Something Went Wrong with Donor Centered Fundraising

When I was just getting started in fundraising, I found a battered copy of Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising in a desk drawer. I devoured it. It had statistics, it was based on a solid foundation of research, and it gave advice that was easy to implement. I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I still buy copies for colleagues. I still recommend it to everyone.

I still stand by the core ideas of donor-centered fundraising. And, really, I think that comes down to three simple things:

Donors should receive prompt and meaningful thanks for their gifts. My standard is an official written acknowledgement, including a story of someone who we have helped, personally signed by someone in leadership, and sent within two business days of receiving the gift. For first time donors, I also like to add a phone call or a handwritten thank you card. And, of course, major donors sometimes get special treatment.

Donors should have choices about what their gifts are used for, and the right to support what they care about. I usually create specific, program-based funds that donors can give to. This allows me to provide the option to restrict a gift to the donor while making sure that we (the organization) control what those options are.

Donors should receive information about what their last gift accomplished before they are asked for another gift. While some of this is included in the thank you letter, this is really where newsletters, blog posts, and social media posts shine. I always want to be telling my organization’s story, and part of that story is what our donors have helped do.

But I could put all of this in simpler terms: donors are people with whom we are in relationship. They have their own desires and they give to fulfill those desires. My job as a fundraising professional is to help them realize those desires. I hope they can do that by giving to my organization. But, if they can’t, there are no hard feelings when they go somewhere else.

But something has clearly gone wrong. In the last year or so, I’ve come across two blog posts, from people I respect, who think donor-centrism is a problem. One is from Jason McNeal (and is more than a year old, but I came across it recently). The other is from Vu Le.

I’m not going to go through these criticisms of donor-centrism point by point. There are parts I agree with and parts I don’t. You should go and read them for sure.

But I also think there’s a core problem that both of these posts get to. At some point, donor-centrism stopped being a fundraising principle. People started pushing it as an organizational principle, giving the impression that organizations (not just fundraisers) should revolve around donors. People started telling donors that they were superheroes. People started putting #donorlove above all else.

And that really is a problem.

Now, I understand why it happened. It happened because organizations needed to be reminded that donors are people. I remember having to tell my boss that even if it was easier for accounting if we didn’t start entering this year’s gifts until we completely closed out last year, we couldn’t have a three week lag between receiving a gift and sending a thank you note… for the third year in a row. I remember foolishly backing down when, in response to a throwaway line in an appeal, that same supervisor said that it was emphatically not okay that a donor hadn’t given to us the previous year. I remember sitting in countless conversations where people who were so passionate about our mission that they gave tens of thousands of dollars – and people who were so passionate that they gave the last ten dollar they had – were treated like ATMs. It is easy for people who aren’t interacting with donors every day – who don’t have donors at the center of their job – to forget that donors are people.

It also happened because donor-centrism works. People are more generous when we help them see that they’re meeting their own need to do good through their gift than they are when we tell them to do what we want to do. Donors are not extensions of our desires. And they are more open to giving when we treat them as something greater than that.

But still, it’s a problem. When an organization as a whole starts serving donors before anyone else, it really does perpetuate competition, fuel systemic injustice, and proliferate savior complexes.

In any healthy organization – in any healthy community – everyone has a role to play. In a healthy nonprofit, the board and the executive director need to look after the health of the organization, the program staff need to advocate for the people they’re serving, and fundraisers need to make sure that donors are being cared for. When we each play our part, all of the voices are at the table. We can ask and answer important questions like,

Does this fit the mission of our organization?

Does this serve the people who we are called to serve in the best possible way?

Does this give our donors and other supporters a way to help solve a problem?

And it’s when all of us play a part that we can transform the world into a place of greater justice and mercy.

For fundraisers – and only for fundraisers – that part is centered on donors. And we should never try to make other people take on that challenge.

Update: Vu Le has a follow up to his original post.