Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke
Light pouring through a window with opened shutters.

How to Be Transparent With Campaign Setbacks

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Even successful campaigns face challenges along the way. How your organization reacts to these obstacles impacts your overall success. While your first instinct might be to limit the discussion of challenges with your development team, reaching out to your entire organization, and even to your donors, can be enormously beneficial.

Why Be Transparent?

Being transparent with your organization and with your supporters is a great way to attack any setbacks your campaign might face. According to Glasspockets, an organization that helps foundations increase their transparency, communicating the good, bad, and ugly can strengthen your credibility, build trust, improve relationships, and create efficiencies across the sector through shared learning.

The NonProfit Times recommends that you communicate any missteps to your supporters, and that you are clear about how your organization’s strategy evolves over time, to help supporters understand the reasons for any shifts in your messaging. Decisions to change your strategy or focus aren’t made overnight. Make sure your supporters can sense that in your communications.

Being transparent about any uncertainty surrounding your work is also a way to build trust, according to the NonProfit Times. If you expect to face a number of obstacles along the way, communicating that upfront will help your supporters digest setbacks along the way as stepping stones to your success. For example, perhaps your organization provides relief aid in response to natural disasters. The best use for funds raised may not be clear immediately. You may discover where funds would be most beneficial after your campaign has started and need to explain your change in strategy to donors. Providing explanatory messaging throughout the campaign will help your organization develop a voice that embodies honesty and perseverance.

Who Should You Be Transparent With?

Start With Your Team

Transparency with your donor base starts with transparency with your staff. Set up checkpoint meetings with your staff throughout your campaign to keep a pulse on your progress and address any concerns early on.

In addition to periodic campaign meetings, your organization can also encourage discussion around challenges and failure on a continuous basis. In his Harvard Business Review article, “Why I Hire People Who Fail,” Jeffrey Stibel, Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., explains how he created a “failure wall” in order to reduce his staff’s fear of expressing failure and empower them to take intelligent risks.

Stibel’s wall created a physical opportunity for staff members to exercise a value important to their company culture: admitting failure and moving forward from it. While we’re not saying you need to run out to the hardware store, be mindful of how a safe environment makes staff members feel more comfortable when it comes to speaking up.

Communicate With Your Donors

When your staff is more comfortable identifying and expressing failure, it’s easier to implement this strategy for donor communications. After you assess what went wrong and create a new plan for how to proceed, you can present this information to your supporters. Include both an explanation of your current status and your roadmap for your next steps. This will give donors a better sense of your needs and help them to understand why you need more support.

How To Be Transparent

Step 1: Assess the Obstacle

At times, the obstacles you face are clear and appear in an instant. Other obstacles have less straightforward causes. Perhaps your campaign really hasn’t taken off in the way you anticipated. Questions such as, “Is the campaign supported on social media?” and “Is the donation process simple and mobile friendly?” can help you drill down to the source.

While you’re hard at work behind the scenes diagnosing any problems, a simple “we’re working on it” is an easy way to make supporters feel like you’re keeping them in the loop. In 2010, when Charity: Water was approached about why they hadn’t started their campaign to help victims of the earthquake in Haiti, they used their blog to comment on the obstacles standing in their way. In their update they explained their need to complete a long term reconstruction strategy before launching their campaign and assured supporters they would have more information for the public in a few weeks time. This is a great example of communicating with your supporters throughout your campaign–even before it begins.

Step 2: Identify Immediate Action Steps

Two years ago, the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society’s van was stolen. This van was vital to their operations and delivered animals in need of medical care from other area shelters to their facilities. In response to losing their property, the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society created an online donation page that also encouraged supporters to fundraise on their behalf in order to pool the funds necessary to replace the van. Through this fundraising page they told their story and asked their supporters for help. When their van was eventually located, they updated the page and used the space to explain next steps for how the funds would be redirected if supporters so wished.

In the face of an unforeseen circumstance, ask your fellow staff members what you can do as a team to take action with the goal of short term recovery. Acting quickly, even if it’s just a written message to your supporters on your status, is the best way to let your supporters know you’re aware of the situation at hand and hard at work on a long term solution.

Step 3: Form a New Plan and Communicate it to Staff and Supporters

When Paul Mitchell the School Portsmouth faced a campaign setback in the form of robbery, they acted quickly and posted information about their rescheduled event directly to their website. Though they were unable to hold their event on the original day, their quick thinking and teamwork allowed them to host their cut-a-thon for the Paul Mitchell Schools’ National 2014 campaign just one week later than intended. In being transparent about their circumstances, they were able to gain the support and understanding of their donors and bounce back from the robbery.

Communicating your plan for moving forward, in this case, a new date and time for their event, is a moment of triumph for your organization in the face of adversity. It is a promise to your supporters to move forward in a thoughtful and strategic fashion.

Where Should You Be Transparent?

Your organization already has many tools at its disposal to communicate setbacks or failures to your supporters.

  • Campaign Site. Don’t abandon your site once it’s live. Add snippets on your campaign’s progress as it moves through its timeline.
  • Blog. If you already post regularly, your blog is a great place to communicate any campaign or organization information that’s time sensitive.
  • Email Communications. An email notification is the most direct method of sharing information with your supporters.
  • Social Media. Social platforms create an open, live stream of communications between organizations and their supporters.They offer the easiest and often fastest way to keep your supporters informed of setbacks and any changes during your campaign. They also are a great place to link to other pertinent content, such as a microsite or blog post.
  • Annual Report. Your annual report is an opportunity to present what you learned from the challenges you faced throughout the year. Engineers Without Borders, Canada, publishes an Annual Failure Report in which they shed light on failures on a more granular level and report how they plan to use the information to move forward.

Some pieces of information are more sensitive than others. While it’s necessary to use your best judgement on when and what to share, transparency is a powerful tool that can help strengthen your relationships with donors and turn your setbacks and failures into success stories.

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