Like it or not, our nonprofit organizations have followers, not donors. “Donors” is just the label we put on them so that we can skirt the responsibility for their growth that is ethically entailed by our drawing them into involvement through our organizations.
“Follower” is usually a word assiduously avoided in church and nonprofit circles. It sounds so cult-y. We want people following Jesus, not us, right?
And yet we don’t hesitate to appropriate for ourselves the term “Leader”. We study leadership. Read books on leadership. Aim to be great leaders.
But if we are leaders, what are we, um, leading?
We are inclined to say that we are leading organizations (oh! or better yet–we are leading movements). And this is a very telling statement because as Liberty University’s Dr. Michael R. Mitchell points out in his brilliant book, Leading, Teaching, and Making Disciples:
It appears that even though preachers, teachers, and leaders all share the same conviction that effective communication demands both a sender and a receiver, in practice they pay little attention to the receiver (p. 4).
Having donors instead of followers, in other words, makes it possible for us to talk and think primarily (if not only) about ourselves and our organizations and our needs with very little attention being paid to how any of it is affecting those whose involvement in the cause is being shaped by our leadership.
As Mitchell notes, there is just not a lot of literature about the follower qua follower:
Douglas K. Smith includes a chapter on “The Following Part of Leading” in The Future Leader (Hesselbein, Goldsmith, and Beckhard, 1996), but his interest in following is as a means to ensure results, such as producing performance for the organization, rather than changing the life of the follower.
We don’t want to take responsibility for how our efforts are changing the life of the follower. We don’t even want to think about it. So we call them donors and think about them only in terms of how they produce performance for the organization.
Not only does this result in diminished organizational performance, but it’s a pretty shoddy way to treat the people who love our cause the most, if you think about it.
In our next post, I want to give you another dose of Dr. Mitchell and draw out what it would mean for us to take seriously our responsibility to our donors-as-followers.