“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

– Stephen R. Covey

The success of an NGO, similar to any relationship, is built on a strong foundation of trust; it’s a fundamental trait NGOs need to develop. Here are five key tips to help you, as an NGO, build trust with your donors.

1) Make donors partners, don’t friend-raise them

“Friend-raising” has become a popular term among fundraising efforts. It refers to a fundraising mindset of being primarily focused on building friendships with individuals, foundations, or companies, rather than simply accepting their money.

It’s a good principle for a few reasons:

  1. It places a high emphasis on building healthy relationships
  2. It fosters a non-threatening win-win relationship between the donor and NGO
  3. Increasing buy-in from a wider community should ultimately build stronger financial support for the NGO

However, there are a few nuances of this principle to be careful of. Ethically, the friend-raising mindset mostly still involves a conditional friendship approach, i.e. “I want to be your friend, but a motivation for that friendship (however small) is to receive money from you.” Be careful of this mindset – a fake friendship is likely to irritate donors and will ultimately break their trust.

Be careful of this (“friend-raising”) mindset – a fake friendship is likely to irritate donors and will ultimately break their trust.

Friend-raising also takes a lot of time. Donors would prefer NGOs to spend time working towards their goal of making a positive impact, rather than spending that valuable time building friendships.

For large NGOs with numerous donors, friend-raising is also not broadly applicable since it would be impossible to build strong relationships with all the donors.

How can NGOs overcome these drawbacks and build trust with donors
Firstly, remember to make donors partners, not just funders – make donors feel that the NGO is an extension of themselves. Donors are usually content with being the tailbone while the NGO acts as the hands, feet, and heart in the community. However, the more NGOs can make donors feel they’re essential to the vital functioning of the body, the more buy-in and trust will be built. The mindset should be that donors share the dream and are partners in the impact, not distant spectators to be kept content at arm’s length. Sharing ideas, opportunities, struggles, important decisions, difficulties, vision, and more, helps establish the mindset of making donors partners who assist in making a bigger impact. The key here is effective and honest communication.

The mindset should be that donors share the dream and are partners in the impact, not distant spectators to be kept content at arm’s length.

It’s helpful to have an unbiased individual acting as the connector to facilitate partnerships between NGOs and donors. This ensures an unbiased approach and a better chance for a win-win relationship to be established. NGOs don’t feel like beggars and donors don’t feel they’ve been taken advantage of.

2) Communicate well

It’s difficult to find NGOs that communicate using the right channels and the appropriate amount of information. There’s a tendency for NGOs to fall into the habit of either sending any information at hand (e.g. photos, reports, articles) or remaining silent and assuming the website, or a similar publicly-available resource, says enough. Be careful to avoid spamming your donors by sending any information you can gather. This creates distrust since the donors feel they’re just a number. Personalise your communication to create trust. Assess your donors, inquire about the channels they prefer to receive communication through, as well as what information they would like to receive.

Personalise your communication to create trust.

Most donors don’t read all reports and newsletters, so you could be wasting your time creating them. Spend a larger amount of your energy on monitoring and evaluating information to determine what’s actually relevant and what’s just filling space. This approach is always useful, not only for trust relationships with donors, but for your operations as well. Also, remember that reporting or presenting information in an elegant, organised, and visually appealing way makes the results far more engaging. For example, infographics can say a lot with the use of clever visual elements.

3) Be professional

When it comes to professionalism, donors are generally more patient and forgiving to NGOs than to corporates, but don’t misuse this privilege – and be careful, donor patience-levels are never guaranteed. Donors trust levels are more likely to increase in line with a similar increase in professionalism. If corporates are at the forefront of new developments and new technology, shouldn’t NGOs also be? Consider using technology to increase your impact and improve processes. Investing in a technology partner, such as Mobenzi, can help you increase your impact by gathering and presenting relevant data in an engaging and useful way. This not only has the potential to increase your impact, but creates an elevated impression of professionalism, which will create donor trust.

4) Be transparent

Transparency builds trust. The easier it is for donors to see what your NGO does, the closer they’ll feel to the progress and the more trust you’ll create. Be careful of using outdated information when reporting to donors (especially on websites). It may take a while to gather and compile information, but if the information is outdated, your efforts are wasted. Consider using software which provides real-time reporting and dashboards. Real-time reporting creates trust with donors as it reflects results where nothing is hidden. If your results weren’t as good as expected, be transparent about it. Explain the efforts made, and explain the strategy you’ll use to improve your results in the future. Donors will be able, and hopefully willing, to offer more informed assistance when they see where the pain-points are.

5) Be a good steward

Donors want to know that their investment is in good hands. If they know the NGO is a good steward, it makes them feel that their funding is being applied in a “safe” way and that its impact is maximised as much as possible.

One way to put donors at ease is to ensure good governance is taking place within the Board and management team of the NGO. Audited financial statements, up-to-date statutory and tax requirements, an active Board, the application of King IV Report principles, compliance to child protection laws, etc., are all ways to help ensure good governance is applied and indicate to donors that their funds are used in a safe and effective way. At the same time, donors want to see that their investment goes a long way. Donors want to invest in NGOs where they know their contribution gets maximised. To prove your ability to use funds effectively, find ways to measure your impact.

Donors want to invest in NGOs where they know their contributions gets maximised. To prove your ability to use funds effectively, find ways to measure your impact.

There are many more ways to build trust, such as consistency, clarifying expectations, and keeping to your commitments, but hopefully these five tips have given you a foundation to work from.

“Trusting is hard, knowing who to trust, even harder.”

– Maria V. Snyder