Winter is coming, and the donor-centric fundraising model must evolve


nedHi everyone, this post is one of the toughest I have written. Mainly because I just watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones and now am feeling depressed and anxious about which character I like is next to die. Just kidding—kind of. This post is difficult to write because individual donor cultivation is complex, and I have been so focused on other areas of our sector that this seems like new territory for NWB. Today’s post, then, is more an invitation for discussion, and I hope fundraisers, and donors, will weigh in with thoughts and counterpoints.

Over the last few years, we have been sharpening our fundraising knives on the whetting stone of donor-centrism in order to carve into the gluten-free loaf of equity and social justice. (This may just be the worst metaphor I’ve written since the Vitamix of summits blending the margaritas of community engagement). Because of the constancy and complexity of fundraising, the brilliant development professionals in our field—Pamela Grow and Mary Cahalane being two that I learn from—have created a model where the donor is at the center. It is not about us and our organizations and programs, but about the donors and their relationships with our missions. I’ve been making sure donors are thanked quickly and in personalized ways and are constantly kept in the loop, for example. And I’ve been learning to say “you” way more often in all my communications, both at work, and even at home—e.g., “YOU do the dishes!”

This week, I attended an annual gala of a nonprofit that I love, and it was obvious that they needed to be more donor-focused. The whole evening became a celebration of the organization, and less than 5% of the time was dedicated to recognizing existing donors and inviting new ones to be involved. Without a clear connection to the role they played, guests became disinterested and kept talking over the speakers. The organization still raised money, thanks to a compelling mission, but if it had focused more on donors—and told better stories—I’m sure it would have raised even more.

All this is to say that I agree with many of the tenets of donor-centrism. Some of them are just common sense stuff that we should all be putting into practice: Acknowledge donors quickly, communicate frequently, don’t treat people like ATMs, build relationship, appreciate every gift no matter the size, personalize, discuss impact and how donors play a role, solicit feedback, be transparent, etc.

When Donor-Centrism goes too far

What has been concerning me a bit lately, however, is the philosophy proposed by fundraisers that nonprofits “put donors at the center of their universe,” that we should make donors the protagonists/heroes of every story of impact. “Donors want to feel warm and fuzzy when they give,” I read, “so find some other sources of funding to cover your overhead so you can tell your donors that 100% of their donations go to programming.” At another workshop, I was told to “find out what your donors like. If they care about early learning, don’t bother to ask them for your employment program. If they love science, why would you ask them to donate to your art project?” This makes sense, and it works, and yet, it is also kind of sad.

When donor-centric fundraising is done right, it’s cool; when it’s done wrong, we sound like the used car salesmen of justice. Overall, there are several challenges I see with too much catering to donors’ preferences:

First, we risk dividing the nonprofit sector into a strip-mall-like entity, where donors can walk around and choose the causes and organizations that do the best job appealing to them. All of us, then, end up continuing to compete with one another for “customers.” But this is dangerous, since all the problems are related. If donors care about kids, they need to understand and care about employment programs. If they care about employment, they have to understanding and care about housing. If they care about housing, they have to understand and care about advocacy, etc.

Second, we perpetuate inefficient nonprofit dynamics. For example, despite our sector’s push to get foundations to provide general operating support, when it comes to individual donors, we are still very much transactional. We tell people that their $500 gift will provide 50 seniors with hot meals, $1,000 will keep 10 families warm for the winter, etc. This makes people feel good about where their money is going. The problem with this is that an organization does an entire body of work, and to separate individual donors’ contributions out of the whole is to perpetuate an illusion and further obscure the reality of nonprofit work, which makes it more difficult for all of us to do our work.

Third, we reinforce power dynamics and widen the dichotomy between donors and nonprofits, further distancing one from the other. “Donors want to do to meaningful stuff,” we are told, “and we nonprofits are just the means for that.” I think that’s the wrong approach to have. If we are going to solve society’s entrenched problems, nonprofits, donors, funders, volunteers, must all work together as equals with different roles to play, and one cannot be elevated above the rest. Many of us rail against the foundation/grantee power imbalance, advocating for more of an equal partnership. The donor/nonprofit relationship, while different, has similar dynamics. Donors alone cannot be “the heroes,” just like foundations alone can’t be the heroes, and we nonprofits alone can’t be the heroes. None of us are heroes without all of us.

