Episode 52: Build Trusting Relationships With Core Donors To Get The Job Done Right With Greg Hodgin from Peacebuilding Solutions

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships


Are you cultivating trust with your core stakeholders?

On this week’s episode we talk to Greg Hodgin, Founder and Executive Director of Peacebuilding Solutions.

Peacebuilding Solutions builds success from a platform rooted in solid research. Their teams embed in areas affected by war and crisis, and spend time learning and understanding—not assuming—their stakeholders’ needs.

Their proactive model has led to them helping to build more sustainable solutions to the real-world problems their beneficiaries face. Their research-focused approach has helped their organization learn how to really hone their story and build a strong sense of trust with their donors and volunteers.

Here’s one of the biggest takeaways from this episode: instead of focusing on casting a wide net to build a large donor base, focus on building strong relationships with people who are intrinsically aligned with your organization and trust you to complete your mission.

Greg and I also discussed how nonprofits should focus on cash donations. We talked about how to focus the donation narrative around trusting that the organization can use money effectively to get the job done.

This was a great episode and a great way to learn how to build that donor base.





Donate CASH to the charities you care about. Find one you trust and invest cash in their mission. Let them figure out the best way to use that donation to its fullest effect. Build trust, develop relationships, and do your research.

Listen to the podcast here:

Build Trusting Relationships With Core Donors To Get The Job Done Right With Greg Hodgin From Peacebuilding Solutions

My guest in this episode is Greg Hodgin. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Peacebuilding Solutions. That is a great organization that starts with research, and what they do is they go into these areas and find out what the people need as opposed to going in with assumptions about what they need, so they develop solutions based upon real-world research.

One of the things that we talked about was how important it is, as a nonprofit, to hone your story, understand it, and build relationships with the core people who wants to help. As opposed to trying to spread a huge wide net, try and come back in and focus on those people that are really aligned with what you are doing.

He also mentioned that nonprofits should go after cash as much as possible and donors should wrap their arms around the idea that they invest in nonprofits, trust and give them the cash, and need to get their mission accomplished. This is a fun episode. I hope you have a great time with it. I always enjoy talking with Greg. Here we go.

Greg, how are you?  

I am doing very well. Thank you. I appreciate coming on with you.

I’m excited to have you on the show. We last spoke back in November of 2020, so it is going to be really fun to catch up and hear what is going on with you and your team at Peacebuilding Solutions.  

I’m excited to tell you what is going on, so ask what you want. Fire away. Let’s rock and roll.

Tell our audience a little bit about what you do over there at Peacebuilding Solutions and how you guys are changing the way people engage with nonprofits and nonprofits engage with their stakeholders.  

That is a big part of what we do, but we are doing it with the international humanitarian aid system. One of the big issues that we have when we go into the field is that we see a lot of people who go out with the best of intentions. Your heart is in the right place, but you are not doing the best thing for the people that you are trying to help. We are probably going to dive into that later on, but what we do in Peacebuilding Solutions is that we reverse this paradigm and we go in first and ask people what their needs are, specifically forcibly displaced people. We are only working with people who have been forcibly displaced by either war, natural disasters, or things like that, and we ask them what they want.

People go, “People do that all the time.” Yes and no. They might say, “We are going to hand out X, Y, and Z. How many do you want?” That is not asking people what they want. That is more of saying, “This is what we have. Here is what we are going to give you.” What we do instead is we send a research team out into the field for several weeks to discuss with them what their needs are, and we are not just sending random people out there either. We are sending anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and public health people so that each of them can get a different perspective on their needs.

You should have the best intentions. Your heart should be in place and you should be doing the best thing for the people that you’re trying to help.

You might send them out there on the first day they tell you they need X, Y, and Z. After a week, they go, “We did not know that we could trust you, so now we are going to tell you what is needed and what is really going on.” People question that and go, “Why wouldn’t they tell you what they needed?” The answer is you do not know what these people have been through, what they have gone through, what they have seen or not seen, or whatever else of that nature.

For all you know, you are the fifth nonprofit or charity to walk up to them saying, “We are going to do something,” and then they do not do anything or, “We want to help you with X, Y, and Z,” and they build a well instead of a school or a school instead of a clinic, or they bring nurses instead of dentists. There is a massive mismatch.

We go out in the field, ask them what they want, and then we go back and raise money. We usually come back with cash. We try our best not to bring anything from the United States. We try not to bring any materials. We try to buy everything locally if we can. Part of going out in the field is figuring out what they want and finding local vendors who we can buy from and talking to the local government about what permits we need if we want to open a school and how we buy land.

We then hand all of it over to them. We have them do what they want to do. We will hire them and pay them fair wages that they negotiate themselves. The only thing we ask is that we build one shelter for us that we can stay there full-time. That way, the research is always continuing. That is the basic part of it. We are working on publishing research papers and we are turning in another research paper in the next two months or so in a peer-review journal.

The idea is to show, “This works,” then we go to the United Nations. I sent a team to the Commission on the Status of Women. We are sending people to UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we are going to pound them and say, “This works better than what you are doing right now. Not only does it work better, but it is also cheaper than what you are doing.”

People go, “Why don’t people do it this way?” You and I had this conversation. People get locked into something for so long they can’t break themselves out of it. You need to do large, shocking allied data to show that this is the way to go. We know it is going to take a long time, but that is what we are doing. Now, we have got 53 people. Most of them are not even Americans. There is a part in our bylaws that flat out says that we try to prioritize hiring people who have been refugees or internally displaced persons. When they do come in, they better tell us what we are doing right and wrong than people who have been in the system themselves.

