Five Tips to Handle Scandals

by Marcy Heim on February 22, 2018

May you never need this…

Remember…”I CREATE MY LIFE!” Right? We do. We must take responsibility for our choices. But, we don’t always make the best choices. Notice I’m putting everyone in this picture.

In my 30 plus years in advancement leadership and coaching, I’ve experienced inappropriate photos of elderly residents on Facebook, fraud accusations on the front page about a donor just about to make a named building gift, finding dead animals on a research farm, staff/leadership embezzling or wrongfully spending donor money and staff/board saying or doing something determined to be “inappropriate.”

As I gain years and experiences, I believe I also have gained some wisdom.

Here are 5 tips to handle scandals.

1. Shut Up. Ok, not artful. Don’t gossip. Don’t stir the pot.  

“Did you hear such and such?” We have this urge to join the crowd screaming in shock at a wrongdoing. Certainly these actions may disappoint or sicken me deeply, but I always begin by considering how broken a person must be to have done what he/she did. I am not advocating secrecy, rather discretion in how we talk about scandals. Don’t be the one who brings it up. Poor behavior can happen in any of our organizations and with any of our donors. Don’t act or react until you have facts.

2. Refer major donors to the highest authority.

Even if you have the “official” statement, major donors with questions deserve to have something unsavory explained to them from the highest official possible. The Dean, President, ED, or CEO stating that there was a situation, those who were involved have been dealt with and ensuring that steps have been taken to prevent this in the future will re-build trust. When the CEO of a facility talked directly with the families impacted by poor actions of 2 nursing assistants, the families were reassured it would not recur.

3. Focus on the legacy of positive and strong service and leadership.

A development professional whose institution was involved in a wide-spread abuse scandal met with a faculty member. The faculty member was the father of not only one victim who was abused, but two. He opened the meeting by saying, “99.99% of things that happen at this university are good.” It’s so true. Remind others of the good work we do the vast majority of the time. Strong leadership is the norm.

4. Be part of creating better systems.

One Dean I worked with engaged in questionable use of donor dollars and was removed. Since then, my Memorandums of Agreement with major donors are longer and provide iron-clad clarity on the donor’s wishes. Yes, we need to “allow future leadership the opportunity to adapt to changing realities.” But, the letter of agreement lives on legally long after contact screens are buried, staff changes and no one is around who remembers the specific feelings of the donor.

When an ED’s cheerfully said, “No worries. You head on home. I can take the money bags to the bank” it created over time $300,000 in stolen money and re-enforced why two sets of hands are on any handling of cash. Period. No exceptions.

If board members are uncomfortable with the financials, ASK! This does not mean running the day-to-day, but you have a responsibility to understand what’s going on in the books. An ED asked me to talk to her Board President about “micro-managing her.” Turns out she was directing dollars into her personal account.

5. Manage judgment and the drama of being “offended.”

We have a tendency to find our “grey” more acceptable than others.
Your own moral compass guides you every day in your actions, words and judgments. The store misses charging you for an item or we write ourselves an extra $20 in mileage on our expense account. Hmmm.

People DO change as they grow. New experiences conquer fear of the unknown. My dad had life-long friends from his military service. He called some “colored” with all the love and respect that comes in a true friendship. As he aged and learned about more preferred words, he adopted these. Please don’t judge him as “racial” based upon words he knows from his past when those were the words used.

When Maya Angelou was at Wakefield College students ask to meet with her and separated into “black students” and “white students.” They would ask her questions about each other and she would say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them? They are sitting right here!” and she melted the barriers of fear.

There are those I sadly believe begin each day wondering, “What am I going to be offended by today?” And sure enough, they will find what they seek. They deepen divides and foster despair and anger. Rather, seek to understand that our experiences, culture and perceptions from little on up shape our actions and reactions. People need help to change and grow.

Investing your time in “outrage” is exhausting. Instead practice deep listening with your mind open to increasing understanding and harmony. It will refocus all that negative energy on more productive donor work!

If anything has changed for me as I get older it is to ask when anything negative strikes my world…”What can I do to lift up others in this situation?” As the Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

Invest in JOY®



Marcy Heim is a trusted authority in the development profession and helps organizations and educational institutions boost their major gift programs through artful, long-term relationship building that dramatically increases fundraising success while promoting increased staff job satisfaction. To receive a free chapter from Marcy’s book, Empower Your Board to Serve as Effective Development Ambassadors, click here.

Questions:  Contact KK Konicek at


Leave a Comment

Anti-Spam Quiz:

Previous post:

Next post: