Good news is easy to share.

All of us would love to communicate positive progress all day long.

But communicating bad news can be nerve-wracking when talking with donors. 

It’s natural to think that telling donors about a delay, unfortunate event, or mistake may destroy the trust you’ve built with them.

It’s scary because donors might reduce or stop giving because of how they now see your organization.

During these times, it might feel easy just not to communicate at all.

Ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

This is especially true when we talk about stewarding restricted gifts.

When donors give to specific funds and projects that have a deadline or innate timeline on them, they expect to see results from their gifts.

For example, if you’re raising money for a new building, donors will expect to see progress eventually.

Another example is if an organization is drilling water wells in desert areas.

Typically, once the nonprofit has raised the money necessary for the well, it can be drilled within a certain number of days.

But what if inclement weather, poor infrastructure, or unreliable vendors get in the way of that timeline?

Should you tell your donors that your timeline is busted or simply keep it to yourself and hope they don’t notice?

Negative news, like delays in a project, can be moments of opportunity to build trust with donors and deepen their respect for your nonprofit.

And that trust and respect will go a long way in donor retention.

Here are five tips when communicating delays to donors that will help you take advantage of these crucial moments.

1. Don’t hesitate to communicate.

Hardly anything good comes from waiting to give difficult news.

If a project is delayed or more money is required than projected, your donors will find out about it eventually.

If they get updates from you first—even if the updates are negative—you can prove to them that you are trustworthy and that you value the trust you have with them.

Great fundraisers get out in front of the issue by communicating quickly with their supporters about any problems or delays.

2. Be transparent and direct.

Donors have a spidey-sense for inauthenticity. 

If you beat around the bush in your email or phone call, donors will eventually sense that you’re hiding something.

Be direct in your communication about the delay by getting to the point in your message quickly.

The quicker you can get to the issue, the better you show that you aren’t keeping anything back from them.

Trust is an emotional response, so you must reach the donor’s heart as well as their mind.

“Consider what you and other leaders would want to hear if you were in your donors’ shoes. Do not skirt around the issue or communicate with overly formal or legal language. Speak to the hearts of your donors, and they will respond with theirs.”

— President and CEO of Graham-Pelton 

3. Clarify expectations.

Telling donors about setbacks or problems is a great opportunity to lay out the pathway going forward.

A clear roadmap can put supporters’ minds at ease and give them specific things to watch for or ask questions about.

Cyrus White of SCG Nonprofits suggests the following template when giving bad news.

Tell your donors…

  • What happened?
  • Why it happened?
  • What is being done?
  • What the impact will be?
  • When it will be resolved?

You may not have an answer to all of these questions. 

There might be things you’re not allowed to share.

But be honest about what you can say to help the donor understand where the project is at right now and what’s missing to get it done. 

4. Be positive and share the vision.

No matter how frustrating, embarrassing, or disastrous the delay might be, all is not lost!

Stay positive in your messaging.

Your vision and work are still relevant and contribute to bringing good to the world.

As a matter of fact, communicating a delay is an opportunity to pull the donor deeper into the adventure. 

You can do this by telling your news like you would tell a story.

All good stories have a hero that we root for and an antagonist that fights against the hero.

Show the delay as an antagonist your organization and the donors are working together to overcome.

Donors aren’t as quick to judge your nonprofit as you might think.

They know that there will be setbacks and challenges. 

Give them the opportunity to join you in every battle in the war to achieve your nonprofit’s vision.

Reiterate why what you are doing is so important. 

No one’s perfect. No one can see every delay coming. 

So if your nonprofit is worth fighting for, your donors will see they can come alongside you to help get you past the delay.

5. Ask for help.

Before communicating a delay, determine how the donors can help with that issue.

Maybe they can raise awareness about the problem on their social media platforms, motivating others to join in the fight.

Maybe they can write letters to their government representatives to influence them to help.

And many times, donors want to know if they can help financially.

So after sharing the truth about the delay and what needs to be done, don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Remember, your donors gave before the problem happened because they felt deeply about the fund or the project. 

They certainly don’t want to see the project fall apart for lack of funds.

It’s never fun to tell donors that a project’s been delayed or thwarted.

But these are some of the best moments to shorten the distance between your nonprofit and donors.

Stephen Boudreau serves as VP of Brand & Community at Virtuous Software. For over two decades, he has helped nonprofits leverage the digital space to grow their impact. To that end, Stephen co-founded RaiseDonors, a platform that provides nonprofits with technology and experiences that remove barriers to successful online fundraising. He is an avid (but aging) soccer player, audiobook enthusiast, and the heavily-disputed UNO champion of his household.

Copyright ©2024 Stephen Boudreau.