The Community-Centric Fundraising Model

800px-thumbnailFor too long, we nonprofits have been siloed from one another. While all of us do different things and play different roles, there is one thing that binds all of us together: Community. We have different missions, but every single one links back to this one, the Prime Mission: To build a stronger, safer, happier community that we all can live in, where we want our kids to grow up in, where we can all grow old and die peacefully in. Donors, funders, volunteers, staff, board, businesses, we all belong to this community and have a stake in it and a responsibility to it. Which is why, even though my current work focuses on building leadership among communities of color, I am deeply thankful for the work that my colleagues do in areas of homelessness, art, food justice, employment, senior care, environmental justice, culture, LGBTQ, racism, disability, child protection, domestic violence, human trafficking, transportation access, animal rescue, etc. We cannot have a strong community unless ALL of these things are addressed.

Honestly, I feel that in our quest to make our donors feel good so that they will keep giving, we often underestimate them. We separate them out from the community that they are in, and we reinforce the dichotomy of donors as the benefactors helping “other” people, and we make them feel “warm and fuzzy” for doing it. I don’t think we focus enough on getting them to see the bigger vision, a vision that extends beyond our own organization. And by not getting other people to see this bigger vision, we simultaneously prevent ourselves from seeing it. To tackle the increasing challenges in our society, we nonprofits must think beyond our own individual org’s survival, and think of the entire community, and get everyone else to do the same.

With that in mind, I think we should take the best elements of the donor-centric model, and evolve it into the community-centric model. I think donors want to be neither ATMs nor royalty to be catered to. I think that most would like to be equal partners in the work toward creating an awesome community that they are a part of. If the donor-centric model puts donors in the center, the Community-Centric model focuses on the community as the most important element of our work. Here are some recommendations:

Adopt the great stuff from donor-centric fundraising as a default: Again, that includes: Acknowledge donors quickly, communicate frequently, don’t treat people like ATMs, build relationship, appreciate every gift no matter the size, personalize, discuss impact and how donors play a role, solicit feedback, be transparent, etc.

Challenge and educate your donors: In trying constantly to make donors feel comfortable, we forget that we should sometimes make them feel uncomfortable. An ED friend of mine recalled an incidence where he basically, in a one-on-one, called out a major donor for what he perceived was unintended racism. He was pretty sure that that donor would withdraw support; the donor actually appreciated the feedback and increased his gift. Another donor invited me to lunch and asked me to give him “trenchant, cynical, and brutal advice on my nebulous plans to get involved in the non-profit world.” This is a brilliant person from the business sector who is now trying to get involved in nonprofit work and wants the occasionally painful truth, including about his role as a white ally in the work; we’ve had a great time. Our community cannot grow stronger if some of the most influential members do not get their views challenged from time to time.

Be knowledgeable about issues other than just the ones your nonprofit is working on: You don’t have to be an expert, but so many issues are interrelated, and we need to break out of our silos. By doing so, we can better inform our donors of the complex issues in our communities and provide a more compelling case for their involvement and support. We can also support one another better and more effectively collaborate.

Introduce donors to other nonprofits: Depending on the fundraising professional, this may be perceived as blasphemy. But I really believe that it will help us strengthen the sector, and thus the community, if we nonprofits are more supportive of and generous with one another. I try to introduce donors that I know to nonprofits that I think would be a good match for them. The nonprofits are extremely grateful, are likelier to reciprocate and collaborate, and the donors get a better grounding on the interconnections between issues. I find donors tend to be very appreciative of this. Yes, giving does occasionally transfer to the other nonprofits, but it comes back double in other ways, and the community is stronger.

Change the “you” to the “we.” No, not the “we” referring to your organization—“This year, we served 300 families”— but the “We” that includes BOTH the donor and your organization working together, and the “We” that signifies all of us belonging to the same community. This one is tricky, because fundraising has either focused on the organization’s impact, or the donor’s contributions that made the impact possible: “Because of you, we were able to serve 300 families this year.” That still separates the nonprofit and donor into two separate categories and does not effectively build community. The most compelling letters/emails I’ve read are the ones where they say “we” a lot—“Vu, we did it! We got legislation passed to get hummus into every school!”—but each time I see it, I feel like I am included, like I belong on an awesome team. I think, “Yeah! We totally did it! I was a part of that!”

