What nonprofits can learn from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

| by Bert Armstrong

Those who know me well know that I’m a bit of a political junky, especially around the presidential election season that rolls around every four years.  During these days between political conventions and the November 8th election I find myself glued to the debates like they are playoff games before the Super Bowl.  I stay up late at night flipping between CNN and Fox News to hear the spin on the sometimes silly and sometimes stupid news about the latest tweets, taxes and emails - noise that distracts us from what matters most.  And I read the tweets and posts of my friends on the left and the right and hope that when the election is over, we can all play nice with each other again as we go back to posting about ice-bucket challenges and sharing pictures of what we ate for dinner. 

Of all the things I hope we can forget about or move on from after this political campaign season, I wanted to offer a shout out to the Clinton and Trump campaigns for teaching me a few important lessons that nonprofits might take to heart.  I will qualify this praise of both campaigns by saying we’ve learned as much in some cases by what they’ve done wrong as what they’ve done right. 

Lesson 1:  Stay on message and stick to the issues that matter.  We’ve seen polls rise and fall based on each candidate’s ability to stay on their own message vs. letting their hyperbolic language, senseless gaffes, and careless behaviors allow their opponent to dictate the daily and weekly news cycles.  While the bumbling buffoonery is great material for Saturday Night Live skits, it is not particularly helpful in offering a genuinely concerned voting public the information they need to make up their minds.

Similarly, when our nonprofits stay on message and talk about the impact we are having and the difference we are making, donors get to hear powerful stories of lives being changed and they can see how their own giving helps make that work even stronger. When we fail to tell compelling stories of how we help people and communities, or when we find ourselves chasing grant dollars for programs that draw us away from our real mission, or when we make panicked appeals to donors to help meet budget shortfalls because of poor financial leadership and accountability, donors become frustrated, confused and less likely to want to invest in the important work they believed our agencies were about. 

Lesson 2:  Endorsements and surrogates matter.  Having influential leaders who endorse candidates and articulate professionals who can help build the narrative around a position helps strengthen their image in the eyes of voters who are looking to feel good about their candidate and what he or she will do for the country. 

Similarly, nonprofits need the support and endorsements of strong community leaders, business leaders, faith leaders, advocates, along with great executive directors, development officers and communications officers to help strengthen the narrative of an organization’s work and attract others into the fold. 

Lesson 3:  Transparency is a tricky thing.  I for one am frustrated with Trump’s unwillingness to release his tax returns.  I’m equally frustrated with not knowing whether or not there is anything of substantive concern surrounding what was or was not in Clinton’s lost or destroyed emails.  In trying to be as honest with myself as possible, I really don’t think either of those issues would make or break my decision to vote for my chosen candidate.  BUT, the fact that our two leading candidates for the highest public office in the land have these clouds of untrustworthiness hanging over them is a big reason why so many of the “undecided voters” are not jumping on the Trump or Clinton bandwagon. 

It’s often the same with nonprofits.  Even the slightest hint of a nonprofit not being good stewards of the gifts and investments they receive can lead to distrust, lost confidence, lost investments, and the loss of new potential donors who aren’t willing to commit their philanthropy to an organization with a cloud of doubt hanging over its head.  When nonprofits make mistakes, it is the responsibility of its leaders to acknowledge them and ensure that corrective action is taken.  We must let our donors know that we take seriously the responsibility for being good stewards of the public trust and philanthropy.    

I hope you all go out and vote on November 8th. Not just to elect our next President, but also our next Governor, U.S. Senator and Congressmen, State House and Senate leaders, Mayors and Town Councils.  Regardless of who you support, participating in this thing called Democracy matters.  Likewise, I hope that each of you does your own due diligence in selecting charitable organizations whose missions align with your values, whose leaders and champions are people of great character that you can trust, and whose stewardship of the dollars entrusted to them is a genuine priority that is baked in to their culture.  Because participating in this thing called philanthropy also matters.  

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