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Combatting Negative Public Perceptions of Your Nonprofit

images of wooden people on a table with thumbs up emojies above their heads.

In 2023, Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released a public opinion survey that provided both good and bad news for nonprofits. Although the respondents said they trust philanthropic organizations more than government and businesses, 30% believe that not-for-profits are on the “wrong track.” Only 18% say charities are on the “right track.” (The rest of the surveyed individuals were undecided.)

Obviously, you want your nonprofit, the decisions its leaders make and the programs you offer to be trusted and respected. It’s critical to raising funds and fulfilling your mission. So if you’re worried your organization is losing its luster with the public, here are some suggestions.

Weathering Negative Perceptions

Some perceptions are difficult, if not impossible, to influence due to factors beyond your control. But there are proactive ways to manage your organization’s reputation that will help it weather unexpected crises — and even just general negative public attitudes:

Be transparent with your constituencies. This means keeping stakeholders abreast of the latest fundraising facts and figures, how you’re using the money and progress you’re making toward your stated goals. If the only time you communicate with the public is when you need to raise funds or renew memberships, you’re missing prime reputation-building opportunities.

Enlist the help of staff and volunteers. Your executive director or president may be the official voice of your organization, but remember that every time staff members or volunteers act on behalf of your nonprofit, they’re representing your organization as a whole. Be sure they understand this and provide them with the training they need to put your nonprofit in the best possible light.

Watch out for backlash. When other nonprofits make headlines for squandering funds or other perceived acts of mismanagement, your own organization may feel some of the heat. Don’t be surprised if you become subject to media or donor backlash. Be prepared to explain the system of checks and balances you follow to prevent similar negative events. This also may present an opportunity to spotlight the transparency of your financial operations, as evidenced by your annual report, newsletters and website.

What You Can’t Control

If you run your nonprofit with openness and “walk the talk,” then you’re probably doing the best you can for donors, clients and other constituents. However, some people may still reject your mission or public statements. It’s probably not worth your time to try to win over these cynics — just cut your losses and move on to other objectives.

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