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The Question of Reciprocity: What Does It Mean for Nonprofits?

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a couple of close friends after going to a TEDxDenver event. What did reciprocity mean for nonprofits? Sure, you write a grant, get funded, (hopefully) send a thank you note, and send in items for reporting. However, I was left with one major question. “Surely there are more elements of reciprocity going on. Otherwise, why would donors and foundations invest in nonprofits?”

Let's start with the basics. Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another. Donors on all level are looking to invest, with their reciprocity, to nonprofits that produce a change in their community. This looks different at different levels (the retiree on a fixed income giving two hours of her time a week vs. to the large national foundation providing funds and administrative assistance). So, the definition is wider than financial donations. Let's extend philanthropic reciprocity to the classic fundamentals of all development work: gifts of time, talent, and treasure.
The following nonprofit examples—with whom I've worked for more than seven years—represent two versions of reciprocity at work.
Nonprofit A: serves homeless and those in poverty with temporary housing, permanent supportive housing, a free clothing bank, one-time financial assistance for rent or utilities, a day center for a homeless individual where they can shower and wash clothing.
Operations of Nonprofit A: With an attitude of gratitude, Nonprofit A has transformed a small budget into a multimillion dollar operation. No gift is too small, and all donations receive a mailed thank you letter. They consistently meet and exceed stated outcomes and objectives. Funders have often gone back to Nonprofit A to give more funds in or outside the award period.
Nonprofit B: Serves homeless individuals with emergency shelter and two meals a day. They have 150 beds and are seeing a great variety of people, families, those with disabilities, and Veterans. Some may stay for one night and never be seen again. Some may stay for years before they are stable. Many clients at Nonprofit B have mental health issues as well.
Operations of Nonprofit B: The culture of Nonprofit B is one of scarcity, and scarcity can lead to fear. Nonprofit A and Nonprofit B are seeing some of the same clients, and often have to work together to achieve benefit for the client. Nonprofit B, however, is inconsistent in their messaging to clients and the community. They have refused gifts from local foundations because a copy of the strategic plan is a requirement (one they cannot provide). From a management perspective, their reactivity eliminates the potential for being more proactive in their management (or development) approach. They have high staff turnover and staff report they do not feel appreciated.
Even the sheer wording of their grants becomes different, take these two examples.
Nonprofit A: We are grateful for help at all levels, when one door closes, another opens and allows us to continue on our path to help individuals.
Nonprofit B: No one is providing the service, thereby the community is obligated to contribute.
These are clear examples of what to do and what not to do. Donors want to be a part of Nonprofit A not only because of the impact they create but because they extend authentic reciprocity to their donors. People want to give their time, paid or volunteer, to Nonprofit A because they extend their gratitude.
Some cultural elements of an organization cannot be changed by changing some wording in a grant, but change can begin with you. It may take a few years to be like Nonprofit A, but wouldn't it be nice to have some extra money extended because you expressed your gratitude?