Winter is coming

winterIn Game of Thrones—whether you watch it or not, and you should—people are jostling to sit on the Iron Throne and rule the vast land of Westeros. One of the show’s themes is “winter is coming,” and in this land, winter lasts whole generations, and scary ice zombies rise out of the snow and kill everyone indiscriminately, kings and peasants. Winter, then, is a terrifying thing. While the different families fight over power, the smartest and noblest people—who do tend to die quickly and in grisly ways in this show— know that everyone has to unite in order to fight off the much greater common threat.

We don’t have ice zombies to contend with in our world, but we do have injustice, inequity, and oppression, and they manifest in various horrible ways. I am not sure if the nonprofit sector, in its current state of siloed work, poor recognition in society, and restricted funding dynamics, will be able to tackle our current challenges, much less future ones. We have to do things differently; we can no longer afford to just focus on our own nonprofit’s mission and survival. All of us have to band together, support one another, and work as equal partners, and no one—not nonprofits, not donors, not even our own clients—should be center of the universe. The community, the one thing we are all fighting for, must be the center.

Again, these are just some of my thoughts. Please let me know what you think. Whether you agree or disagree, this is an important conversation for us to have. Because winter is coming, and for many of our community members, it is already here.

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45 thoughts on “Winter is coming, and the donor-centric fundraising model must evolve

  1. Vicky

    Bless you, Vu, for the
    thoughts in this post! I too have immersed myself in webinars pushing the
    donor-centric fundraising model. All the while thinking, this tactic sells our
    donors short. We should not merely seek to make our donors drool like Pavlov’s
    dog at the prospect of how good they will feel when they write us a check. They
    have brains as well as viscera. Sure, the emotional tug has power, but in our
    appeals and thank yous we have the opportunity to educate. Education builds our recognition in society.

    1. Mary Cahalane

      Vicky, the thing is, while all of us have brains as well as hearts, ALL of us make decisions using our hearts. (We rationalize those decisions immediately afterwards with our brains, so we THINK we’re being logical. But neuroscience says we’re not.) So speaking to donors’ hearts is the way to fundraise. That’s not dumbing things down, though. It’s still complex and interesting and really meaningful. It’s just focused at the place where donors are.

      And we really can’t force an education on anyone. We can invite people in. We can offer them more information as they want it. But as fundraisers we’re not superior beings who just need to educate those silly donors. We’re their partners and they’ll give for their own reasons. If we can’t feel real gratitude for their contributions (of time, interest and money) then we’re doing it wrong. I’d steer away from the urge to educate donors in a thank you and just focus on being grateful. You’ll see more of them that way, they’ll *want* to know more, and the organization and community will all be stronger for it.

      1. Vu Le

        Thanks, Mary. I agree we can’t force an education on anyone. But I don’t think inviting people in and providing them with helpful information so they have a better understanding of the work they are investing in are mutually exclusive. As long as we are genuine and appreciative, we can appeal to the heart while also providing the brain with some fuel. The heart works better when the brain is involved anyways.

    2. Vu Le

      Thanks, Vicky. I think figuring out how to not sell our donors short is the key. The majority I work with are awesome, and they want feedback, and they want to be challenged when they’re wrong. Imagine how boring a relationship would be if there’s no give and take and appreciation and learning from one another. I don’t think it is actually a genuine relationship, then. We have been so focused on the appreciation part, and we should continue with that, but I think donors are ready for more meaningful, even if occasionally more painful, conversations

  2. Hildie Lipson

    Another great post, Vu. I completely agree about getting out of our silos and talking about other nonprofits working to make our community the kind that we want to live in. As a donor to many nonprofits myself (and as one who does fundraising for my org) I know that I give to more than one group and I am open to knowing about other groups doing great work that enhance my community and that I may want to support.
    I agree that we in our organizations need to be donor-centric and do the things you list as a default. Yet, recently I read a nonprofit post that talked about how to “ramp up” your donor thank you. Yes, we need to thank donors quickly, personalize the thank you and more. But I don’t need a video thank you. I don’t need a thank you that takes more time from the development office to produce. I need an accurate thank you letter (or email) that is promptly delivered and lets me know the group got my gift and needs it. Let’s not go overboard trying to outdo our neighboring nonprofits in the thank-you department.

