Fundraising: Much Ado about Salesmanship?

handshakeThe differences between the nonprofit sector and the for-profit world have become something of a mantra among fundraisers. Charities work for a greater good, you say, while businesses are only interested in their own profit. Fundraisers are motivated by a desire to change the world (or at least a corner of it), while salespeople are only interested in raising their company’s bottom line. However, nonprofits and businesses share some important things in common — most obviously, the need for money. Because fundraisers and salespeople seek to achieve vastly different ends, fundraisers argue, their means must differ as well. Otherwise, fundraisers fear, what are they except a salesperson by another name?

“We’re both trying to encourage someone to make a decision, but for very different reasons,” says Brian Saber, president and co-founder of Asking Matters ( “What we’re ‘selling’ in the nonprofit world is helping others and goodwill.”

A major difference between fundraisers and salespeople, Saber points out, is motivation. “In for-profit sales, you learn to love the product and you go sell it,” says Saber. “In the nonprofit world, you believe in the organization and you sell it, but your reasons for doing so are much more personal.”

As the person in charge of training for the silent phase of a major capital campaign, Matthew S. Cottle, CFRE, director of advancement planning and special projects at California Polytechnic (Cal Poly) State University (, had to confront the issue of fundraiser motivation head-on. Because of a dearth of available development officers with major-gift experience, Cal Poly has been recruiting people with commercial sales backgrounds and training them to understand the differences between the transactional approach used by salespeople and the relationship approach preferred by fundraisers.

Explicating the differences between fundraisers and salespeople, Cottle says, has helped him to understand more clearly the role of the fundraiser in the donor relationship equation, as well as the risk posed by the cultivation of a transactional mindset that values the fundraiser’s need to secure a gift above the donor’s desire to join a group that shares the same passion “A donation indicates a shared aspiration and a shared emotion,” says Cottle. “If we don’t understand our own emotional responses, we run the risk of allowing the relationship to veer off in unanticipated directions.”

Another crucial element is the fear of rejection. If a fundraiser’s fear of rejection were to prevent him or her from securing a major gift from a high-net-worth individual, the result for the organization’s bottom line could be disastrous. That crucial difference, Saber believes, can sometimes be a hindrance to fundraisers. “Because you care so much, it can feel like a personal rejection if a donor turns you down,” Saber says. “It becomes a reflection on you. and that gets in the way of asking.”

Not only can fundraisers learn from salespeople how not to take rejection personally, Saber suggests, but they should also seek to minimize the risk of rejection by taking a more strategic approach to the way they identify and cultivate prospects. And that means taking advantage of knowledge that’s already out there.

“Good fundraisers know that money is a byproduct of putting the right opportunity in front of the right person at the right time,” says donor communications expert Tom Ahern ( “And that’s straight out of sales and marketing.”

Ahern, whose background is in commercial sales and marketing, points out that his field is built on a century of empirical research into human behavior that allows people to predict the outcome of a marketing campaign with a high degree of accuracy. Furthermore he argues that, whether or not fundraisers realize or admit it, fundraising is a specialized kind of sales and marketing. The difference, of course, is the use to which fundraisers put that neutral data — the reasons that they seek to place a suitable philanthropic opportunity in front of a strong prospect at a moment that is opportune for both the donor and the organization.

Both salespeople and fundraisers are in the business of persuading people to part with their money, but for very different reasons. Whereas a salesperson can promise a tangible benefit for the person with the money to spend, a fundraiser instead can only offer an intangible benefit to the donor, in exchange for the promise of tangible results for other people. And if sales is about persuading people to do something they may be in some way resistant to doing, fundraising is about encouraging people to do something they passionately want to do.

“My motivations are to alleviate suffering and help people better their lives through education,” says William F. Bartolini, Ph.D., senior advisor for principal giving at George Washington University ( “Earlier in my career, when I sold shoes and kids’ clothes, the sales were transactional. I provided a service, people bought the product, and I got a commission. It was a job. But that’s changed now.”

In providing a donor with an opportunity to achieve self-actualization, a fundraiser achieves self-actualization as well. “I’m sharing my passion and my enthusiasm with donors,” Bartolini adds. “I’m helping change lives. How great is that?”

This post was adapted from “More Than the Sum of the Parts: What Makes a Fundraiser?” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Fall 2014 (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.