We work with the UN as well. We have volunteers pulling from all over the world. The only country we are missing now is Australia. We have got some everywhere else. The only unfortunate thing is that because we have a virtual office, which is fine, but that means everyone at least has to have a decent working knowledge of English, and that does lock people out, but I can’t do much more than that right now.

As we get bigger, we hope to begin having language hubs where we can have a Spanish, French, Arabic section, or things of that nature. I rambled for a bit. I apologize, but that is what we are doing and that is where we are going. We are waiting on a large donation to come in so we can head down to Haiti, finish up our first project, and expand to other places.

It is interesting to me how people with the best intentions leap to making assumptions and leaping to conclusions about what is needed instead of having conversations with those in need. This is something you talked about in your TED Talk, the idea of bringing cash to the table as opposed to goods.

A couple of things that I think are great there is cash is infinitely malleable in terms of how it gets used, but it also creates the opportunity to put money back into that economy and get the economy running as opposed to bringing goods into the country. This is one of the examples that you used in your TED Talk. You have a shoe store that you can go buy shoes from, so let’s go put some money into the economy and buy the shoes as opposed to bringing shoes in.  

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: We go out in the field, we ask them what they want. And then we go back, we raise money. We usually come back with cash.


That is the scary thing about it. There are so many times that people are like, “Let’s do a shoe drive,” and I’m like, “Why? 1) No one wants your old shoes. 2) Let’s think about how much time and energy it is going to take to collect all that stuff, dump it into a shipping container, then I have to ship it. That is going to cost fuel and everything else. When I then get there, I got to pay the customs fees or the excise fees. Then, I got to transport that to wherever it was going. That is ridiculous, but it is amazing how we think, “We will send this somewhere else.”

It usually ends up in a bin on fire. A US dollar in Haiti or in other places is going to stretch a lot more than it does here in the United States. A lot of stuff that we’re buying here will have some added cost as well. Even better, and this is the thing a lot of nonprofits think about as well, labor costs are far cheaper. There’s the added incentive of like, “I’m paying someone to go over there,” but then I got to pay for the security, their food, and everything else.

I’m going to pay this guy a livable daily wage in their country, which, again, some people are like, “$15 an hour.” I’m like, “$15 an hour is not going to work in that country because then you have doctors and lawyers quitting their jobs to take that job.” That is part of why you bring on academics as well. You combine their academic knowledge with their field experience because then, you get to have people say, “If you do X, think about the unintended consequences of Y, and this is what is going on.”

A great example that I love bringing up is the fact that one of the things that my team did when we first went down there was to talk to women alone without men around. As a guy, of course, I don’t think like that. A woman was talking to a female translator, and of course, lo and behold, there was different data and knowledge there.

They were all in the same boat. The men were saying, “We need X, Y, and Z,” and the women were saying this and that. They were not trying to oppose each other. It was complimentary, but the men did not think about shoes for the kids or school care. That is women’s work, but it was still necessary and still something that we could do.

Without talking to them, we would have only gotten part of the data. I always love to tell people that just because someone walks up to you and says that they are a leader does not mean that they are the leader. If someone walks up to you and speaks English and says that they are a leader, it does not mean they are. The one formally in charge is not the leader of the village. They are not the one who has the title.

Everyone who is reading this has probably been in an organization at some point. There is a CEO and someone who runs things, and they are not the same person. If you do not know the culture and if you do not know how that works, you can’t say which one is which, and that is where the research comes in because you might be there for a week, and then you realize, “It is old granny weather wax-up top there who is doing this,” and it is not the person I’m talking to instead. This is the one who adjudicates disputes. This is the one who knows who is married to who and whose kids are what.

You are right. I have seen so many occasions where these unintended consequences happen and are like, “We are going to come in and do X, Y, and Z,” but they screw things up worse. I then come or my team comes in and they will look at me going, “Are you like these guys?” The burden of proof is on us, and a lot of charities do this kind of work and think that because they have the money and the resources.

They do not have to earn anything and they should be grateful. They can’t be choosers. They are still people and they have been through stuff that you and I could not even possibly imagine, and yet, we walk in and going, “We know what you need.” No, we don’t. Why would you possibly say something like that? Why would you think that you know better than anybody else?

I’m hoping that this paradigm can catch on because I know that it happens more locally, but internationally, they are still stuck in the ‘70s and ‘80s of live aid where they are like, “We are going to go and raise money, data, and all that stuff.” That paradigm has got to go. It is starting to shift, but we need to push it faster.

You are not the first person I have spoken with on the show here who has had this idea that the people in place and experiencing some of these challenges and probably have experienced some of these challenges before might have a pretty good idea of what might work best. I was speaking with a couple of gentlemen from an organization called Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder.

When people get locked into something for so long, they can’t break themselves out of it.

They play students in and among these communities to work with these people side-by-side. They are teaching each other how to navigate a lot of different experiences and they are getting some great results. Instead of going in with this we know how to fix everything mentality, they are going in with, “We want to help you fix it and we want to help you take this to the direction that it needs to go.” It is cool to hear this trend starting to catch hold.

The biggest issue is a lot of nonprofits want to do this stuff. There are a lot more people like us who are saying, “Let’s do this.” There are a lot of nonprofits still doing the bad stuff or the not optimal stuff. Don’t get me wrong. The issue is not the nonprofits. It is the donors. In fact, in a lot of my dissertation that I did some time ago, I discuss why donors do what they do. The answer is because donors want a quick, easy solution. They want to give their money and feel good they did something.

