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Religion, Politics, and Nonprofit Organizations

Most of us were raised on the adage “Don’t talk about religion or politics” with family or at social gatherings. If we listened to Linus van Pelt, we know not to talk about “religion, politics, or the Great Pumpkin” with other people. But due to the ubiquity of Facebook, a relatively new Pope that even most atheists think is cool, and a political season upon us in the U.S., most of us leap over that line of what is “appropriate” to talk about in public on a daily basis (yes, I am including myself in that group).
Anyone who has worked as a fundraiser or the Executive Director of a 501c3 nonprofit organization knows it is, for the most part, smart to keep your political opinions to yourself in the nonprofit realm as well. There are a number of reasons for this; at the risk of oversimplification, I’ll boil it down to the benefit of neutrality. It is best never to assume that because someone supports the mission of your organization, then they also hold the same personal beliefs as you. And starting an argument over elephants and donkeys probably isn’t going to endear you to your organization’s supporters.

That is why you rarely see development professionals or nonprofit executives with political bumper stickers on their vehicles. If you pick a potential donor up for lunch to ask for a gift, and they see your bumper sticker that promotes a philosophy they abhor, that donor meeting may fast become an uncomfortable situation!

And so it goes; no promoting religion or politics unless they are your organizational mission. Check. What we should have, however, are Gift Acceptance Policies and fundraising practices that adhere to some standard of neutrality. That can be a little harder, especially if your nonprofit represents a politically or emotionally charged subject, is faith-based, or is built upon a set of beliefs that is “alternative” to the mainstream. All the same, it is important for nonprofit organizations to protect themselves, from the Board of Directors on down, by having appropriate policies and procedures in place.

Written policies can help nonprofits manage a situation where they are offered a gift that could be considered contrary to their mission and values. Here is an example: Ms. Chemical Donor works for Chemicals-R-Us. Her company would like to give a significant gift to a school for people with developmental disabilities in the same town as the company’s manufacturing plant. Great, right? But what if the chemicals her company manufactures have been directly linked to causing developmental disabilities at birth? What is a nonprofit to do?

A well-written Gift Acceptance Policy will answer this question outright; it will have clauses stating that the Board of Directors has the right, if not the obligation, to refuse any gift that is at odds with the organization’s mission and values. Most policies will also have some type of ethics clause. Ethics clauses may come into play in this type of situation: Mr. Not-So-Nice owns an “escort service” on the Las Vegas strip. He is looking for a suitable tax deduction and decides to give a gift to a charity that rescues women and men who have been trafficked for sex. Should the charity take the gift? Most would agree the answer would be a resounding No. But such a “no” is easier to explain to a donor if it is backed up by written policy.

We’ve covered gift acceptance; now let’s move on to fundraising tactics and activities. Should one hold a Beer Pong Extravaganza event to raise funds for an alcohol-treatment recovery center? See how “no” might be a prudent answer here? It isn’t that people are trying to be purposely insensitive when they suggest these events; it is more often the case that they just didn’t think the fundraising idea all the way through. A Beer Pong event might be just fine to raise funds for a nonprofit whose mission focuses on teaching Millennials how to start community vegetable gardens, but not for the recovery center (though right now the Millennial readers are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Beer Pong is sooo five years ago.”). The message here is that it is important to be sensitive to the community you are serving when deciding on what fundraising activities to undertake.

A recent example is the
United Way of Otero’s gun raffle to raise charity funds. If you haven’t seen the hubbub about it yet, a New Mexico affiliate of the United Way is raffling off rifles, shotguns, and handguns to raise funds. In some states, that would not even be a legal option, but it must be in New Mexico. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that particular affiliate was thinking about the characteristics of their Board of Directors and their local community and decided that such a raffle would be well received.

Even if something would be accepted in your immediate community, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good idea to go through with it. We are not fundraising in a vacuum. In the U.S. in 2016 we are fundraising in a national atmosphere of tension, divisiveness, and discord. No matter who we are or what we believe in, we are all living through an unprecedented time of uncertainty in our country, much of which is centered around the issue of gun violence. So when representatives of one of the nation’s oldest nonprofits (a charity that focuses on bettering lives by focusing on help with education, income, and health) decides to hold a fundraiser that pokes at one of the biggest societal hot buttons in a century, it gives some of us pause.

I’ll leave you with this. Having documented organizational mission, values, and policies can help you and your Board of Directors navigate uncertain situations. Not everyone will agree on what gifts are okay to take and which aren’t, nor will everyone agree on what fundraising activities are acceptable. In most cases, there are two rules of thumb by which I try to make such decisions: 1. If you wouldn’t want it on the front page of the paper (or under the masthead online) in a negative way, don’t do it. And, 2. Just because you can do a thing does not mean you should do that thing. Always keep your organization’s best interest and reputation in mind and remember that it is part of a greater community. Actions that damage or inflame the whole while trying to benefit one individual part are not keeping the long game in mind.

When all else fails, just try to avoid bringing religion, politics, or The Great Pumpkin into your nonprofit fundraising.

Tracy Vanderneck, MSM, CFRE
President, Phil-Com, LLC
Phil-Com is a CFRE International Approved Continuing Education Provider
Copyright © 2016 Phil-Com, LLC, All rights reserved.

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