    Thank you for pushing this sector to continually examine how we are do our work.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Hildie, for bringing some moderation to the “thanking.” As a donor myself, I agree that I do not need an over-the-top thank you. A prompt and simple acknowledgement will do.

  3. Nicole

    Yes Yes Yes! Community! We should all spend time lifting all boats and not just focus on our individual organization’s needs. I also love your specific appeal to use language like, “we did it!” It’s something we’ve been doing for a long-time and I’ve struggled with among all of the donor-centric “YOU” language. “You” is important, but so is the “we”. We all want to be part of something great, together 🙂

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Nicole. If we can all realize we are in one sector and one community and support one another, I think we can do even more awesome stuff

  4. Sheena

    Agreed! Donors want to be treated as equals in pursuing the mission, not necessarily pandered to and coddled. I love the donor-centric model, but I appreciate how you qualify it in this post, so it’s not taken to an extreme at the mission’s expense.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Sheena. I think there are lots of great things about the donor-centric model. But i think we can incorporate those elements into the community-centric model.

  5. Mary Cahalane

    Vu! Thank you for the very nice mention. I’m honored.

    Here’s what I think: treating the donor like a hero doesn’t have to mean excluding others from the job. There’s enough need to go around! And yes, ideally, the whole community is part of solving the problems of society. But when you get down to the micro level, it’s one person who is being asked to help. And that ask is so much more inspiring – and put in such a better context – when it’s “Vu, we need you. You can offer something that will change the world.” than “We’re pretty awesome. You really should give us money.”

    I like “we” when used as you describe – when it’s about including the donor in the cause. I really don’t like the Royal We. (When organizations spend all their time talking about how great they are. You really can’t amaze someone into contributing.) The Royal We is the greyscale of fundraising – and will kill the whole nonprofit and possibly the whole community.

    (See how I did that? Even though I knew what was going to happen last night – since I’ve read the books twice – I really wanted Danerys to make a different decision!)

    Thanks for your always insightful and entertaining posts, Vu. You make a rainy day shiny again!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks so much, Mary. I learn a lot from you (In other words, you’ve been educating me 🙂 I agree with you that the Royal We should minimally be deployed. As for heroes, I think it’s good for getting donors in the door. Once they’re in, though, I think all of us have to focus on the bigger picture. I know it seems lofty and nebulous sometimes when we talk about our visions, but I think we need to do more of it. When the Realm is constantly scheming and plotting and fighting for survival, we must be the Tyrion and the Varys and the Jon Snow who can get everyone to work together toward a bolder and more inspiring vision.

      1. Mary Cahalane

        Oh, I think everyone wants to be a hero. Of course, that urge killed Ned Stark off pretty quickly.

        But seriously, it’s ok if donors stay heroes long past that first gift. But it’s also ok if your volunteers are heroes. And your staff. And everyone who’s in the fight together to make Westeros sane again, you know?

        The thing is, either that donor-centered hero thing is sincere – in which case, you can be extremely grateful for everyone involved – or it’s not and is just talk. In which case, yeah, it’s a gimmick that might get people in the door.

        I like Beth’s language of making space for donors – leaving the openings, inviting them in for more information – as they want it. Some won’t. Some just want to write a check and feel good. And that’s got to be ok, too.

        Some will want to be much more involved. They’re the ones who’ll seek more information, who’ll become the activists – who’ll push our organizations and communities ahead.

  6. Marie

    I agree, Vu, and our current challenge is to help our Board understand, too. For example: We recently did collaborative fundraising with another nonprofit, and it was a huge success; yet our Board has mandated that we not discuss that partnership in public because it takes the focus off our work. Sigh. Change takes time, changing minds takes even longer.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Marie. Yes, I think all of us, especially our board, have been trained to think primarily of our own nonprofit’s survival, sometimes to the detriment of the sector and the community as a whole. It’ll take a while to break through this, but I have hope we can do it.