For example, the charity is called Blankets for Poor Children. What do you think they do? I’m pretty sure they get blankets for poor children. That is why they got the title there. If I give my money to Blankets For Poor Children, I know they are going to give blankets to children. Do the poor children need blankets? I do not care, but what I did was I knew that these poor children were going to get blankets. The problem is if these poor children are in Equatorial Guinea, they do not need a blanket. They need a lot of other stuff, but if I give X, the charity will do Y paradigm. A lot of single-concept charities are designed this way.

If I give a water charity money, they are going to go and get people water. It is pretty simple. The problem is, what if they do not need water? The charity is not designed to do anything else, and even worse, the charity has no incentive to do research. Why would I if I was only building water wells? Whether I’m building one or not, it does not matter where I’m doing it.

If I got enough money to build 1,000 wells and I told my donors I’m building 1,000 wells, does that incentivize me to build them in the right place? Does it incentivize me to drop them where I can? You already know the answer to that. Part of what we are trying to do is to re-educate donors, and I’m not just talking about the people who give you $5 a month, but also the larger donors like governments and international organizations.

I have seen it in the field. I spent three months in Haiti researching water wells and water systems built after the earthquake in Leogane, which is where the epicenter was. It was all water charities. Seventy-five percent of the water wells that were built by charities broke six months after they left. My question was, why does it go to donors? The donors were like, “We want you to build 1,000 wells.” When I went to go talk to the people in question, I did not talk to the charities. I talked to people for whom they built the wells, which most people don’t.

I was like, “You built the wells. Everyone is happy.” They are not. They are pissed. I was like, “Why are you angry? What is wrong?” They are like, “When they came in, they said they are going to build a well. They did not ask us if we wanted a well. They would bring in foreign workers to dig the well. They did not teach us how to fix it and they did not give us any spare parts. They just built it, took a picture, and left.”

The ones who did they did talk to then said, “We want to build you a well,” and the village or the people would say, “We do not need a well. We need a clinic, a school, vaccination, and X, Y, or Z.” Then they are like, “We only do water. That is all we do, so we can’t do anything else.” The people would be like, “Can you give the money for the well to somebody else?” The charities would be like, “That is illegal,” which is for them to do that, they are going to build this well.

Of course, by that point, you are going to have broken wells because most of the wells that were built, no one cared about them and there was no need for them. It became a massive amount of waste because no one puts in the time and the energy to do this. Even worse, so much of that money was spent in the United States to bring in the Western experts, the equipment, and everything else.

They did not hire local people to dig a well. With all these things together, the donor gets what they want. The donor gets to say, “I gave money, and now poor people in Haiti have water.” The problem is, people in Haiti were like, “I do not need water, so I do not care.” The wells broke. Did they ever come back? No. They did their job, and that is the issue.

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: If you don’t know the culture, and if you don’t know how that works, you can’t really say which one’s which right, then you cannot be a great leader.


These one-offs and donors especially want to go, “I’m doing something good.” Is that the best long-term impact of your money? Is that the best way to spend your cash? You can get them water all day. There is a saying that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man how to fish, he lives for a lifetime. He doesn’t if he doesn’t have a fishing pole or lives inland and there is no ocean. Let’s match up skillsets, expertise, knowledge, and most importantly, the resources with what the community has and what they want.

If you can fish and you are next to the ocean, that is cool. We will give you that. Do you want to do that or do you want to move into something else? There are plenty of ways to go around doing this, but a lot of nonprofits have to get that easy money of, “If they write me a check, I will build 1,000 wells. I don’t care if they need the wells or not.” The system is designed to screw over the very people you are trying to help. That is what I have always found so frustrating, and that is why I do what I do now.

It sounds like it almost needs to come from the donor mentality shift. This is not the first time this has come up on the show, either. I spoke with a woman who runs a charity that collects or gets gifts for kids during the holidays who normally are not able to do that. One of the things that she talked about was how much farther a $10 donation goes than a $10 gift, but donors really love to go to their local store and pick out a gift, whether that is a ball or a toy, and bring it to a collection center and give that gift.

There is this tangible, tactile thing that goes on in our brains. She had agreements and partnerships with those same stores that she could go in and buy things at wholesale, so she could stretch a $10 donation to buy two $10 gifts or whatever the ratio was. Certainly, she could get more bang out of that monetary donation than the physical item donation, but the shift needs to happen. Have you done any research on how to get people to frame that for their donors?  

Yes, but they are not going to like what I have to say. Part of the research I have done from a political science standpoint is how do you change international norms and donors, especially this is an international norm. Why do people give? Why do people do these things? They want the feel-good fuzzy.

To go back to your example with toys, one of the things that your friend could do would be, “Here is a list of stuff that they want. Buy that and give that to me, and we will update that.” You can do that, but let’s be honest. If there is one thing every charity wants more than anything else is always going to be cash.

The problem is that a lot of people go, “If I give them cash, they might spend it on salaries, food for themselves, or other selfish things.” Not all charities are here to steal from you. I understand that a lot of charities have done some bad things. I know that a lot of charities are milking people out of money, but so do businesses. We do need to spend money on overhead.

I want to fix the international humanitarian aid system and save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. They are like, “Why do not you get a job while you are doing your job? I do not want to pay for you. I want my money to go to those people.” I can’t do my job unless I have overhead. They are like, “Why would you want to get paid $90,000? What have you done?” I have been doing this for years and I got a PhD. They are like, “Can you do it on 30%?” How ridiculous is that? When you go to the Apple store and you buy an iPad or an iPhone, you don’t say, “I only want you to spend 2% on overhead.” They will laugh you out of the store.

