Dear Joan: How Do I Fire a Donor?

by Joan Garry

Dear Joan: Here’s a question for you. Can we break up with a donor? A high maintenance one who causes more trouble than their money or engagement is…

Each month, Joan responds to readers who send emails asking for nonprofit advice, practical solutions, or just general therapy (Joan tries not to make direct comments on a reader’s psychological state — that’s called practicing without a license.)

This month, Joan tackles questions from new ED’s whose predecessors stick around, mission alignment, and the donor who may be more trouble than s/he is worth.



Dear Joan: Here’s a question for you. Can we break up with a donor? Sometimes donors are high maintenance and cause more trouble than their money or engagement is worth.

– I’ve Had It.

Dear Had It: So I suppose the questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • What does the trouble look like?
  • How much money?
  • What is the impact of the trouble?

I’m pragmatic. I’m ready to kowtow to a very big donor. Get used to it. I had a donor who told me flat out that the only reason she gave $10,000 to GLAAD was to ensure that a celebrity was seated at her table at our gala. Now I granted her request but not without a response: “Wow. I thought you were so generous because you cared deeply about our mission.” I developed a wonderful relationship with this donor and learned to appreciate her for who she was. She was high maintenance but she was also strategic and generous beyond measure.

In the spirit of pragmatism, the amount of the money they give is also a factor. The bigger the donor, the more slack you should cut them.

The final question is the most important – what does the trouble look like? If a donor is attempting to hijack programs by restricting a gift to something that is either off mission or off strategy, you have to hold the reins tight. Work to redirect; manipulate if you have to – connect their idea to something the organization really needs.

So let me be sure to answer your question. Can you fire a donor?

Yes. But make sure that it is a mission or staff threshold and not your own intolerance. If you can’t redirect, if the donor wreaks havoc with your staff or holds you hostage in some way that feels “icky,” yes, you can “quit them.”

Donor work can be about kowtowing and ego stroking. But for as many of those painful donors out there, there are exponentially more that will inspire YOU. Remember — your staff’s integrity, your integrity, and the integrity of the mission of the organization is paramount.

A donor working against those things has money you don’t want.

– Joan


Dear Joan: I’m a new E.D. and was hired by a great board and a great search committee. I arrived to find board and staff in different places with regard to the interpretation of the mission. The board and I are in alignment but when we talk about our vision, the staff gets nervous, maybe even squeamish. Help! I am clear – the one thing that has to shine through is our mission. How can I get everyone on the same page?

– My Org Needs A Chiropractor

Dear Misaligned: There is actually very good news in your email. You and the board are in sync re: mission. That is fantastic and if this were not the case, you’d have a much bigger problem on your hand.

You have a staff that is not in alignment with you and the board.

Your staff is the issue.

You need to have an offsite with them and share your (and the board’s) vision in a way that diminishes their squeamishness, identifies the importance of this mission, and why you as the new leader believe so deeply in it. Let them talk about the root of their concerns and anticipate these objection questions ahead of time with thoughtful, respectful answers.

Pay a lot of attention.

Who is “getting it?” Who is digging in their heels.

The folks digging in their heels — who cannot embrace the mission — may not belong on the bus.

There is often turnover in the first year of the tenure of an ED. You MUST get the right people on the bus in order to move the important work of your organization forward.

– Joan


Dear Joan: Our organization has grown in size and scope and has outgrown our E.D.  The executive director gets it but the board is very anxious to maintain the outgoing leader’s ties with the organization. Some board members think the outgoing E.D. should become a board member (some even suggest a board chair); others say we should look at co-executive directors and still others suggest that the outgoing E.D. serve under the new leader in a strategy role. I’m worried about undermining the new leader. Should I be? 

– Worried.

 Dear Worried: Two important messages for you to hear loud and clear:

  • You should be worried
  • You are THE voice of sanity in all of this debate

Boards are so terribly timid about letting a leader go. It is a huge problem. Boards have to recognize that organizations demand different kinds of leaderships at different points of evolution. And they have to be OK with that.

Yet, boards create the most ridiculous structures to allow for the outgoing leader to have some role even though they are outgoing for a reason. In way too many cases, boards do something that then impedes the ability of the new leader to lead.

I’ve seen co-executive director situations (I don’t believe in co-anything except marriages). I’ve seen a board hire a CEO who seemed to be a strong external person and then decide that the COO (who also applied for the job) should also report directly to the board (Yikes!) I have seen it all.

Boards have to buck up. If it’s time for new leadership, then it’s time for new leadership. Be a master to your mission and do what is right for the organization.

Could that mean hurting the feelings of a longstanding leader? Yup. But those are the kinds of decisions that grownup boards who care deeply about the mission of their organizations do.

They do what is best and right for the organization. And that typically means giving a leader the reins with no strings attached.

– Joan

If you have further advice for any of this week’s “Dear Joans” please share in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “Dear Joan: How Do I Fire a Donor?”

  1. I’m all about breaking up with donors. As a MG officer, we have limited time so we need to invest it in a way that has the greatest return for the organization. Of course we should try to meet donors with where they are and do our best to connect them to the organization in ways that are meaningful to them (like sitting next to a celebrity), but more often than not, those donors can be the ones holding back the organization from reaching its potential.

  2. I disagree with the advice regarding the board and new ED and the staff. The staff are the ones doing the work, presumably following the mission. Too often the board has really no idea what goes on every day, and I think the new ED would do well to find out what the staff think the mission is based on the work they are doing, and then perhaps check the mission statement, bylaws, older documents against what the board says the mission is. If you asked my board what the mission of the organization was, you’d get 7 different answers and then I would set you straight. 🙂
    If the staff is truly not following the mission in the work they do, then they have a choice–do the work of the organization or move on, but for the new ED to assume the problem is with the staff, I think, is a mistake.

  3. You are very off base with your response. The organization’s mission and direction belongs to the leadership. The staff’s role is to carry out the direction, not come up with their own. It’s time for new staff. I would tell them to get on my page or we will miss them. You are either on the team, or not.

  4. Mothra. So sorry for the late response. Appreciate your candor here. So here’s how I see it. The board should not, depending on the size of your organization, be involved in the day-to-day work of the staff. But this does not mean they should not be in alignment about the mission of the organization. If you ask 7 board members and get 7 different answers, I believe you might have a strategy problem. At the very least, you have a mixed bag of ambassadors out talking about, promoting and finding resources for your organization. Unless you and I are using the word “mission” differently?

  5. Daryl. Ultimately it is the board’s responsibility to set the organization’s mission. Clearly this is done in partnership with the staff leadership. Should the mission be re-visited every few years? You bet. Should the staff have some role in that process? You bet. In fact, the staff might be the folks who believe the work needs to shift based on what they see every day and they may be the folks who prompt the bigger strategic discussion.

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