The War for Fundraising Talent is a slim volume by fundraiser, trainer and consultant Jason Lewis. Lewis’ central argument is that until the sector is able to create environments in which fundraising professionals can achieve mastery and find meaning, it will struggle to retain both fundraisers and donors. He suggests that this challenge is especially acute for small shops and offers what he calls an honest yet hopeful critique of the fundraising profession.
Against Arm’s Length Fundraising
Lewis argues that we are addicted to acquisition, pouring unreasonable sums into what has already been proven to be a losing game: $95 of every $100 will not be retained. He offers the term "arm’s length fundraising" to refer to the mass market techniques that are focused on getting donors in the door but that do not aim to create meaningful engagement that will result in long-term relationships. Lewis uses the Olive Cooke scandal to illustrate his point: Ms. Cooke, a ninety-something U.K. woman who famously took her life after being “hounded by charities,” was found to be supporting upwards of 100. Yet none stepped forward to share any memories of a long-time, devoted supporter, ostensibly because they saw her merely as a cash machine.
The solution, Lewis believes, is to only acquire as many donors as we can reasonably build relationships with.
Lewis can’t be faulted for his frustration. High turnover in fundraising is the result of a number of issues, lack of respect for the profession perhaps being the root cause. However, his prescription for change is not a perfect one. Lewis acknowledges the rise of donor intent and its implications for charities and civil society. However, this is at odds with his prescription to focus on only meaningful gifts, which are more likely to be designated. Charities often rely on small dollar unrestricted giving to fund operations; rather than acknowledge this, Lewis characterizes the trepidation to engage more meaningfully with donors as a desire to maintain a “clear distance between the money we must have and the mission we must protect at all costs.” Perhaps the question he should be asking is: ‘how do we engage more meaningfully with donors while also ensuring that power is not ceded to those who can write the biggest cheques?’
Passion is NOT Enough
Where I do agree with Lewis is in his contention that fundraising professionals should not need to question the legitimacy of their field or the contribution they are making to society. He suggests that passion for a cause isn’t enough to sustain a fundraising career, because doing what you love is too inwardly focused and “absolves us of any obligation to acknowledge or improve the world.” To this I would add that passion as the primary criterion undermines the thoughtfulness with which many enter the profession today, as well as the investment in training and education that fundraisers continue to make throughout their careers.
Critical Thinkers Wanted
Although I may not agree with every aspect of Lewis’ argument, I applaud his efforts and commend this book to those who are charged with both fundraising and creating the conditions for fundraising success. Lewis believes that it’s time for our profession to grow up. For me, that means moving beyond the “how” of fundraising to the “why” and “what if”. The War on Fundraising Talent offers a good starting point for those who are ready to start tackling the big questions facing our profession and our sector.
Juniper Locilento, CFRE is Director – Annual Giving, Operations & Strategy at the YMCA of Greater Toronto and a student in the Master of Non-profit Leadership and Philanthropy program at Carleton University.
You can buy The War on Fundraising Talent on Amazon.