The Issue is trust. You have to find donors who trust you. It is much easier to build a small set of stable donors who trust you to do the job right than to find a bunch of donors who do not. People do not want to hear that. They want to hear, “I want people to give me a ton of money.” You are not going to do that. Each one of them is going to be a personal relationship. Honestly, one of the things I’m looking at is what I call the Sugar Daddy approach, which is to find someone who has got a lot of money, earn their trust, show them what you are doing works correctly, and work with that.

Let’s be honest. There are a lot of foundations out there who would want to give you money, but they make you jump through so many hoops because they want to make sure the money has been spent effectively. We need to talk to them and say, “Going through all this crap is a mess. That is one of the reasons why we are doing the research papers, why we are trying to present research publications, and why we keep going to the UN,” because when you talk to the United Nations, it gets published.

You have to be grateful. Beggars can’t be choosers.

It goes on webcasts. They can pressure not only the member states like Germany, the EU, and the US. Those governments are starting to change their donor guidelines. Private donors and foundations look at this too and go, “The UN is doing X, Y, and Z. Why are we doing this?” There is a concept in political science called Constructivism. It is an international nation’s concept which is norms matter.

Our world is based on specific norms. A good example is slavery. Now, slavery is completely horrible. What changed? The norm or the idea that has been embedded in our international system has changed. Many years ago, colonialism and imperialism were great. In 1915 or the 1920s, we were still doing colonialism and imperialism was everywhere. Now it is like, “That’s bad. We need to decolonize our minds and the marketplace.” What changed? The answer is this norm, over time, evolved and it changes something else.

People ask, “How do you change it?” Think about seismology. From a political science standpoint, we know that this country X is going to go through crap soon. We know what is going to happen and where the fault lines are. We do not know exactly when it will happen, but we can give you odds, and once it does happen, we will tell you what the reverberations of that are.

When we talk about the Arab Spring, no one knew that some random guy setting himself on fire in the streets of Tunisia was going to light up everything, but once that thing happened, it was clear to see how the dominoes were going to fall and we could see where it was going. It is the same concept with these norms.

The problem is, you do not know when the norm becomes internalized and this is where it becomes a huge pain in the butt for everybody. You’ve got to keep pushing. You are pushing up a hill over and over again. It is very much like Sisyphus. The boulder keeps falling down, but then you get a donor who believes in what you are doing. You are like, “Okay,” and then other ones believe in it.

You then do the thing and then more people see what you’re doing and they buy into it as well. That’s how you get the critical masses you need to get the norm to go over the hill. We don’t know when it is going to be, and that is why I’m doing this right now. I talk to as many people as I can and present this as often as possible because this is not a 30-second concept.

A lot of people are like, “Give me a 30-second elevator speech.” If you want the 30-second elevator speech, I do not want your money because I can’t do this in 30 seconds. I’m trying to fix a much larger problem than just refugees. I’m trying to fix a huge system. That is why I do stuff like this, because the more you talk about it, the more that you have the conversation, and the more you show the data that says, “Doesn’t this make more sense?”

Let’s be honest. How many random people that you know, rich or otherwise, you talk to them and they go, “I didn’t know that charities ran like that. I didn’t know that’s what happened with donors. I did not know X, Y, and Z.” They don’t know this stuff, so we have to have these conversations. We have to keep breaking this stuff down over and over again.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have given this speech. In case you have not noticed, it sounds polished. I swear to God, ladies and gentlemen, and everybody reading this, there are no notes in front of me. This is all from my head because I have done this several hundred times, and that’s okay. The thing is, if you look at the norm being generated and trying to be internalized, it is not there yet, which means I have got to have this conversation over and over again. The more I can get people read this and the less I have to do it, that is great, but they still have to think about it because you want them to internalize it. You don’t change minds by yelling at people saying you are wrong but say, “Here is the data. Make your own choice. You are an adult.”

I like the idea of leading with someone like the UN and getting some of these large entities to wrap their arms around this idea and change the way that they are doing business in order to inspire everybody else to make similar adjustments to the way that they are handling the decisions that they are making and how they are getting their there.

Yes and no. I would say when you inspire people, that is cool, but inspiration does not move minds. What moves minds is, “Is this the better way to do it? Will I save money in the long run if I donate to them as opposed to the Red Cross or somebody else like that?” Inspiration is transitory. I want you to be inspired. That is wonderful, but let’s be honest. How many people have been inspired to write a screenplay or a novel and when they finished the thing, I want the work too?

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: That’s so these norms can change, but it’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take a lot of people pushing all the same time about similar stuff.


The inspiration is the start, and the work is, now I need you to put your money where your mouth is and that is where people fall short. I’m not just talking about the $5 donors, but the big donors too. Because you do nonprofit work, you might have seen this. A good example is the Ford Foundation or the larger foundations are going overhead.

It is not the big shibboleth that we thought it was. It is okay to have a 10% or 15% overhead. You do not have to be 2% overhead. We are seeing now that the organizations that have really small overhead can’t get the job done because they can’t buy the software or the hardware they need, so it is okay to include more overhead.

Now, the UN, the Ford Foundation, Kellogg, Rockefeller, and these other big guns are saying 50% is okay. That is huge. Fifty percent is not there. Don’t get me wrong. We got ways to go, but that is amazing. These norms can change, but it is going to take a lot of people pushing all at the same time about similar stuff.