  7. Michael Kleinman

    As someone who works for a foundation, I think the donor-centric model is both apt (enough) and also a little sad, insofar as “follow the money” is both appropriate and somewhat depressing advice. That said, it’s useful to think of the donor-grantee dynamic from a program officer’s perspective:

    – A program officer’s primary role is to a) identify potential grants that fit with the foundation’s mission, and then b) make a compelling case internally (to the ED, to the Board, etc.) to make those grants.

    – No one submits an application that says: “We’re pretty mediocre.” Every applicant highlights her or his achievements, often in the same terms. After a while, it all begins to sound the same.

    – The way you whittle down proposals is by asking if they’re a strategic fit. It doesn’t matter that your project is amazing in the abstract; what matters is that there’s some clear hook / connection to what the foundation is already doing. No foundation, no matter how large, can fund every worthwhile project – insisting on strategic fit is the great filter.

    1. Vu Le

      Michael, I agree about strategic fit to a degree. But there are so many weaknesses of that model. Who is to say that foundation’s strategies and priorities are the things that are most effective to bringing about change? And with the power imbalance, foundations and nonprofits are not often working together to come up with strategies that both can implement effectively together. This is a topic for a longer blog post. But overall, the dynamics between funders and nonprofits need to change if we are going to effectively address society’s challenges.

      1. Michael Kleinman

        I completely agree, but it’s useful to separate out a tactical from a strategic approach. Tactically, the question is: what can I do to best increase my chances of getting funding (no matter how flawed the overall model might be). From a tactical perspective, potential grantees need to think in terms of strategic fit, etc.

        The strategic issue – how to change the overall funding model – is much more difficult. I don’t think anyone (aside from the delusional) would argue that foundations have identified the best priorities, etc. Foundation strategies would, methinks, improve with more input from outside, including from grantees and partners. Yet, because this touches on power dynamics and relationships, it’s much harder to change. And you don’t change this through the grant application process – instead, here you need to engage with the higher levels, and make the case. Putting forward an application that isn’t a strategic fit – while arguing that it should be – is a mistake at both the tactical and strategic levels.

  8. Jorge Rivera

    Hello Vu and thank you for the thoughtful and amusing analysis of fundraising!

    I am currently an organizer with the prospects of stepping into an ED role, which then means fundraising for our very small organization.

    As an organizer, I wish more of our allied and partner organizations would also see the connection within the work we do. All the social justice work we do is interwoven and intertwined.

    I would imagine donors would like to also see their is an overarching value in the donations they make. They are not solely helping one organization. They are helping the overall community. Their donations have permeating effects to the allied/partnered organizations we are on the ground with, challenging and changing the systems which perpetuate the injustices we see everyday.

    As an organizer, we learn to work as a team…as a community. A strong and healthy community will rise from the same relationships established among organizations doing this work. Although the basic tenets of a donor centric model should continue, I believe there is a definite need for the evolution into a community centered model.

    What I think I hear you saying, which I wholeheartedly believe, is our fundraising practices should exemplify the unity and sense of togetherness we hope to see in our communities. The donor is as much a part of the team, community and our work as any other, and so therefore should be seen, treated and approached as such.

    1. verucaamish

      I’m on the board of a nonprofit that does organizing. Since I am also a longtime nonprofit staff person, I try to be the best board member I can be (i.e. give $50/month and get two other people to give $25/month). As someone on both sides of the equation, I really wonder what can break through the threshold of shifting someone who sees the organization as something they are a part of an invested in. The organization I am on the board of does great organizing in one of the quickest and most aggressively gentrifying neighborhoods in the country. I know if it wasn’t for them, this API enclave would turn into Washington, DC’s Chinatown. The work of this organization benefits me by preserving a neighborhood I love and value. I also am invested because I do their work. I understand their work at many levels. I’m the easy sell. How do we get a wide base of donors who know that the work of the organization is in their own self interest? Even something as intangible as community building? Are their messages you use for donors on your work that brings them on board?

      1. Mary Cahalane

        You show them what’s happened because people like you have supported the work. You tell them how important their involvement would be. You use stories, not statistics, to connect to prospective donors on a personal level. You appeal to their innate kindness and generosity.

