I am often asked—and it is a recurring topic in fund-raising forums—about whether non-profits should have a formal gift-acceptance policy. My questioners aren’t just concerned about the rare donation that may come with a tinge of doubt about the donor or a level of concern that acceptance of a specific gift may shine a less than favorable light on the organization. Some seem to have a desire to delineate in writing what an organization will and will not accept as a donation.

On one hand, it sounds like a good idea for an organization to know what type of gift, from what sources, with what strings attached it is not willing to accept. On the other, a rigid policy can get in the way of working with an unusual donor or gift, and nothing makes a policy more rigid its existence in the form of a formalized written statement. A gift-acceptance policy that is less than well thought out can be a strong negative communication to prospective donors, particularly if that policy is public—published on an organization’s website or included in an annual report or other printed documentation.

No matter how you look at it, a gift-acceptance policy is a judgment by the organization of the worthiness of gift and giver. If prospective donors are aware of the content of the policy, they are likely to feel categorized and prejudged. They may feel that the things that make their situation or gift special and therefore an exception to the hard and fast rules will be ignored. They may very well turn away from the organization in order to avoid what they see as the humiliation of having to justify their gift or even their life or business choices. For the organization that can mean a lost opportunity to have a dialog with such potential donors that might lead to finding a way to accept their gifts.

I have known organizations that have produced written gift-acceptance policies and then given them to prospective donors, especially corporations. Talk about waving a red flag in the face of the very people from whom we are seeking support! Such a published policy is a demand on the part of the seeker that requires a prospective donor to present and offer in a manner determined by the prospective beneficiary. It seems to me that such an approach can take us dangerously close to forgetting that it is donors who control the gift being given and to whom they will give it.

What Should a Gift-Acceptance Policy Be

It could be as simple as when in doubt don’t. That’s how I looked at the solicitation and the acceptance of corporate, foundation, and individual contributions while for 20 years I headed the development operation of the Cleveland Orchestra. We had many donors making a wide range of contributions for varying reasons, and we never experienced any controversy involving gifts we accepted. There may have been a few hints of such from time to time, but those amounted to just a handful of the thousands and thousands of donations received over two-decades.

For me when in doubt don’t proved to be policy enough. In my simple way of doing things, it was an intuitive response.To me an organization’s drive to establish explicit and written policy on the matter of whether to accept a donation or not would more likely be an overly zealous approach. In the first place, such guidelines could be far too broad to be of any real value. In the second, if attempts are made to fine tune the conditions of gift acceptance, the criteria adopted could be misinterpreted and misused by solicitors of donations, or misunderstood by a donor base that has been made aware of them.

You Should Know Your Donors

No organization should ever compromise its mission or its integrity in search of funding. We must always be sure there is no hidden potential for controversy in either the activities of a prospective donor or any conditions that might be attached to a gift. The best protection is to know donors and prospects—to have had them all adequately rated, evaluated, and reviewed by the committee charged with developing a list of prospective donors. If fund-raising is being conducted correctly, an organization’s solicitors should only be asking for money from prospects assigned to them, and often these are prospects they themselves identified and wanted to contact for donations. If that’s the case, then those of us back at the organization’s headquarters know all we need to know about whether or not to solicit those prospects. Assuming of course, we and our rating and evaluating committee have done our job well.

There may be exceptions, but for the most part when a campaign is developed, there must always be a list of viable potential donors about whom we know enough to have made our solicitors comfortable with the task at hand and confident that they have the opportunity to secure a proper and mutually beneficial donor relationship for the organization. This is true for all campaigns and all prospective donors be they individuals, corporations, or foundations.

When it comes to corporations and grant-making organizations such as foundations, my experience has been that they have no wish for their names to be attached to negative publicity. Controversial endeavors are potentially as damaging for them as the organizations they might support. As a result, they are likely to have worked hard to avoid association with anything that we in the non-profit world might see as damaging to our organizations. Their own self interest goes a long way toward making their generosity acceptable to us. While there are exceptions, I think we should remember that they are just that—exceptions—and avoid developing a potentially cavalier attitude that could cause us to reject acceptable donor associations. In our zeal to protect the “sanctity” of our organization against a “defilement” or danger that is not really there, we likely could come off as acting high and mighty, and that is not a good attitude at all when we are seeking someone else’s money.

Unsolicited And Suspect Donations

Rarely, there may be unsolicited offers of contributions from “suspect” donors. if so, they are likely to come from corporations or individuals who wish to offset existing negativity by being seen as doing good in the community. Other such offers may come with contingency conditions that could require the organization to do something that is not in its best interests. For example the donor may:

  • Require the organization to buy its products.
  • Want a degree of publicity and promotion which could lead to the organization expending an excessive amount of money and staff time to satisfy.
  • Request a level of recognition and appreciation that is inappropriately large when compared to other donations and therefore has the possibility of damaging existing donor relationships.
  • Insist that one of its executives become a board member of the organization.

The Best Gift-Acceptance Policy
Is Light Handed and Flexible

In my experience, the above are extremely rare occurrences, and when they arise the donation offer can be taken to the organization’s leadership so that it can be assessed on its individual merits. Handling such a donation in this manner leaves the organization greater flexibility, and that flexibility provides a far greater possibility of finding/negotiating a way to accept the gift. A published gift-acceptance policy freezes an organization’s position—at least in the minds of those who know about it. I say published here, because anytime a policy is codified and written down, it is published. You can be sure, it will go beyond the walls of the organization.

During my years at the Cleveland Orchestra, we never had a formal written gift-acceptance policy. Therefore it was never available to be taken out of context or misunderstood by either someone seeking a gift for the Orchestra or someone thinking about making a gift.

At the Cleveland Orchestra, my development department was the first level clearinghouse for all solicitations. We would work with whatever campaign committee was in place and with the standing development steering committee, to make judgments by consensus about whether a gift or giver was appropriate. As the person charged with managing our development efforts, I was deeply appreciative of both the freedom that not having a written gift-acceptance policy gave me and the process of review offered by the committees. Their experience and wisdom were tremendously useful in making decisions that were in the best interest of the Orchestra. Together we found the rare “do-we-or-don’t-we” questions not all that hard to answer on a case-by-case basis.

I truly believe that in the end the best gift-acceptance policy remains today what it always was for me—when in doubt, don’t. I found all the guidance I needed to follow that policy in:

  • Applying common sense.
  • Having an understanding of my organization and its place within the context of its various communities.
  • Knowing my donors.
  • Researching and evaluating the pool of prospects from which new donors were likely to come.

Finally, I want to raise one more reason to tread carefully when it comes to establishing a formal gift-acceptance policy with written/published rules. I believe that a rule-defined formal policy automatically puts a set of obstacles in place which must be overcome. The danger in having a formal gift-acceptance policy is feeling the need to implement it, to look for reasons to refuse donations. It may be called a gift-acceptance policy, but in reality is a gift-refusal policy, and as a development officer I never wanted to have to look first for reasons to refuse a potential donor’s generosity.