7 Best Practices for Nonprofit Leaders Who Fundraise for Controversial Causes

Nonprofit leaders share best practices on how to fundraise for controversial causes while staying true to your mission and yourself.

No one can argue with helping sick kids or puppies, but what do you do when you’re fundraising for a cause that isn’t so agreeable? As an activist, it’s critical to stay true to your values while maintaining the ability to fundraise successfully. But how do you balance the two in the polarized society we live in today?

In our recent webinar, we sat down with folks who tackle these complex questions in their work each day. Our panel included:

Here’s what their experiences have taught them about championing causes that can often become the focus of controversy, from effectively communicating the core of their mission to navigating tricky conversations.


1. Peel Back the Politics

​​It's safe to say that most of us want clean water, fair wages, and equal access to quality health care regardless of political leanings. But from white supremacy culture to capitalism, oppressive systems in our society strive to limit our options by labeling them as “Democrat issues” or “Republican ideals.” 

The fact is, political lobbying challenges our nonprofit work to improve the conditions for everyday humans by dividing people so that those in power can grow their wealth and influence at the cost of others’ pain. And unfortunately, in addition to everything else we’re tasked with doing, we also must fight against these ideas. When we politicize things that are essentially human rights, we need to be thoughtful about our approach to donors and funders by leading with our values and intentionally building communications that raise the vibration around the heart of what we do.


2. Surround Yourself With People Whose Values        Align With Your Mission

When you’re content to bring anybody to the table, even those who disagree, those internal conflicts can slow down your work. While it’s not prudent to shun people with opposing views, it’s important to build a strong community foundation to strengthen your cause before reaching beyond your supporters to people on the fence or vehemently opposed to your mission.

For starters, identify funders and donors who care about your cause and grow relationships with other organizations on the front line so you can learn together. As a team, you can get your vision out in all different directions and tell your story in a variety of ways that draws people to you, even those you wouldn’t expect. 

We’re not talking about transactional corporate partnerships where you slap a logo on your event banner. Growth comes through transformational relationships centered around a shared passion for your cause and the community you serve. 


3. Navigate Differences By Finding Common              Ground

Talking together is how we will find the way forward, and that takes time. As the most precious resource in the nonprofit world, time can feel too limited to spend on meeting with people who aren't ready to jump on board and support you. But by sitting down, listening to others, and having respectful conversations, you can plant seeds that blossom into meaningful relationships and, eventually, the change you strive to create each day.  

Stick to the bigger issue, the heart of your mission that everyone can agree upon - a healthy community, a well community, a safe community - whatever your mission can realize in the world. Don’t let the headlines dominate what could be a productive conversation and a learning moment for both you and the person on the other side. Try to listen more than talk to understand the why and where they're coming from. When people feel heard, they’re much more likely to hear you, too.


4. Manage Donor Conflicts with Empathy

Supporting controversial causes can strain donor relationships at times. Instead of straying away from critical conversations, welcome them. 

For example, panelist Connie Heflin reached out to a local sports club on behalf of Super Shot, a nonprofit that provides vaccine access for children. She asked if popular figures at the sports club would take photos with kids and to encourage them to come out, but the club declined because they didn’t want to get caught in the crossfires of immunizations and the social media backlash that could arise from it. 

Rather than show her disappointment, Connie appreciated their honest feedback and the opportunity to learn where they stand on the issue. She listened and acknowledged their conflicted feelings. And because of her understanding approach, Connie knows that someday down the road, that “not now” might become a “yes,” which will be a win for both sides. 


5. Keep It Real with Your Donors

When donors push back against your organization’s stance on a particular issue, welcome the opportunity for a learning moment. Develop some resources, studies, polls, data, and other materials that support your position, and share it with them. If you really want to walk the walk, you can't sway from your convictions when your donors disagree with what you’re doing. 

Instead, come prepared and recognize that, most likely, their feelings aren’t ill-intentioned. Craft your words carefully and meet the donor where they are. Use common terminology rather than industry acronyms that might muddle your message or make the donor feel uncomfortable. People don't like to admit when they’re unfamiliar with things. On our side, we sometimes forget when we're closest to an issue that we're familiar with language and specific topics that are foreign to those beyond our organization.


6. Shift Your Mindset As to How You See the              Controversy

Remember that no matter how draining and upsetting it may be, you’re an asset amid controversy. Controversial work is often life-saving work, so call it what it is, and remember that every time controversy arises, more people can learn about your work - as donors and as recipients of your services. 

Your work and organization provide reassurance and comfort to those most vulnerable simply because it exists when difficult events happen, and people are eager to pitch in. For example, the recent uproar caused by the SCOTUS leak generated an outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood chapters around the country, even as some members of Congress jumped at the chance to keep the momentum moving around stripping women of critical health care. 

Systemic oppression makes it so that we can't envision another way outside of what we’re told is the only solution. And for the people in power, there’s profit in maintaining the status quo. When you break it down this way, the individualism and scarcity mindset that says, “I’m on my own, so you’re on your own,” or “If you make it, I won’t,” suddenly disappears. And what we’re left with is a sense of belonging and solidarity with those around us. And this abundance framework that tells us that there is more than enough for everyone can gel into a united message from everyone affected by the cause at hand, as well as those who want to see it change for the benefit of others in their community.


7. Protect and Nurture Your Mental Health

When you dedicate your life and career to tackling some of society’s most complex and heart-wrenching issues, that work affects your mental health. And the toughest part about that reality? Only you can prioritize your mental health, self-care, and wellbeing. 

Recognize burnout and create internal systems to combat it.

Your organizational structures and culture are driving factors of burnout among you and your colleagues. Ensuring that you and your team have processes and resources in place to streamline your work and support one another so you can help your mission at a healthy pace is paramount to your growth as an organization and your wellbeing. 

Rest, hydrate, and take breaks throughout the day.

If we act like the corporate entities we're trying to change, we’ll never get to where we want to be. You’re a human, not a robot. You have families, troubles, and needs just like everybody else. Set boundaries and unplug when the day is done to give yourself that much-needed rest that will fuel you through tomorrow’s big tasks. 

Pass on the pursuit of perfectionism.

The pursuit of perfection is damaging to your own self-care. Not to mention, it’s tied up in the individualism we aim to eliminate. Rather than obsess over perfectionism, strive for collective excellence, where we are supporting one another as we champion our cause together as a community. 

Seek out the positive in your day.

Meditate with gratitude and reflect on the incredible work you do. You give back to create a stronger, healthier, and equitable community, and no matter how tough your week may be, believe that you’re making a difference because you are

We all want to leave this place better than how we found it, but to do so, we need to invest in and care for ourselves just as we do for our missions. So take a breath and care for yourself. We’re in it for the long haul, and the time we invest in ourselves is, in fact, selfless because it makes us better at everything else we do.

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