Our culture is undergoing rapid changes in how we treat, speak to, and even think about others—especially those who differ from us in gender identity or race. For some, these changes have been a long time in the making. For others, these changes are happening at the speed of light. Keeping up with the conversation and the ever-shifting social mores of what’s considered appropriate can be difficult for donors and potential donors.

Occasionally, development professionals encounter donors who aren’t interested in keeping abreast of these social changes. Such encounters are challenging. Is the inappropriate behavior inadvertent or intentional? How do we best react?

Below are four key strategies for managing delicate situations with donors and potential donors.

Rely on your organization’s mission and values

You’ve chosen to work for your organization for a reason: You believe in its mission and values. You spend your professional hours (and sometimes even volunteer hours) supporting your organization’s goals. Those values can also support you in a delicate situation. For example, a donor is touring a new building that their contribution has helped construct, and they make a disparaging comment about the gender-neutral bathroom. You can gently point out to them that the organizational values include welcoming all people.

Set your own professional standards

Development professionals work in a wide range of unconventional venues—from restaurants to homes of potential donors to athletic events—and are expected to observe certain social niceties. Decide in advance whether you will consume alcohol and how much. If you don’t want to accept a hug, plan in advance how you can gracefully decline. Determine your comfort level regarding where and when you will meet with donors—especially for the first time—and think about how to best convey this to donors. And remember, you can always fall back on the values and guidelines of your organization when formulating a response.

Trust your gut

One of the split-second decisions development professionals frequently have to make is whether behaviors need to be corrected or commented upon. While the relationship between the development professional and donor must always be professional, the nature of our work can lead to a relationship that is also personal. And that can create delicate situations. Is the comment, “You look great in that suit!” genuine, or is it freighted with an unwanted advance? Trust your intuition about the comment’s intent. And remember: You can use your “get out jail free” response—“My job is to connect you to the organization in ways that are meaningful to you.”—to gently redirect the donor and clearly set professional boundaries.

Overcome the bystander effect

Research shows that if as few as four or more people witness bad behavior, the likelihood of any one of those people stepping in to help plummets. Development professionals often work in festive environments, such as galas or campaign launches, that involve many participants. Don’t assume your colleagues can fend for themselves or that someone else will intervene if you see untoward behavior. Keep an eye out for your colleagues’ physical and emotional well-being and step in, if needed.

Setting professional boundaries with donors is a critical part of the development professional’s job—especially in today’s rapidly changing work environment. Advancement Resources’ professional education experience, Maintaining Professional Relationships with Donors, provides information, practical tools, and language for effectively managing situations and can be customized to address the specific challenges an organization is facing.


Bring Maintaining Professional Relationships with Donors to your organization.