Vu Le of Nonprofit AF recently wrote a long, very thoughtful piece about donor-centrism. He hoped it would generate conversation – and I hope so, too.
Vu is an amazing dynamo who is making change happen, not just in his organization, but across the sector. So I encourage you to read his article if you haven’t already. (It’s OK – I’ll wait right here.)
While I usually agree wholeheartedly with Vu, I found a lot I did not agree with this time. And I think it’s because Vu and I are working with different definitions. I arrive at a different place when I consider the importance of donor-centrism to our organizations.
So maybe a couple of definitions – my own – are needed before I respond to Vu’s post.
Donors: anyone who gives their time, their skills, or resources. So yes, volunteers are most certainly donors.
Donor-focus or donor-centrism: understanding that donors are not merely funders of our important missions. Philanthropy IS mission. Giving furthers mission. And people who choose to give are heroes.
I read Vu’s piece, and I had so much I wanted to say that a comment wouldn’t do. So I offer my thoughts here. (My headlines often follow his, just to make this easier.)
About the donor-centered model
Vu believes this model is prevalent in our sector. I believe there is a lot of talk, but unfortunately, the donor-centered model is NOT pervasive at all.
Most organizations are still functioning on an organization-centric model, where donors are simply the funders, ATMs.
Donors must be at the center of fundraising work. There is no fundraising without them. And without resources, there is no organization.
Nonprofits exist to gather community contributions (not all financial) to solve a problem. Giving is how donors transform the world.
So yes, donors are heroes. That doesn’t exclude others from being heroes – we need as many heroes as we can get now.
Our sector, our communities, our world – they are all interconnected. But each problem has specific solutions.
That’s why we have various nonprofits – and donors who feel strongly about each.
That’s not a bad thing.
Do we have too many organizations? Yes, we do. I’m someone who loves small nonprofits. But there are too many small organizations, each trying to solve a large problem. We need fewer people starting nonprofits and more people helping existing organizations become stronger.
Donor focus reinforces money as the default measure of worth
I don’t think nonprofits reinforce money as a measure of worth. That idea is baked into our society – so let’s point the finger in the right direction.
Do we reflect that notion? Do too many organizations focus on dollars instead of donors? Yes, absolutely.
But that’s the opposite of donor-focus.
When an organization cares about donors, the dollars follow. But dollars are not the sole measure of someone’s commitment to a cause.
Volunteers are donors of time. Other friends of an organization may have talents or connections that help.
And I think we all could identify donors who can give at a “major” level – but their gift is not necessarily meaningful to them. They may give to many organizations in a community because it’s good for business, for instance.
We also know donors for whom $25 is a deeply significant gift. Both those donors are important.
It’s not our job to educate donors about the appropriate reason to give.
Our job as fundraisers is to connect donors to what they want to see in the world.
And guess what? That’s how you build community.
Donor focus furthers transactional charity
Donors DO benefit from giving. And anyone claiming to be donor-centric understands that.
Fundraising is not begging. It’s not selling widgets. And it’s not a one-way street, either. It’s a relationship.
Donors give to see something change – so something bad stops, or something good grows. They may not have the time or talent to go out and make that change happen by themselves.
So they give. And that means they are part of the cause and they are doing mission.
Results? Most donors are not really looking for dollar for dollar results. Although being completely transparent about your finances is a good thing and a way to build trust.
Donors want to know about their impact. What changed because I gave? If an organization can’t answer that question, it needs to examine its practices.
Donors are part of our missions. So transactional charity is the last thing that being donor-centric is about. It’s exactly the opposite.
Do donors deserve information? Should our organizations be transparent about our operations? Hell yes.
And that’s how donors learn about the nuances of nonprofit operations and finance.
Donors are not stupid – they understand we need to pay staff and order copy paper. And of course, our work requires more than a single donor or donation!
I’ve found most donors downplay their own importance. Very few demand a great deal of attention or time.
Fundraising IS about building community.
Alone, most donors can’t lever the change they’re looking for. Together, they can.
Donor focus prevents honest conversations and true partnerships
If your idea of donor-focus does this, you’re doing it all wrong.
Honesty is part of any good relationship. Is there often a power dynamic at work? Yes, sadly, there is. Some of that (much of it, honestly) is about money. Some is about politics or other things.
In our sector, we often place ourselves in the position of supplicant.
I don’t think we can blame donors for that.
Funny thing is, when we see donors as partners, not money machines, we stop thinking of ourselves as beggars.
Think about the board members you get to know personally. Are they still distant powers to be feared? Or are they people, who give generously of their skills, time and resources?
If there’s changing to be done (and I agree there is) then WE need to do it.
So let’s talk relationships: Being donor-focused is not about sublimating ourselves to donors.
And it’s about not pushing them aside while we, the noble nonprofit, do the real work. Though they can send the money, of course.
The idea that putting donors at the center of our work excludes others is a misunderstanding. Fundraising is about welcoming more people into our missions – not bowing at donors’ feet.
It’s more about standing shoulder to shoulder, rolling up our sleeves and getting to work together – I’ve got the skills, you’ve got some funds… together we can do great things!
Far too many organizations are entirely focused on their good work. They celebrate themselves. They forget they don’t, they cannot, do it alone.
