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kitty shoot the messenger

Did you know that the word “news” actually comes from the terms north, east, west, and south? … meaning that information – positive and negative – truly does come from all over. And, in a way, advancement officers, CFOs, and consultants in the development world are newscasters, constantly delivering updates on the state of affairs in their organizations. A much under-appreciated skill in this vein is that of delivering unwanted news, which seems to surface more often than everyone would like. After all, have you ever witnessed a CFO deliver disappointing or even alarming financial news to a board and directors and then seen leadership leave the meeting with a spring in their step?
Advancement officers have the distinct job responsibility of keeping fundraising conversations and expectations both positive in tenor and within the scope of reality. Have you – or perhaps how many times have you –been put in a position to counter a prevailing belief by leadership that some “magical thinking” quantity of funds can be raised? It is challenging to inject reality into the conversation in a way that is polite, respectful and definitive, all at the same time. This is often the time when philanthropy consultants are brought into the organization to add an expert voice to the conversation.
A feasibility study is just that – research showing that a goal can, or cannot be accomplished given the tools and resources currently available. The results are important – and newsworthy – regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. My colleagues and I here at Copley Raff often have the pleasure of conducting such studies that enable us to bring encouraging news to the client; that their “need” goal resembles our findings of “capacity” within their donor universe. There are times, however, that the news is unfavorable, unexpectedly negative, or even opposite to anticipated results. And it’s a challenge of herculean proportions to present this information in an actionable and diplomatic way. Just exactly how do you “put lipstick on a (pick your least favorite animal)…?”
Here are some tips to communicate bad news:
  • Always lead with something favorable.
  • Set the context for the news in a way that may minimize the negative impact or show the folly of the tested assumption.
  • Deliver the bad news in measured terminology, avoiding hyperbole.
  • Provide an explanation using objective terms and do not attribute the problem to any individual or group, unless it is unavoidable.
  • Be ready with a solution that can mitigate or solve the problem.
  • Offer a timeline to redress the issue.
  • Be sure the data foundation for your interpretation and solution is solid and measurable.
Wise organizations take solid facts and findings – both positive and negative – and use them to inform decisions towards future goals. While I can offer many examples of bad news motivating leadership to take bold action, the most dramatic involved a multi-hospital system in the northeast. Copley Raff was engaged by the system CEO to conduct a capacity assessment, including all of the system’s six hospitals, to determine if the organization could raise $100 million for system-wide capital improvements. Our findings unearthed that it would take between three and five years plus a substantial infrastructure investment during that capacity building period for the system to be in a position to even start a campaign of this scale.
With this reality check top of mind, leadership embarked on a journey to find a merge partner or buyer sufficiently capitalized to address the infrastructure needs of the system. Results? Two years later, their third suitor purchased the system. Today, the system has undergone extensive infrastructure upgrades, and is now providing improved healthcare services to its patients and marketplace.
Your takes:
  1. Positive and negative “news” and findings are both important and actionable.
  2. Know your audience and understand the filters through which they will be interpreting the negative information, and frame the message in as positive a context, language and neutral delivery style as possible.
  3. Be well prepared to explain the data used to arrive at your conclusions and recommendations.
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Have a development, executive recruitment, or campaign strategy or management challenge? Let’s talk! Click here to connect with Rebekah Kaufman, Director of Consulting Services at CRI.