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Revisiting and Revising the “Donor Bill of Rights”

Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group
Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group

In 1993, four respected organizations worked closely together to publish a list of 10 “rights” intended to establish a stronger relationship between philanthropists and their nonprofit beneficiaries. That list is still in use today.

However, 23 years ago the world was vastly different – as was the world of philanthropy. Because of far-reaching changes that have taken place since then, the Donor Bill of Rights and its 10 precepts now are significantly out of date.

When this document was first published, technologies like the internet and digital cellular communication were embryonic. Nonprofits had no websites. Access to online information about an organization’s mission, programs, finances and leadership was little more than a futuristic dream.

A nonprofit’s Form 990 – the revealing IRS annual nonprofit tax filing that provides the public with detailed financial and other information – was available only upon request by mail, fax or a visit to a nonprofit’s office.

Many new ways of donating that we now accept as commonplace – including giving days, online contributions, crowdfunding, social media fundraising, ice-bucket challenges and texted disaster-relief support – had yet to be imagined.

Because of these and other dramatic changes, those of us concerned with philanthropy and its important results must re-think many aspects of the relationship between donors and the organizations they support. Today, technology drives the nonprofit sector. Today, public reporting and open records are standard. Today, philanthropy is trending to partnerships, collective action, complex investments, impact analysis, transparency – and more.

Today, philanthropy is better defined by “strategic partnership principles” rather than “rights.”

With credit to the authors of the original Donor Bill of Rights, here is my version of what today’s philanthropists should seek as they partner with today’s nonprofits on a shared journey to achieve their respective missions.

Donors and nonprofits should expect:

  • That the relationship between donors and nonprofits is a partnership – where each party’s needs and expectations for achieving internal and external objectives are considered.
  • Transparency, honesty and full disclosure regarding the actual impact of nonprofits’ work rather than a mere report on nonprofits’ activities. Reporting should focus on outcomes, not just outputs.
  • Acknowledgement of nonprofit failures and shortcomings (as well as successes) in achieving mission – and a willingness to “fail forward.”
  • Access to nonprofit websites that contain readily available and current financial and operational information – including the most recent IRS Form 990 submissions and, where practicable, audited financial statements.
  • Assurance that each donor’s privacy is adequately protected – including internal management and technology controls to prevent inadvertent or unwanted disclosure of personal information.
  • Disclosure of the money paid to outsourced fundraisers that are retained to raise funds on a nonprofit’s behalf – including door-to-door and telephone solicitors as well as vehicle-donation programs.
  • That professional advisors, consultants, referral sources or any others seeking to influence a donor’s philanthropic decisions will inform the donor of any conflicts of interest, referral fees, dual retention arrangements or other such agreements.
  • An understanding of and respect for nonprofit organizations’ missions. Donors in particular should be sensitive to driving potential “mission creep” that might have the effect of steering nonprofits away from their declared objectives.
  • When making funding decisions that consider salaries and overhead costs, recognition by donors that most nonprofit professionals are underpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts, often with inadequate resources to do their jobs – even though they’re working tirelessly to tackle some of society’s most difficult challenges.
  • At the outset of a funding relationship, clarification of the donor’s intent, desire for recognition, volunteer willingness and capacity, and expected duration of ongoing support.

Ideally, this new list of 10 “strategic partnership principles” will spark a productive conversation within the philanthropic sector – a conversation that acknowledges the steady evolution in the last quarter-century of what it means to be a strategic and effective philanthropist.

This conversation may also enhance the opportunity for both donors and nonprofits to achieve greater impact in their interdependent efforts to improve local, regional, national and global communities. I look forward to your feedback.

This post originally appeared in the Denver Post on September 11, 2016. It is reposted here by the author with permission. 

About Bruce DeBoskey

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses and foundations design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. More information at deboskeygroup.com.

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