I do want the inspiration. I do want people to get excited but then do the work. If you are going to say it, talk to other people and show them the data. Even from a donor’s perspective, I want my money to go the longest. Any donor who talks to me is like, “Why don’t I give you $50,000 for research?” I say, “You are giving $50,000 for research and I will save you $500,000 when I buy the stuff that I need and not buying garbage. I buy what is actually needed.” By investing now, you save in the long run.

The other thing I usually say is, especially to business people in a corporate world, would you ever put out a product without market research? They are like, “No. That’s crazy.” I’m like, “Why does every nonprofit do it?” They go, “It is crazy.” You realize then that that is their light bulb moment of like, “I never thought about it like that. I thought people needed X.” People do need X, but what is the best way to give it to them? You do not know until you do the research. It is a multi-pronged and multi-tiered approach because you got to do the work.

A lot of nonprofits do the ground-up work. They do the grassroots work, but they do not talk to larger donors. They are not trying to change the system. They are just trying to do their thing, and that is fine. The other ones are doing top down. There are plenty of think tanks that publish plenty of papers. All this stuff that we are doing in political science, literature, anthropological literature, and social science literature has been known for many years.

No one does it. No one applies it because the think tank writes it and the NGO goes, “That is fine. We will do it our own way because the donors are telling us to do it this way.” How about you combine them both? How about you have a bottom-up approach and a top-down approach? For the top-down approach, we will talk to the UN about what is going on and what is happening once this is brought up. For the bottom-up, now we are collecting the data to show you. When you do it that way, where are the holes?

It is to get your brain going on in how to tackle the challenge. You mentioned that it is easier to have a few big donors really trust you than to try and convince a whole bunch of smaller donors necessarily to do the same. What are you doing over at Peacebuilding Solutions in terms of getting those big donations coming in the door? Is it telling the story over and over again?

Yes. It is networking and also doing Zoom calls. I try to donate ten hours a week to talk to people. They usually ask me what I’m doing. I’m talking to you. I’m here right now. This is part of it because maybe someone is going to know what is going on. It is basic, flat-out shoe leather networking. I never do blind calls. Blind calls are the antichrist.

They are one of the worst things I can possibly think of because I get them all the time, like, “Do you need a cleaning service for your office?” 1) I do not have an office, 2) No. Let me come to you. If I have a warm call or someone who wants to talk to me about it, I will give you six hours. I do not give a dang. It is fine. It is finding those people, sitting down with them, and having a conversation. Even better, some of them might “I don’t have any money, but I do know someone who does or I might know someone who might have whatever it is.” It is all about that.

There’s a lot of nonprofits still doing the bad stuff.

You are going to talk to 100, 200, or 500 people, and you might get lucky and find the one that wants to do this. I got one somebody who is like, “I run retirement accounts,” and a lot of people want to donate from their 401(k)s. When they donate, the retirement will match. I’m like, “How much are you talking about?” They are like, “$20,000 here. $50,000 there.” I’m like, “Sign me up.” Some people do not care. Some people are like, “I want to go to charity,” and that’s fine too.

There are several ways to go about doing it. I will say this too, and this is something that a lot of charities, especially smaller ones, freak out about. If you don’t say no, how can you say yes? If you do not zealously protect your mission, your mandate, and what you’re doing well, someone will take it from you and change it to something else that you will not like.

We had someone come to us and was like, “I’ll give you all the money that you need for your Haiti project.” It was almost $1 million. I was like, “What do you want?” She was like, “I want to come with you and I want to do the work.” I’m like, “You are an accountant.” She was like, “Yes,” and I said no. I tell people that and they are like, “Are you insane?” I’m like, “No.” That defeats the purpose of what we are doing. Why would I bring an untrained person somewhere where she could wreck the trust that we built because she wants to have a nice little trip? It is voluntourism. I had to say no. Now, I will say this. Ironically enough, my staff was like, “You go do that. Tell her to piss off.”

We don’t want the donors who are going to try to go, “We know better than you.” I’m like, “How many PhDs do you have? I have got seven in my stable right now.” They have been studying this stuff for decades. When you put it all together, we have got 75 years of experience together. We are not saying that we are right all the time, but we are saying we had be probably less wrong than you are, and that’s okay. A lot of people want to take the money, run, and do what they want to. They don’t realize that now that they have the money, they need to get more money, but this person has all these strings attached, so now I’m going to have to go ahead and babble what they want to.

All of a sudden, now you are handing out machetes to children in Atlanta because now, that is what they want to do because they have the money and the partnership. Too many people think that because someone is cutting you a check means that they own you, which by the way, that is capitalism. Secondly, here is the other thing.

If they want to cut you a check, they are cutting you a check because they are getting something out of it. That money they are handing you is less important than the thing they are getting out of it, by definition. You are changing the system and you are changing the world. They are handing you a check. They should trust you. If they don’t, then why do you want their money in the first place?

Let’s say you get a multimillionaire or a billionaire. Bill Gates, for example. He is like, “I want to give you $1 million.” Most nonprofit people are going to go, “Why do you want to give us $1 million? What makes us so important?” The answer is it’s like dating. Why is this person dating me? They’re here. Shut up. Take the money. Look at the conditions they are giving you. If they’re just giving you money for nothing, shut up and take the money. It’s okay.

You don’t have to worry about that. In that person’s mind, they’re going, “I’m taking this money that I earned. I’m doing some good in the world, and this person is going to do it because I can’t do it myself. I’m getting service from this.” Think about it like that. It’s a lot easier to put, but a lot of people don’t want to think like that. They freak out about it.

