Charities Unaware of Donors' Perceptions

A new report reveals that nonprofit officials are not in tune with public sentiment about such topics as marketing and government regulation

By Debra E. Blum

Charity leaders are out of touch with the typical American donor's perception of the nonprofit world, according to a new report.

Nonprofit officials overestimate donors' interest in public-policy debates -- such as the extent to which government ought to regulate charities -- and underestimate donors' distaste for fund-raising techniques, such as telemarketing, that they associate with big business, the report says.

The report, released by Public Agenda, a research organization in New York, is based on six focus groups conducted with men and women who were considered "civically engaged" -- that is, they had voted in the last election, belonged to a civic group, had given at least $300 to charities, and had volunteered at least once in the past year.

The report is also based on one-on-one interviews with 15 officials of charities around the country.

It was paid for by the Kettering Foundation, in Dayton, Ohio, and prepared for Independent Sector, a coalition of more than 500 charities and foundations.

Distaste for Marketing

Over all, the report describes donor sentiment for charities as "enthusiastic and positive," especially when it comes to small, local organizations and human-service groups.

At the same time, the report says that donors have a long memory for publicized instances of scandal and waste at nonprofit organizations, and that many donors have strong negative opinions about the way larger, national organizations and their local chapters often try to reach out to them.

Donors rejected marketing practices that they say mimic those in the corporate world, such as producing expensive brochures, conducting frequent mailings, running high-profile events, and soliciting by telephone.

They also raised concerns about executive pay, saying that salaries in the nonprofit world should not match those in the commercial world.

The report says that while charity officials struggle to operate nonprofit groups "without seeming crass or money-grubbing," they resent that donors do not understand the challenges they face or what it takes to keep a charity financially afloat and running smoothly.

And while charity officials are consumed by the details of public-policy debates on such issues as regulatory oversight and financial disclosure, the report says, those issues, to the average donor, are both incomprehensible and irrelevant. Not a single donor in the focus groups had ever checked a charity's Form 990 informational tax return, the report says, yet most of the charity officials agreed that promoting greater openness about nonprofit finances would benefit the public.

"The public's sentiment is much more about the passion they feel for the work of charities," the report says.

It adds: "The caution we urge here is to be ever-vigilant about balancing the messages of accountability and charitable mission to reassure the public of the propriety of the nonprofit sector."

The full report, "The Charitable Impulse," is available free on Public Agenda's Web site.

Debra E. Blum contributes regularly to The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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