        To do that effectively, you need those organizing skills – it’s all about relationship building. Isn’t that really what organizing is?

        It’s not an either/or. Good fundraising appeals to people’s desire to make the world better. Present them with the opportunity!

      2. Jorge Rivera

        Yes, I agree with Mary! There isn’t a “pitch” per se. It is about relationship building…as it is with organizing communities. Share the stories of the people you work with and show in stories how their contributions are aiding in the personal growth of that individual through the relationships you’ve built. In doing so…sharing stories…you build relationships with the donor and you also do what is a basic tenet of donor centric models, which is you touch their heart.

      3. Vu Le

        In addition to Mary and Jorge’s suggestions, I would advocate thinking about how to connect this work to a wider vision that involves your donors. This is tricky to do sometimes. Every time I hear of another language/culture going extinct, it depresses me, even though I may not be directly involved. Our community is immeasurably enriched by the diversity of people and cultures and ideas. We ALL have a stake in preserving each other’s heritage.

    2. Vu Le

      Thanks Jorge, for the work that you and your organization do. Your last paragraph summarizes up my main point very well 🙂 Please let me know when you’ve become the ED.

  9. Pauline Urbano Hechler

    Thanks, Vu. Provocative. But two things to consider: 1) Donors are not vegetables; we don’t “cultivate” them. We get to know them as we would a friend. 2) No two donors are alike, and yet we constantly lump them all together. I have found, though, that there are motivational similarities among donors to certain types of causes, e.g., people who give to hospitals are often either grateful or investing, should they need the hospital’s services; people who give to independent schools often give reluctantly, feeling that their tuition already covers them; people who give to human service organizations often want nothing in return, except the assurance that their gift will help people; those who give to the arts often appreciate the recognition. But to say that “Donors…” is futile. They’re all different.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Pauline. I agree that donors are all different, and it’s not effective to lump everyone together. But I think we should start working more closely together in partnership with donors to address society’s issues. And that means treating donors as equal partners, not as “the center of our universe.”

    2. corbin1994

      As a donor and nonprofit professional, the LAST thing I want is to be “friends” with the people at the organizations to which I donate. It’s a completely false and manufactured “friendship”. If I stop giving, for whatever reason, the “friendship” ends.

      1. Pauline Urbano Hechler

        Corbin – thanks for replying. I’m speaking from the perspective of a fundraiser who intends to be at an organization for a long time and intends to work with donors to keep them engaged in the work of the organization for a long time, as well. We do get to know our donors on a personal level, and if the relationship is genuine, they grow to care about us, as we are serving the organization together. Just as in a good and honest friendship, there is give and take. And when one person stops giving, yes, the friendship usually ends. But people don’t have to go to happy hour together to be friends; it’s a frame of mind. I love Michael Bassoff’s book, “RelationShift.” Have you read it? He talks about the myths of fundraising, and the importance of treating donors like friends, with no intention of manipulation, just lots of honest communication, as much education as the donor wants, and great service. In the book, he says, “The basic principle of relation-shift is to
        shift the sense of importance away from yourself
        toward your donor. This idea honors the great American philosopher William James’s most profound discovery: the most basic human need is not love or food
        or sex or money, but a feeling of
        being appreciated.” Friends appreciate each other.

  10. Andy

    I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem partly stems from nonprofits farming out most (all?) of their donor communications to a third parties. If so, what can be done about it?

    1. Mary Cahalane

      Even if the work is outsourced (and I admit my bias, as that’s part of what I do now), it MUST remain in the control of the organization. In the end, those are words they need to own. Outside consultants can certainly bring experience and expertise that might not be available within the organization’s staff. But we should never speak for the organization. We help them find the right way to speak themselves. Does that make sense?

      I understand your concern – my mailbox is full of the same canned appeal being used by three different national charities. (Nickels, anyone?) But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t be that way. And when it is, that’s a (poor) choice of the organization that hires.

      1. Andy

        I’m speaking as a writer for a fundraising consultancy, so it sounds like we’re in similar situations. Although I agree with what you’re saying, what happens when the organization doesn’t advocate for itself?

