Fundraising Is NOT Selling

Fundraising is most successful when nonprofits see their donors as partners rather than consumers.

Fundraising establishes a link between donors and clients. The nonprofit’s purpose is to serve the clients on behalf of the donors since the donors lack the time, skills, and facilities. How well the nonprofit meets the needs of the clients determines how generous and loyal the donors will be. It is up to the donors to determine if the nonprofit’s data proves the clients are being well served. Since each donor has a unique perspective, it is necessary to meet the exacting standards of each valuable donor.

Sometimes a nonprofit will feel that they provide excellent service to the clients. However, donors may disagree. Many times the gap in understanding is because the donors expect to see a result reported one way and the nonprofit is reporting it in different way. Better donor cultivation can do two things to prevent this. The first is to ensure that the nonprofit measures results the way donors expect. The second is to help the donors understand why the measurements used by the nonprofit better represent the clients’ success than what the donor expects to see. For example, donors might expect to see the rate of high school graduation increase. The nonprofit might feel that increasing the rate of college admission better represents the change in the clients’ lives and the durability of the change. If the donors are unconvinced, the nonprofit should separate its internal success measures (college admission) from what the donors want to see (high school graduation). Tracking and reporting college admissions should continue internally. The community probably places more value on college admissions than high school graduation.

In sales, it is necessary to convince a prospective buyer that the seller’s proposition is valid and important. Fundraisers must determine what donors think is important and valuable. Helping the donors develop realistic expectations or understanding is also important for healthy and engaging relationship with donors. In other words, fundraising is finding the best way to give donors what they want.

Fundraising is most successful when the donors’ interests and concerns form the basis for the relationship. Every nonprofit exists to serve the interests and expectations of its donors. When there is a clash, it is important to remember that the nonprofit invited the donor to join the team. The purpose of cultivation is to prevent clashes by only recruiting donors who share the mission’s goals, priorities, and care deeply about the needs of the clients. When there is a shared value system, donors will be happy to connect with your nonprofit.

Next Step:

Recruit donors who share your nonprofit’s values

Treat donors like partners rather than customers

Use your cultivation process to determine how to best meet each of your donors’ expectations

The typical sales process is designed around transactions. The customer needs a widget, the sales person convinces the customer that the company has the best widgets, the customer buys the widget, and other than advertising (an information push) there is very little contact between the two until the customer needs another widget.

Fundraising should be frequent communication between the nonprofit and its donors. The communication should be substantive and flow in both directions. Cultivation should include sharing information with the donor and collecting information from the donor. Some of the information collected should include the donor’s reaction to the information that was shared. Some of the information should be about changes in the donor’s life, desires, goals, and values. The donor should also be consulted on potential changes in your nonprofit’s operations and asked to recommend changes. When appropriate, help the donor see how their life, desires, goals, and values intersect with your mission and clients.

Take It Further:

Encourage your board to delay finalizing plans until the donors have had an opportunity to comment (in a healthy relationship neither side makes plans without consulting the other)


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