Nonprofit Periscope

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Archive for February 2010

Three views of fundraising

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I love fundraising.  I’m borderline evangelical about it.  And I love my new job, too, even though it’s not really fundraising–same department, but just this side of, well, not interacting with donors at all.  And donors are the best part of fundraising. I miss them.

But the best part of blogging is getting to read other bloggers’ brilliant insights, and recently three posts have fueled my brain.  All three deal with perception of fundraising, and from different angles: what it is, what it’s not, and what it should be.

First, Dan Pallotta‘s post “Haiti Is a Marketing Lesson,” observing philanthropy through the lens of giving to Haiti, credits the media for spurring $560 million in Haiti relief.  The terms he uses are straight out of Economics 101: The media “are building demand for purchasing charity for Haiti on a massive scale. And, small wonder, massive purchasing is occurring. How much do we think would be given to Haiti if the story ended after one news broadcast on the day it happened?”

According to Dan’s observation, philanthropy is a mechanical response to marketing. Push the right buttons on donors and the money will flow.  And he goes on to posit the wider application of this money machine:

“Imagine if we gave humanitarian organizations the freedom to build this kind of demand for a cure for malaria or the end of breast cancer. Imagine if we relinquished our fixation on keeping short-term fundraising costs low and set our gaze on what it would take to ‘sell’ enough charity to solve long-term problems. I’m not talking about mimicking traditional corporate advertising, with dumbed-down jingles, adolescent humor, or inauthentic feel-goodism. I’m talking about investing massive resources in reimagined creative approaches — serious, photo-journalistic, perhaps documentary-style educational ad campaigns with all the gravitas and dignity these urgent causes deserve.”

What’s missing from this setup? Fundraisers.  The Haiti crisis was a shining example of charitable money without the charitable middlemen.  (The corporate middlemen of cell phone companies or Internet interfaces are another matter.) Even’s Dan’s marketing campaigns are just that–marketing.  No donor cultivation.  No relationship-building.  In short, no fundraisers.

On the other hand, I’m not knocking text-message giving, or Internet-giving, or any giving made with the friction-reduction of technology. I’m just asking: how does an organization build relationships with donors who interact only with a keypad or computer screen?

Then again, why even cultivate $10 donors?  Patrick Sallee’s post “Fundraising isn’t begging” examines the role of street canvassers, who act as (often annoying) middlemen between charities and donors. Canvassers, he says, reflect poorly on the organizations they work for. “Is this what you want to say about your brand?” he asks. As both a former canvasser and a former donor to canvassers, I agree. There’s a thin line between canvassing and begging, and I can’t even tell where it is. When I was canvassing, passersby avoided me as if I was covered in sewage.  When approached by canvassers, I give out of pity–because I’ve been there. (Dear ACLU and Greenpeace: I love you, but it’s true.) And yet as bad as canvassers are for a nonprofit’s brand, they at least go a step closer toward building a relationship with their donors than text-message giving does. They chat, they answer questions, and they otherwise put themselves on the line for their organizations or causes. Canvassing says, “I am willing to be rejected and exhausted for terrible pay just to help someone/something else.” And for that, I have mad respect. Way to walk your talk, canvassers.

But Patrick’s right–you’re begging with credentials.

So if fundraising is just marketing (per Dan), and is not canvassing (per Patrick), what should it be? Jessica Journey answers that in her post “Fundraiser, Are you a Living Donor Coordinator?” Jessica compares the ideal for nonprofit fundraisers to the role of the individual who guided her through donating a kidney recently, a gift considerably more ponderous than $10 via text or canvasser. And in that comparison, she offers a list of questions for fundraisers to ask themselves, including “Are you easy to get a hold of?” (as text-message giving is), “Are you helping donors make an informed decision?” (as canvassers are), and “Are you there for the whole process?” (as neither text-message giving nor canvassers are).

Jessica’s post picked up on something that both Dan’s and Patrick’s, though apt, missed: fundraising is about relationships. And while I may no longer technically be a fundraiser, I see this in the office every day: front-line fundraisers keeping in touch with our supporters, from the $10 givers (though not on a personal level) to the major givers, to make sure their needs and preferences are known and considered. As Jessica’s comparison suggests, giving is never just about the recipient.  A donor is not an ATM to be marketed to, or a passerby to ply. Nonprofits enable donors to help others in ways that are effective and accountable, and if a donor is serious about helping others, she will want to build a relationship with nonprofits that can help her do so.

This is what I miss about being a fundraiser: interacting with donors who want this relationship. Granted, not all do. Some will text $10 or humor a canvasser for $20 and never be heard from again. But building a relationship with those donors who want it is part of creating a culture of giving. And that’s something neither marketing nor canvassing can accomplish.

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Written by eclawson

February 14, 2010 at 8:36 PM

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