There is always a value exchange, and whether that value is a monetary exchange for a warm, fuzzy, feel-good, or, as you said, voluntourism, knowing where the power balances lie is a pretty great lesson for people to keep in mind.  

It is not a power imbalance. The thing is that they want to give money to you for a reason because you are doing something they believe in. That is why they want to cut you the check-in in the first place. That means that you have power, and there are so many people who are like, “They cut the check.” You can tell them not to get the check, then they’re like, “We might have to cut salaries,” then you cut salaries.

It sucks. Do not get me wrong. I don’t want to tell people, “We’re doing this for XYZ,” and that’s one of the things we push for from donors, too, especially large donors. I don’t want a one-year contract. I want a five-year contract. That way, I can plan a bit further. I don’t want to do one year at a time. They are like, “We want to write you a check for doing the right thing.” Piss off. The plan takes five years.

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: If you don’t say no, how can you say yes?


Do you want to pull out in year two? The thing is that when they do approach you, look at the condition and see if you can match up with it. If you can, go for it. Of course, again, the less the strings, the better. It is not an imbalance. Just because someone cuts you a check doesn’t mean they own you. It means they believe in you. They might ask for things, but learn where your negotiation limits are. If it’s too much, then say no.

I’ve seen too many nonprofits burn themselves out because someone cut them a $5 million check. They did what they thought was best with that $5 million checks, and it wasn’t what their mandate was. It wasn’t what the senior staff or anyone wanted to do, but they did anyway, and now, they’re stuck doing that. Now, you get hosed because once you get the money, you can’t go back. Once you pick your first set of good donors, you’re good to go.

I’m talking to a guy. I don’t want to go too much into it because he’s a really private guy. He ran a marketing firm for a while. He’s like, “I love what you’re doing. Let me find you some money.” He’s looking to find us $500,000 or $1 million. I got an idea of where he is coming from. I’m not trying to ask any questions about what he’s doing on a Tuesday, but I’m like, “Why are you doing this?” He’s like, “I’m retired. I got nothing else to do. People keep handing me $100 million for trust funds and they make interest every year, so I can give you that.”

I kept wanting to ask him, “Why us?” I was like, “How about you shut up and take the money? He doesn’t want anything else.” It took me a while to wrap my head around that. He loves me for me. It’s such a stupid romcom idea, but it’s true. They want to work with you because you’re you, because of your mission, you mandate it, and whatever your leadership is. If they meet your leadership and they hate you, they’re not going to work with you anyways.

It’s that simple. It’s frustrating because a lot of people are like, “I’ll give you $5,000, but I want to see you and your board so I can change everything.” I don’t want that. I think the power of noes is a very important thing and also learning to say no because when you say no, it’s cool, but when you say yes, that person earned it, and that’s so key.

We talk a lot about it with our for-profit clients in particular, but I do appreciate how this applies to the nonprofit world. Every time you say yes to the wrong thing, that takes away from your ability to do the right thing. You have a finite amount of time and resources. If you’re constantly chasing money around doing the wrong things, and wrong being however you want to define that, or the things that are not aligned with your mission, that time that takes you away from that mission, whether you’re a for-profit business or a nonprofit business.

It’s time and resources, too, because someone is working on that application. Someone is working on building that money around. It’s X amount of man-hours or staffing hours that your finance department is working stuff around or developers spending on the phone doing golly knows what. You are burning resources you will need to burn. One of the things about this as well is that people are like, “Nonprofits are corporations.”

Is that where we incorporate? Is that why we had to fill out incorporation paperwork and file with the IRS, where you file with corporations as well? The only difference is I don’t have shareholders. Everything else is run the same. I can have a paper board or a real board, but they don’t get paid. The organization not making a profit doesn’t mean we can’t sell things to make a profit. We’re still a business.

One of the issues that I want people to understand is that corporations have one boss, the consumer. We have two bosses, which is the donor or donors and also the communities we’re trying to serve. A guy by the name of Robert Putnam wrote a great article about the logic of two-level games, which is heads of state.

If you’re the president of the United States and you’re signing an international deal, but you’re sitting at two tables. You’re sitting at the international table and the domestic table. If I sign a cool trade treaty, I might be winning internationally, but I’m losing domestically, or I’m losing domestically and I’m winning internationally. That’s what you get with this.

If you do this right and that’s the problem. A lot of NGOs will take the community hit to get the money. The thing is, you should be taking the money hit to help the community. In a perfect world, you do both, but sometimes, you’ve got to tell someone who’s got a bunch of money, “No,” so that you can protect the communities you’re trying to serve, and a lot of people can’t wrap their heads around that.

Do market research before launching a product.

It’s certainly challenging and this happens in for-profit and non-profit businesses all the time where you see that paycheck and you go chase it without thinking about what kind of cultural shift might occur based upon taking that donation.

One of the biggest issues I see from my perspective around this thing is there’s so much stuff to fix. There’s a broken system that hands money to the wrong people that goes and hurts people in the long run. I could talk for six hours and I wouldn’t be able to scratch the surface. One of the biggest things is how you prioritize where you’re going and what you want to do.

For me, the answer usually is to wake up, clear the deck for the day, and do whatever you need to get done. Make sure that your tactics serve your strategy. What you’re doing now should be serving you six months, but you should know where you want to be six months from now or a year. I would also challenge people to think of where they want to be 20 or 50 years from now.

