Donors: Always listen, but don’t always obey

Successful fundraisers pay a lot of attention to donors. They find ways to have conversations with them. They invite comments and questions. They are obsessive about watching donor behavior. And they act on what they learn from donors.

It’s called donor love or relationship fundraising.

And it works. You raise a ton more revenue by doing it this way.

But this approach can go wrong for fundraisers who are not well-grounded in their mission and purpose.

Here’s a made-up example of what could happen (and sometimes does) if donors “lead” your organization:

Let’s say your organization raises funds to fight a chronic disease. You are it disease by providing services for people who have it and funding research into treatments and a hoped-for cure.

Suppose you did some research and found you could raise more money with a save-the-pandas offer.

Should you do that?

After all, saving the pandas is a good thing, and your donors want to do it, and shouldn’t you be maximizing revenue?

Of course not.

Your mission is not to raise maximum funds. Or make donors happy. And certainly not to save pandas. Your mission is to fight the disease.

So let’s pose another.

Suppose a rumor springs up that panda spleens cure the disease. Scientists, including your own experts, agree that it is not remotely true. Panda spleens don’t hurt anyone (other than pandas), but they don’t have any positive impact on the disease. Nevertheless, it is widely believed. Many of your donors are telling you they want to donate to supply panda spleens.

Do you go for the revenue?

Still, no.

Your mission is to fight the disease. Not to feed the fantasies of people who don’t understand the disease. Raising funds for panda spleens would be a betrayal of your mission, even though you have donors who believe it would be the right thing to do.

So let’s make it harder.

Say one of your top donors is a panda-spleen follower. He says he’ll donate $50 million to build a panda spleen lab. That donation would not only cover the lab, but also cover all your operating expenses for the next few years. The donation would transform your organization, helping you go to whole new places to pursue your mission. The only downside would be the useless panda spleen lab.

That’s gotta be tempting…

But you know the answer: You mustn’t do it.

It’s unethical.

Organizations sometimes make the wrong choice. They talk themselves into the upside while minimizing the downside. They manage to make it a gray area. No doubt there are times when it is an actual gray area.

As important as your donors are, you are not an empty vessel, waiting to be shaped by them. You exist to accomplish your mission, and you need donors to join you.

Your duty toward donors is to lead them, to help them make the best kind of difference. Even if they don’t understand it.

So genuinely connect with donors. Love them. Care about them. Listen to them.

And serve them by serving your mission.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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