence in communication. You don’t always need an immediate response. Embrace silence as a tool that allows space for others to share their thoughts and contributes to a more inclusive conversation.

Remember: It’s Okay to Walk Away

In certain situations, prioritize institutional values over financial gains. Recognize that walking away from a gift may be necessary if it conflicts with the principles and mission of the institution, emphasizing the importance of preserving institutional integrity. Do look for ways to leave the door open to future conversations, if it feels appropriate. Offer to follow up and check in, which will signal to the donor that the institution is not necessarily trying to end the relationship.

Handling challenging conversations with donors during turbulent times requires a delicate balance of maintaining relationships and upholding institutional values. By prioritizing active listening, empathy, and transparency, leaders can navigate these situations with resilience and integrity, ensuring their institutions remain a philanthropic priority for constituents while preserving the mission and vision that inspire giving.