Joan is Going Nowhere

The following note came from one of the readers here at Creating the Future. The subject line was “Feel like I’m going nowhere with fundraising.” I thought I’d share it here, as I know Joan is not alone!

Dear Hildy:
I’m hoping to get advice. I read your blog all the time, and I’m with you on the philosophy of fixing the system as opposed to addressing the symptoms.

I work in fundraising, and I feel like we’re not only merely addressing the symptoms, but we’re actually exploiting the symptoms.

My director is very much of the “donor-centric” philosophy, but that philosophy rubs me the wrong way at my core. To me, my organization exists to address the needs of the population we serve, not the needs of donors. But my director tells me over and over again that the needs of that population cannot be addressed without making the donors feel good about themselves.

I see where she’s coming from, but I feel like we miss the big picture, the opportunity to solve core problems, when our primary focus is on making the donors feel good about giving.

I’m told that, no matter the donor’s motivation (guilt, sympathy, vanity, etc.), as long as they’re giving, the cause has benefited.

This is where I’m stuck. Perhaps that’s true, but I feel like we neglect the big picture, the real solutions when we fundraise to the donors’ fears and egos. I feel like our community suffers when we fragment it by each individual’s personal motivation to give rather than unifying it to address the whole picture, and to perhaps finally solve those greater problems.

I’m reluctant to say it, and so many fundraisers and fundraising blogs try to sell me on otherwise, but I feel like the way we (and most other non-profits) fundraise might be counterproductive to actually creating solutions.

So what can I do? How can I advocate for real, big-picture change when our fundraising is entrenched so deeply in its individualized, donor-centric philosophy?


What do you all think? Does the focus on donors actually contradict the ability to focus on the community? Which should be the context of the discussion – donor-centric within a community focus, or community-focus within the donor relationship? Which should guide our work? Do we really have to choose? (Comment button is at the top of this post.)

2/17/09 Note: Check Hildy’s response to Joan here: 6 Steps for Connecting Donors to What Is Possible.

6 thoughts on “Joan is Going Nowhere”

  1. Hildy,

    I dont see anything wrong with a partly-donor-centric attitude – but what goes along with that is what many organizations fail at: choosing their donors.

    If you focus on attracting, retaining and involving donors whose ideals/needs fit your mission, then your mission doesnt have to change just to get a check (ie: you dont have to sell out your org).

    Getting orgs to accept that “everyone can be our donor” is your challenge and it should be addressed.

  2. My philosophy has always been to put the donor first. Now, my application of that may differ from Joan’s director. My idea of putting the donor first involves considering their needs and concerns first. It isn’t my place, for example, to convince them that my charity needs their estate more than their heirs. My job is to inform them of the work we do and see if there is a match with their values.

    I recall a conversation with a donor prospect many years ago, when my job was as development director for a child and family service agency. It became abundantly clear during the conversation that they had a deep love for animals. I put them in touch with the humane society and they discovered a way to turn their passion into philanthropy. That is putting the donor first.

    And that, in my opinion, is also how we can work together to benefit our communities rather than view each interaction with a donor as a competition with other agencies.

    Mari Lane Gewecke

  3. Hildy,

    In asking donors to partner in our work and mission, communicating with them about the challenges we face, our triumphs, and our needs is an essential. In a donor-centric culture, it is clear that information is power. It is the power to make clear decisions about our time, talent and treasure. It is the power for a donor to make a deeper commitment to those things that are a passion in their life. It is the power to be a cheerleader for those organizations that give meaning to our lives and the lives of others.

    For many, perspective is reality. I suggest to Joan that she look at her donors with a different lens to gain a new perspective.

  4. In working with donors, I have always felt that it was my job to help further connect them with the mission. I wanted them to feel a part of our joint effort to make our community a better place to live. I also recognized that donors have their own motivations for giving. I have never seen respecting that dynamic as any different than respecting individual client needs.


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