Are Your Gifts the Result of Relationships, or Merely the Reason for Them?

gearsIn my previous post, I discussed the publication of Regulating Fundraising for the Future: Trust in Charities, Confidence in Fundraising Regulation (aka the Etherington Report) in response to public concerns about fundraising tactics employed by some UK charities that many people felt were overly aggressive.

Even though the Etherington Report doesn’t have the force of law outside the UK, fundraisers in other countries have been hearing similar calls for increased government oversight of charitable activities. Concerns over how donor advised funds are managed in the United States, for example, have led many observers to urge that laws be changed to require greater transparency and even mandatory time limits. In Canada, the threat of federal legislation that would impose salary caps on nonprofit executives recently galvanized over 500 charities to convene a summit to hammer out a common strategic roadmap and implement a nationwide educational outreach campaign that succeeded in forestalling the proposed law.

Ken Burnett, managing trustee for the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII) and author of Relationship Fundraising: A Donor Based Approach to the Business of Raising Money, believes that, along with the concerns about oversolicitation that prompted the Etherington Report, these and other calls for increased regulation are an inevitable result of the widespread perception — accurate or not — that fundraisers cultivate supporters just to gain access to their wallets. It’s the antithesis of the philosophy that Burnett spelled out in 1992, in the first edition of Relationship Fundraising.

In the book and when speaking to fundraisers and stakeholders alike, Burnett defines relationship fundraising as “a donor-based approach to the business of raising money.” The relationship, he elaborates, can be “remote, slender, and distant, or it can be intense, close, warm, and even intimate.” The choice, he says, ultimately belongs to the donor. Whatever type of relationship the donor chooses, ideally it should be mutually beneficial, “where both [the donor and the organization] can see direct, tangible benefits that will encourage their relationship to continue by mutual consent and even grow.”

This mutual commitment is what sets fundraising apart from other types of marketing activities that also seek to motivate people to show their support through financial means.

The difference between the two methods is really just a matter of perspective. In Burnett’s view, a financial gift from a donor is the result of a relationship, not the reason for it. Put another way, an emphasis on the financial need of an organization or a cause is analogous to “pulling” a donor toward your desired goal. In relationship fundraising, you strive instead to motivate people to want to give, in effect “nudging” them toward finding that goal for themselves.

As Burnett has written, “Instead of building the long-term relationships we need, fundraisers often opt for the low-hanging fruit of short-term money now, chasing the easiest bucks they can find to hit their quarterly or even monthly targets. At conference halls and seminars, there’s talk of buying donors in volume. We’ve commoditized fundraising and devolved the job of talking to donors and prospects to commercial third-party contractors who ration out among us the fruits from their sites. For this short-term saving, we’ve sown the seeds of our own downfall. Many are brilliantly talented and committed fundraisers, and we couldn’t and shouldn’t do without them. But the way we oblige them to work for us may not be what we need now.

“It seems to me and others, too, that what’s missing is the emphasis on the why and the pleasure of being a donor.”

Burnett believes that the most successful way to emphasize the why, to rekindle the pleasure of giving, and to nudge a donor to want to make a gift is through storytelling. In the quarter-century since the first edition of Relationship Fundraising, Burnett has become so convinced of the central importance of storytelling to fundraising — and of the need for fundraisers to embrace it passionately — that his latest book, which he calls his most important so far, is titled Storytelling Can Change the World. While the idea of storytelling is not new to fundraising, Burnett argues provocatively that fundraisers often don’t know how to identify the best stories to tell, or how to tell those stories effectively.

Burnett seeks to establish — or restore, depending on your perspective — the creative process to donor outreach.

As Charlie Hulme, managing director of Donor Voice and a former creative director for a major marketing agency, wrote in his review of the book, “We’ll never change the world unless we change the way we tell our stories.”

This post was adapted from “Inspiring Better: How Relationship Fundraising Can Win Back Skeptical Donors and Change the Way Fundraisers Think about Approaching Them” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Spring 2016 (reprinted with permission) You can read the whole article here.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.