There are so many nonprofits, especially smaller ones, that don’t have a hit by the bus plan. The idea behind the hit by the bus is, what if your CEO gets hit by a bus? What happens? That goes a second command. They’re both walking together singing springtime for Hitler and they both get hit by the bus. Now what? Most NGOs and most charities are screwed, but that means less bad leadership.

If two people are carrying your charity, that’s bad leadership. I can’t hire anybody else. You might not be able to pay them, but you can certainly pull somebody on board, you can make sure that other people have access to the information they need, or you can at least leave a strategic plan and make sure that you have leadership brewing. The goal leadership has produced more leaders. To this day, my second in command, we swap flash drives every week with all the new passwords and everything that needs to be done, including last orders. We then hit and we both hand those to our department heads, so if something hits almost all of us, it’s almost like the Presidential Succession Act.

If something happens to almost all of us, even the person from finance could pick it up and keep it together until they can get back on their feet. If you are so important to your charity that if you die, the charity folds, that’s a crappy leader. A lot of people don’t want to wrap their heads around that, but it’s my idea. If it’s your idea, why do you need anybody else? Why do you have a staff in the first place? They know stuff that you don’t know.

It’s a big problem. When executive directors leave, which you would hope at some point everybody is going to retire or get hit by a bus, I suppose, what is the plan? It is often difficult to transition from that founder ED who is exiting to figure out who is going to run the ship now?

That’s the thing. What we did is we don’t have a clear plan of succession for the directors. What we did do is we said, “If we both die, HR already has a job description ready. They’re going to post. They’re going to look for an Interim ED.” This is the person who is going to be interim ED, but you all vote. You all do the interviews and you pick your new ed, whoever that is, and then that ED will pick their second in command. Congratulations. You’ve rebuilt the entire thing even though your ED and your old CEO got hit by a bus. It might take a few months, but nothing fell apart. Everything is still run the way it is.

I’m a political student. I love organizational stuff. We’ve set up our organization very Federal. There’s a Federal government, but each of the departments is a state in itself. They do whatever they want and however they want to. As long as you mean your crappy goals, I don’t care. That’s something else too. When it comes to leadership and it comes to how nonprofits are run, most nonprofits are volunteer labor. You do have some paid staff that most people are volunteers. I’m going to say something very revolutionary and shocking, so please hold on. You’ve probably never heard of this before. If you treat people like crap, they’re not going to come back.

You laugh, but I’ve seen so many nonprofits who are like, “I need a doctor’s note.” For what? A volunteer? Are you serious? They say, “We go 9:00 to 5:00.” Why do you go from 9:00 to 5:00? What’s the point? There’s no need for that. We work on Slack. I’ve got people in different time zones. I don’t give a dang what you’re doing. As long as you get your job done, that’s what matters to me. If you need to take time off, that’s cool.

We had someone who had a baby. She’s one of our researchers and got her PhD in Economics. My COO and I wrote her a congratulatory letter. It turns out, I didn’t even know this, but my Director of Research as well wrote her a congratulatory note. We mailed it to her. She wrote back to us and gave us a baby pacifier that doubles as a bottle of rum. I’m like, “We’re all alcoholics. That’s cool. I’m down for that.”

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: We should treat these people with decency, kindness, and show them that they’re adults. They can make their own decisions, set their own timetable, set their own work plan.


She’s like, “Thank you so much. I feel like this is my family.” When I hear family from a corporation, do you know what scares me? If it’s coming from the leadership, but this wasn’t coming from leadership. I thought this is the kind of family concept I could get behind because it’s not like the mafia where you’re like, “You’re in the family now, so get rid of this body.” It’s much more that she feels welcome here and wants to stay here for as long as she can.

If you invest in people who want to stay, they stay. If you treat them like human beings, they stay. I can’t tell you the number of people who still do this 1950s or 1960s garbage management of like, “You need to be on the computer between X and Y. You need to take X number of calls.” If you’re in a 21st-century industry that’s highly creative like what we’re doing, you cannot run people like that. If you do, they will run away. Our turnover last year was 10%.

It was amazing. I love our HR for this. They’re going to be writing a paper about this for the Harvard Business Review. They’re like, “Why did so many people have so much turnover?” I’m like, “It’s because they treat them like crap.” If I can’t give you a paycheck, then I have other ways to hold you on. Here’s the other thing. Even if I can pay you well, that does not give me an excuse to treat you like garbage.

Unpaid internships are one of the things that I think need to be revisited. They get the worst possible jobs. You’re volunteering for an organization and they’re having you take out the trash. They’re making up dumb things for you to do as opposed to giving you an actual job description and having something that’s task-based that you are in charge of. If you can do that as an organization and put that kind of structure in place where the person has accountability and goals, and it’s run like a real position, they’re going to learn a lot more, produce a lot more effectively, and stick around either as a repeat volunteer or you might have an opportunity to bring them on as part of the staff. They’re going to turn into a donor, or at least go champion your organization out there.  

We’ve got two interns. They’re both getting their MPH, so they’re both in school. One of them is working on the blog for our website next month. She’s going to do the whole thing from scratch. She’s very excited. The other one is getting us access to UNICEF and the World Health Organization because I sat her down and was like, “What do you want to do?” She’s like, “What?” I’m like, “What do you want to do?” She’s like, “I’m into institutions,” and I’m like, “I need to access to the following things. Can you do that?” She was like, “Yeah,” so she’s doing that.

They’re in their early twenties, but that doesn’t make them children. This isn’t, “Go fill the coffee machine or go make coffee.” This is serious stuff. This is something that’s important and I needed to be done. With that being said, if they drop the ball, I’m going to be like, “What happened here?” I’m not going to go, “How dare you. You’ve ruined everything.” I would go, “What mistakes did you make? How can we learn from this? What would you do next time?” Failure isn’t failure unless you make it a failure. Failure is a learning experience.