    2. Vu Le

      Andy, I don’t think that most nonprofits are farming out their donor communications. They may hire consultants to help strategize, but I think the majority is still done in-house. Honestly, we as a sector need to do more marketing and communications. A huge part of the problem that our sector faces is that not enough people know about the issues we’re trying to address, or why nonprofits are important in general

  11. Beth Ann Locke

    I really love your posts, Vu! This one I have a little quibble with.

    First, I don’t think we can thank too much, but we might latch onto the donor-centric model in a process-oriented and inauthentic way.

    Second, I believe that nonprofits do great work, most of them if not all. *But* as soon as a nonprofit asks to solicit the public (prospective donors) for money, we have to change our lens. Work of our sector could be completed with government and foundation grants… so then why do we ask to solicit donors? Once we apply for 501(c)3 status, we must note that our “audience” changes (or enlarges) dramatically. We enter into a sacred trust when we ask for donations (and one that isn’t taken lightly or all seekers would get status and there would be no IRS audits), and that includes the minimum requirements of thanking and reporting (and furnishing financials, etc.).

    Third, forced eduction of donors is really a no-go. Nonprofits can talk about the amazing WE work, but we need to “open a space” for the prospective donors to take a place next to us (fundraisers, program staff, administrators). Donors can then take up the banner and champion our good works – work that is getting done in part due to their gifts. I agree with Mary that “we really can’t force an education on anyone” and that thinking sets up a negative power relationship rather than an actual relationship – which is what we should be doing with donors (and yes, they are unique, Pauline). When we create true relationships with donors, we have the opportunity to engage with them in heart-felt discussions about the larger picture, the larger community, just as Vu mentioned in his post. Lecturing and hectoring and judging… that is not what we are called to do.

    Finally, I think we need to lead with appreciation – true thankfulness – for donors who work (or invest) hard and give back through our nonprofits – we really are just vessels and we sought permission to do this. Our work can be FANTASTIC but if we are unable to explain it in a meaningful way and also report on the progress, I’m not sure we deserve continued support.

    1. Vu Le

      Beth, thank you for taking time to comment. I think we can agree on a lot of things. As I mentioned above, we should be thanking donors quickly, in personalized ways, being transparent, etc. I also agree that we should not be forcing education on anyone, or lecturing and hectoring and judging. But I think “education” has gotten a bad connotation of patriarchy and condescension, and we need to reclaim it. Education should not be a bad thing, but a joyful thing. Like when we watch a Ted talk or something, we’re being educated about stuff we may not know about. We should open ourselves to learning as much as we are providing knowledge to others. The donor who asked me to lunch specifically asked to learn more about our sector and about the work I’m doing, since he has little experience with nonprofit work. We have been “educating” one another, mutually, and it’s been fun.

      What I will disagree with you about is the belief that we “really are just vessels” for donors to make change in the world. I think that underestimates our donor’s intelligence and undervalues our profession. If we are going to solve society’s challenges and strengthen our communities, none of us can afford to just be passive vessels/tools/instruments. We all have a role to play. And we all need to appreciate one another’s unique roles, skills, and strengths, and work together as equal partners.

      1. Beth Ann Locke

        Great points, Vu! We all come with our lenses… my “education” one likely impacted by being a child of an educator and having to do lots of times tables at home – I believe education frees and raises people, but it can be a cudgel in some hands!

        And I take your point to disagree that we are just vessels and that it may undervalue what we do. In the same way, I don’t think donors are passive and fundraisers use them… I guess I’m looking for that balance, as are you.

        PS Can’t express how much I value your blog, and your recent response just here.

  12. Michael Rosen

    As the author of the book “Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing,” I’m obviously a big fan of donor-centric fundraising. I have been since 1982. Over the past three decades, I’ve seen that being donor centered works. It works for donors, and it works for the charities they support.

    While I’m a practitioner of and advocate for donor-centered fundraising, I acknowledge that being donor centered does NOT mean being donor exclusive. Others are essential, too. So, I largely agree with what Vu has written.

    However, I need to comment on the power dynamic and Vu’s suggestion that donors and the organizations they support are equals. They are not. So, why pretend otherwise? Donors have the money that a nonprofit organization needs. Donors also have choices of where to put their money since, most often, more than one organization is addressing the need that is of interest to the donor.

