How to Avoid a Disastrous Political Debate with Donors

[Publisher’s Note: This is not a political or partisan post. Instead, this post will explore how you can successfully navigate potentially controversial, post-election political debates with your donors. As always, civil and on-topic comments are encouraged, whether or not you agree with the points covered in the post. However, overtly political or partisan comments will not be published nor will the rants of internet trolls.]


We have just gone through a long, controversial, historic, passionate election cycle in the USA. People continue to take to the streets to protest. The election continues to be a topic of robust conversation that should make Thanksgiving dinners around the country a bit more interesting this year.

Matt Hugg, of Hugg Dot Net LLC, wrote on LinkedIn:

Okay, I’ll admit it… I’ve now voted in 10 US presidential election cycles. In all of those, I don’t ever remember such post-election discussions (and other means of expression) from both sides, as I do this one.”

megaphones-image-via-shutterstockHugg went on to ask how we should handle conversations with prospects and donors when they bring up the election, especially if they voted for the person you did not support.

Hugg raises an important issue. While I rattled off a quick comment, I’ve since given the issue more thought. Because of the significance of the issue, I’ve put together a list five of points for you to keep in mind when speaking with prospects and donors if you want to avoid problems and raise more money:

●  Remember, no one ever won a debate with a prospect or donor. Even if you technically win the argument, there’s an excellent chance you’ll lose the donation. So, it’s generally a good idea to avoid engaging in controversial conversations.

●  When speaking with donors, it’s important to remember that you do not represent a political cause (unless you actually do). When possible and appropriate you should steer a neutral course that puts the emphasis on organizational mission. There are any number of ways you can avoid engaging in a political conversation started by a donor. For example, you can side-step the discussion by using one of the following phrases or others:

“That’s an interesting point.”

“I’ve heard from a number of other people who have raised the same issue.”

“I suspect I’ll talk with a number of other people who share your view.”

“That’s an important issue. What do you think?”

“That’s an interesting concern. One of the things we’re concerned about is how the new policy agenda will impact those we’re trying to serve.”

The key is to provide a neutral response, and bring the conversation back to the organization’s mission and case for support.

●  Even if your charity is politically related, speak with caution. For example, I assure you that some Trump voters also donate to Planned Parenthood while some Clinton voters also donate to the National Rifle Association. So, be certain not to make inappropriate assumptions about the person you’re addressing. Keeping the focus on your organization’s mission and case for support will provide you the common ground you need in order to be successful.

●  Get to know people with varying views. I’m blessed to have a diverse group of friends and colleagues. That means each of the presidential candidates has received votes from people I know. If you don’t know anyone who voted differently than you, find a few and arrange to talk WITH them over a cup of coffee. You’ll gain understanding that will make you a more empathetic fundraising professional better able to find common ground. Not all donors are liberal. Not all donors are conservative. So, if we want to appeal to all donors, we need to understand all donors. If a fundraiser has never talked with a Trump voter, or never talked with a Clinton voter, he or she will be at a great disadvantage.

●  Keep in mind that there is a difference between your personal self and your professional self. When you’re at home, feel free to talk about whatever you want with family and friends. However, when you’re representing your organization, remember that your personal views and concerns are irrelevant; you’re an ambassador, a spokesperson for the organization that pays your salary. Your job is to garner support for your organization. Stay focused on that.

What tips do you have to avoid being drawn into political conversations that distract you from raising money for your organization?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

11 Responses to “How to Avoid a Disastrous Political Debate with Donors”

  1. Good thoughts Michael. Appreciate the neutral (balanced?) position from which they come, pretty tired (weary) of the rhetoric from both sides.

    • Thank you for your kind comment. For a number of reasons, I share your frustration with the rhetoric coming from both sides of the political spectrum. The greatest problem I have with the extreme rhetoric is that it is often a great distraction that keeps folks from working on what will make a difference. Furthermore, the rhetoric is pushing people further apart rather than bringing them together to find common ground to solve our problems.

  2. Nice post. The last point is the most important. I might go even further and point out that the organization owns the relationship with the prospect/donor not the fundraiser. You are not in the relationship so you are not entitled to a political viewpoint Sometimes you even have to let the other person think you agree with them. Just smile and say, “I know just what you mean!”

  3. We actually have a policy to not engage in political discussion and to instead respond to any questions or partisan comments with “my personal position is irrelevant. What is relevant is taking care of our patients and providing our community with excellent health care.” I find this to be a very effective way to avoid political discourse, while bringing it back to mission.

    • Pam, thank you for sharing your insights. I’m impressed that your organization has a formal policy about not engaging prospects and donors in political discussion. I also like your way of deflecting such discussions and getting to the matter that really counts: your organization. Well done!

  4. Excellent points, Michael! Many times we visit people who don’t interact socially a lot and they just want to vent to someone. I try to leave them on a positive note by saying something like, “Obviously you’re a person who cares deeply about positive principles like justice. I think the positive actions you take like supporting those organizations that stand for those principles demonstrate that very clearly.”

  5. What if the candidate has acted in an extremely offensive manner toward the constituency whom you serve, e.g., people with disabilities? There’s a point where an expressed attitude cannot be tolerated.

    • Craig, thank you for raising an interesting dilemma. While I appreciate what you’re saying, you need to ask yourself, “What is my objective here?” If your objective is to cultivate support from diverse populations and raise more money for your organization, then reacting to the offensive remarks of a politician is irrelevant. What is relevant is what that politician is doing or plans to do in office that will impact those your organization serves. Rather than talking about how offensive a politician’s remarks are, I would suggest focusing on your organization’s mission and how it will be affected by the politician’s actions. (See Wendy’s comment.) Save the emotional response to the politician’s disturbing words for when you’re with friends, preferably with an adult beverage in-hand. That’s what I do, anyway.


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