My second command was our Director of Research. She was one of our volunteers several years ago. She helped to set up a meeting with the Norwegian police while we were in Haiti. It was the Norwegian police contingent of the UN mission there. Four years later, she’s Head of Research. She never left. The only reason she felt that was because she’s like, “I can’t do the volunteer position anymore. If there’s money coming, that’s fine.” She was starting her own psychiatric practice. That’s a success story. She left not because she wanted to but because she had to, which sucks, but it is what it is.

If you treat people well, they do that. I cannot stand those internships. In fact, I would love to happen if I can find the money, I want to pay my interns $50,000 a year because it’s a job that you should be doing that isn’t just getting coffee. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s when they’re like, “Do you want me to get some coffee?” I look at them and go, “Are you implying my legs are broken? I can take care of myself. I don’t need you to pamper me. Let’s get to business.” I understand some people like that, but that’s not the intern’s job. The intern’s job is there to learn, not how to make coffee.

It’s interesting how organizations of any type feel that they need to do these things, but then they don’t take the time to figure out how to do them in a way that is going to benefit both the organization and the person who is donating their time to that organization.  

I tell my HR department the same thing. I’m like, “Someone is doing time to us, right?” That’s part of their life that they will never get back. They are donating a part of their life because time is the ultimate non-renewable resource and giving us their lifeblood for X amount of time. Whether it’s 1 hour or 1,000 hours, that’s still time they will never get back. Even with a time machine, you can’t get it back. You’re still aging. It is what it is. The least we can do is treat these people with decency, kindness, and respect. Show them that they’re humans and that they’re adults and they can make their own decisions. Set their own timetable. Set their own work plan.

They’re always going to do better than you think. It’s not just they want to impress you, because that’s not the biggest part. They’re like, “I’m in a place that respects what I’m doing, so let me go kick butt, take names, and show what I can really do.” If you give people the tools that they need to do what they want to do, it’s amazing how much they’ll do because if I knew what I wanted, why am I hiring you in the first place? I know where I want to go, but I don’t know how to get there. That’s your job. Help me with that. Also, empower them, and then most importantly, step away from them. Don’t watch them every day. I can’t stand people who are like, “Why don’t you check your interns every day?” I’m like, “Why? Are you that concerned? They’re not doing it.” If they’re not doing it, you’ll find out in the end.

If two people are carrying your charity, that’s bad leadership. You might not be able to pay them, but you can certainly pull somebody on board.

If they want you to check in on them, that’s a different story. They would be like, “I need someone to check in on me.” I’ll be like, “I’ll do that,” but that’s going to be my default. I’m going to let you be an adult. You tell me what you need and we will go from there. It’s amazing how many people really flourish in that because they are like, “Do you mean I can be an adult?” I’m like, “Yes, because you are.”

I enjoyed speaking with you and would love to continue our conversation on another episode, perhaps. We can drill down some more and dig in because what you talked about nonprofits are businesses. Would you invest in a business that didn’t have a business plan? Why don’t we invest in nonprofits doing some research as an important takeaway? I’m excited to see where you guys continue to take this ad how much influence you can have over this great community of nonprofits that we’re both engaged with.  

I hope so too. I appreciate you having me on board. I’m down to do another episode. I love talking.

It is great. How can people find out more about Peacebuilding Solutions?  

All you got to do is type Peacebuilding Solutions into Google or go to our website, www.PeacebuildingSolutions.org. We are updating as much as possible. We’re on Facebook and LinkedIn, so you can look there as well. Also, please go watch my TED Talk. It is on YouTube. Type in my name and you can pull it up. We do take PayPal and we will take small donations. I’m fine with that, too, by all means, but if you want to reach out to us, we do have a contact link as well. If you want to pick my brain or some of my staff’s brain, you can do that too.

I love having these conversations. One of the things I try and do on every show is not just talk, but try and inspire some action, and that action can be anything that you think you’d be great to have people do. If people were reading this episode and could take away one thing to do after our conversation, what would you have them do?  

Donate cash to the charities that you care about. That’s really one of the most important things. There are too many charities and too many people who go out there and are like, “I’m going to hand out my old t-shirts or my shoes.” I promise you. Every single charity in the world will tell you the same thing. They would be like, “I don’t need your shoes. I don’t want that stuff. Give me cash.” Also, find the charity that you trust and keep giving to them because it is a trust game. Find out the ones that you want to trust and then go from there. Do your research and invest your money wisely. It will make you much happier than randomly throwing stuff away.

I would encourage everyone to do that. Thank you so much for being on the show. I had a great time, as always, chatting with you and I’m looking forward to learn what is next.  

Me too. Thank you so much for having me on.

Talk to you soon.

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About Greg Hodgin

The entire international humanitarian aid system is broken.

Refugees, internally displaced people, and those in need are not numbers on a spreadsheet. They are human beings with hopes and dreams who were dealt a bad hand.

Hi, I’m Greg. And I’m angry about the current system. I’m angry that good people get screwed over by others with the best of intentions at heart. I’m angry that so little is being done. So I’m doing something about it.

Instead of treating these people as passive recipients of aid, we can give those in need the tools and resources they need to become the architects of their own futures.

Expert in nothing, but willing to listen and learn from anyone. Everyone knows something I don’t: by all means, show me I’m wrong.

Will you join me?