    I also want to address the idea of being community centered. It’s a nice thought. And I’m all in favor of nonprofits working collaboratively and referring donors to other organizations that better fit their philanthropic aspirations. However, development professionals must remain focused on THEIR organization’s mission fulfillment; that must be job number one.

    Finally, I need to mention that while being donor centered might involve a great deal of common sense and that many organizations say they’re donor focused, the reality is that most organizations are definitely not donor centered. Perhaps that’s one reason why donor attrition rates are so obscenely high and why philanthropy as a percentage of GDP has remained relatively constant despite the huge growth in the nonprofit sector and the professionalization of fundraising.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks for the comments, Michael. I agree that there is power imbalance, and it’s even more salient when we talk about foundations and nonprofits. However, just because it exists does not mean we can’t work effectively together, or give each other feedback, or push one another to be better. A lot of the power dynamics are perpetuated by nonprofits not being willing to speak up. What I’ve found, through writing this blog and being vocal, is that many donors and foundations are receptive. Not all will be, but many are. If we just assume that they’re not willing to listen and to be equal partners, then we’re already defeating ourselves.

      Of course development professionals must focus on THEIR organization’s mission. However, there are long-term and short-term outcomes to our actions. Building partnerships, supporting other nonprofits, etc., may in the short-term cost us a little, but it will allow our organizations to be much more effective in the long-term, which IS strategically putting our mission/organization first. When the ENTIRE community benefits, we’re not just fulfilling the mission of our organization, but the mission of the sector.

      I agree with you, though, that many nonprofits should focus more on their donors.

      1. AllieJ

        Michael – If your #1 focus is your organization and not your community,
        then you’re doing it wrong. The community should always be at the
        center of our work.

      2. Mary Cahalane

        It’s tough… but I agree in the long-run we should all be focused on our causes, not our organizations, necessarily. (Though that’s probably different sometimes – with arts organizations, for instance.) But if your organization fights hunger, then your highest aim is to put yourself right out of business, right?

  13. James Greene

    Vu, a fantastic approach to creating a meaningful relationship with the community! I really appreciate your call to interest donors and to invest in them much in the same way they invest in the community we live in together. In my community we often talk about the biblical principle of giving with a fullness of heart. It seems that your article today speaks to that same desire. Thank you!

    1. Vu Le

      Thank you, Rabbi James. The more we can get people to understand that we are all in one community together, the stronger our community will be.

  14. Guest

    donor-centric approach going wrong can be explained, in our opinion, by the individualism
    characterizing our society.

    It’s a
    matter of individual versus collectivity and the individual is obviously
    advantaged. So it’s no wonder you start thinking of donors as “customers” who
    buy the satisfaction of being recognized for their contributions.

    The problem
    you report has deep roots and an evolution towards a community-centric model is
    highly unlikely from what we know at this moment. If the nonprofit sector
    continues to take after the business world, there will continue to be a gap
    between organizations and their publics and we’ll never have a “we” referring
    to both the nonprofit and its supporters. Have you seen any corporation
    rallying with their customers or target publics? Guess not… And the nonprofit
    world is maintaining the same approach, as you have pointed out.

    We hold a
    company blog, ,
    and we must confess that your article was a breakthrough for us and will
    definitely shed a new light on our content strategy.

  15. Fundlio

    This donor-centric approach going wrong can be explained, in our opinion, by the individualism characterizing our society.

    It’s a matter of individual versus collectivity and the individual is obviously advantaged. So it’s no wonder you start thinking of donors as “customers” who buy the satisfaction of being recognized for their contributions.

    The problem you report has deep roots and an evolution towards a community-centric model is highly unlikely from what we know at this moment. If the nonprofit sector continues to take after the business world, there will continue to be a gap between organizations and their publics and we’ll never have a “we” referring to both the nonprofit and its supporters. Have you seen any corporation rallying with their customers or target publics? Guess not… And the nonprofit world is maintaining the same approach, as you have pointed out.

    We hold a company blog, and we must confess that your article was a breakthrough for us and will definitely shed a new light on our content strategy.

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