And ironically, that focus is what turns them into supplicants and makes the relationship with donors transactional.
The minute we give in to “We work so hard at this. Look at our heroic work! Oh, and you can send the money, right?” we’re the ones making it about a transaction.
Perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games
I completely disagree that donor-centricity disadvantages small nonprofits.
When it’s all about relationships, small organizations can shine in ways that are difficult for larger ones.
It’s personal at this level – it has to be.
So do staff need to use time to write thank you notes? You betcha. (And that’s so even without fundraising staff. Everyone should be involved.)
Is that a good use of their time? YES. Emphatically, yes!
It’s showing appreciation for the people who work with you. It’s creating a stronger community. It’s doing mission.
If you have only 50 donors who are passionate about your organization’s cause, you have 50 partners to help you do that work.
Caring for donors – thanking them, informing them and asking them (yes, donors like to give) is not secondary to mission.
Philanthropy IS mission. Donors are central to our work.
Proliferates the Savior Complex
Saviors and saved… Lots here to address.
Again, I think we’re working with different definitions of donor-centricity.
That means we miss something very important: donors give because they get something from giving. And it isn’t tote bags.
We can deride “feel goods”, but human beings are driven by feel goods: we form families, we make personal connections, we help other people.
Feel goods are essential to being human.
And about that hero thing: there was an interesting article in the New York Times recently. An experiment found that people were likely to be more generous when they were asked to “come forward and take individual action” than when they were asked to join their community and “support a common goal.”
Philosophically, we might prefer that people were driven by community feelings and community need. It’s a nice thought.
But they are not. And that won’t surprise most fundraisers. So long as the ask isn’t personal, it’s easily ignored. “We should do something” is far less powerful than “We need YOU to do something”. As Christopher Bryan, a behavioral scientist quoted in the article said:
“We’re often so focused on getting people to do the right thing for what we think is the right reason, we forget we just need to get them to do the right thing.”
I don’t believe it’s a fundraiser’s job to question donor’s motives. It’s our job to inspire their generosity.
Donor focus perpetuates the othering of the people we serve
Connection is the opposite of “othering”.
When we invite donors to join a mission, we are inviting them to see themselves in others. Empathy is essential to the relationship.
Donors give because they feel for others – and in many cases, because they’ve been personally touched by an organization’s mission.
They’ve been there, or they can imagine being there. And yes, it feels good to help someone. We’re wired that way, thank goodness. Helping someone often benefits the helper as much as the helped. And that’s good. It’s something to encourage.
That’s what fundraising does.
Does some fundraising communication make the people we serve into “others”? Yes. It’s cheap fundraising, and not donor-centric.
Good donor communications connects us through our humanity. It stirs the feelings that lead us to do something good.
Minimizes other elements needed to do this work well
Being small is not an impediment to good fundraising. But shifting fundraising to the side is.
A small organization NEEDS help from others: donors (of time, money and skills). Maye if we stop seeing fundraising as money stuff and start thinking of it as community-building, we’ll be more successful at both strengthening a community and raising money.
Can you meet donors’ expectations? Should you? Depends on the expectations. What does your mission say?
Chances are a tiny organization doesn’t have a robust direct mail program – so no worries about newsletters only on Tuesdays.
But if we’re wise, we’re thinking about how to involve donors in all we do. And we’re not seeing that as time away from our “real work”. It is our real work.
Stop thinking of donors as belonging to development staff and start thinking of them as partners in our work.
Also, good messaging and technology make a great deal of personalized care easy to do. It’s possible if it’s a priority.
Donor focus fuels systemic injustice
Yes, our society is rife with injustice. Built on it, even. And that needs to stop – and only will one person at a time.
Are some people far better off through a twist of fate and entrenched systems? Absolutely. Am I privileged because I’m white and not poor and well-educated? Yes, yes, I am.
Are all donors the same? No, they’re not.
The assumption that because someone gives, they’re wealthy, is a problem. Many donors are not. (I love those donors.)
And if our fundraising isn’t about the “hard stuff” (issues of equity, privilege, disparities), then it’s probably lousy fundraising. Donors don’t give when there isn’t a problem to solve.
I also bristle at the idea that donors require education.
Of course, they are. That’s why they give. They are doing exactly what they can to change injustice.
Fundraising fails to fight injustice when missions fail to address injustice.
If an organization fails at mission it’s time to fix that. That’s not a fundraising problem, that’s an organization problem.
Do some organizations or fundraisers shy away from addressing tough issues for fear of driving away donors? Yes, they do. And I agree, that’s troublesome.
Because that’s fear talking, not care for mission or donors. That’s saying they have no faith in their donors or their relationships.
Or again, perhaps that’s a flaw in their mission.
Honesty is important in relationships. When those relationships are strong, the conversations can go both ways without fear of breaking something.
We cannot solve the world’s problems if each of us tries to fix everything. Good fundraising is both urgent and specific. This organization attracts these donors who care about that issue. The other organization has their own problems and donors.
Fundraisers focus on donors. Social workers focus on clients. They both focus on a problem and a solution. They are all in it together: clients, program staff and fundraisers.
And they’re all heroes.
I don’t think we can afford for none of us to be in the center. I think there is room for all of us to be in the center.
Sleeves up, ready to get to work – together.
Photo by Aaron Burden