This month, PBS has been running a series called The Abolitionists and I learned something I had never heard about before–a tremendous rivalry had developed between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.
You see, by the time Frederick Douglass “stole himself” from his owner, William Lloyd Garrison had already established himself in the abolitionist community. Garrison invited Douglass to speak about the real slavery experience at a meeting, and according to the program, it was Garrison who convinced Douglass to speak, to tour the country, and to reveal the true nature of the “peculiar institution.” Garrison was the mentor, Douglass the student.
This didn’t last long, though. Douglass, inspired by John Brown, became convinced that Garrison’s methodology was too slow and not active enough. Douglass broke away from Garrison, started his own newspaper, and the two men began hurling insults at each other in very public ways. For many years, they refused to speak to each other.
Lessons From This Century-Old Fight
In the beginning, few people were more supportive of each other than Douglass and Garrison were. Similarly, when a person first contributes to your cause, they might feel very passionate about your mission, and they might really want to feel like they are helping out your organization.
Just as the relationship between Garrison and Douglass became strained, however, the relationship between you and your supporters can become strained. Look at what happened last year when the Susan G. Komen Foundation isolated so many of its supporters. Now many of those supporters are looking for different competitive causes to support instead of sticking with the Komen cause.
How can you prevent your relationships from going sour? Here are some ideas.
1) Don’t be like Garrison
Remain tuned in to what your supporters want from you. If you are getting a lot of feedback that your methodologies seem outdated or that your supporters want you to try something else, listen to that kind of feedback.
If one of your supporters starts his or her own cause, even if you deem it competitive with your own, don’t go for the jugular. Ultimately, you’re all after the same goal. Find a way to work together.
Don’t push your supporters away. Maintain a separation where possible between your own ego as the director of your cause versus what your cause is trying to accomplish. Often, supporters are the key to your success.
2) Don’t be like Douglass
What pained Garrison the most was that Douglass seemed to forget everything Garrison had done for him. You’re in danger of making the same mistake with your supporters. When a person supports a good cause, particularly when they do so on a regular basis over a period of time, they can often begin to feel a sort of ownership in the cause. That can be a powerful sentiment. Make sure you do not brush aside your supporters by taking them for granted or ignoring their feedback. They may well feel that any success you experience is owed to them, not to you.
Don’t move from one end of the spectrum to another in terms of your direction. Measure all possible paths carefully, strategically, and thoughtfully. A sudden shift from one mode of operation to another can be offputting to your long-time supporters.
Supporters can be the lifeblood of a nonprofit, but they can also cause the downfall of that organization if they feel let down. Make sure you maintain a good relationship with all of your supporters so you can continue, together, to work towards your overriding goal.