Independence lost? The struggle to make fundraising donor-centred is morphing into fundraising that is donor-directed

publication date: Mar 2, 2017
author/source: Gail Picco

Twenty-five years ago this April, Ken Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising was published.  Ken is an internationally acclaimed fundraising consultant based in the U.K. and in the book he urges fundraisers to think more about relationships and less about money. 

Value the relationship as opposed to the transaction, says Ken.  Give donors a choice about how to communicate with you, respond to their requests and provide them with good service.  

Do this and you will make more money.  Period. Empirical evidence was offered to prove the theory.

It was an important book for the sector and for Ken.

“It’s what Basil Fawlty would call ‘the bleedin obvious,’ Ken says.

“If giving is a good experience, donors will do more of it. If it’s a bad experience they’ll soon stop. As a sector, we’ve fairly consistently been delivering a bad or at best indifferent experience these past 25 years and more.”

Since 1992, scores of books have been written on “donor-centered” fundraising or “donor stewardship” and fundraisers talk about it a lot.  

And how’s that been going for the sector, I asked Ken.

“The future of fundraising seems bleaker to me now than at any time in these past nearly 40 years,” he says.

“Right now fundraisers face an important choice. If I’m honest, I’m not optimistic we’ll follow the best direction, mostly because I see little evidence that fundraisers as a body have the capacity to collaborate and implement the change that we plainly need.”

U.K. charity fundraising practices received a public flogging in 2016 with the news of the suicide of 92-year old Olive Cooke, a U.K. volunteer fundraiser and poppy-seller, who gave to many charities through the mail, and whose receipt of thousands of direct mail letters factored into, by some press reports, her taking her own life.

The Fundraising Standards Board, the U.K.’s former  independent self-regulator for charity fundraising issued a report.  Seventeen recommendations for changes to the code of fundraising practice were made so as to give the public more control over the way charities communicated with them.

“If I had my way Olive Cooke would be the patron saint of fundraisers,” says Ken, “because her story has exposed so much that needs to change, and following her story powerful external forces have focused on fundraising to make that change happen, in ways that the likes of little me could not.

“But it’s important to realize that fundraisers were not responsible for her suicide—that was a ‘post-truth’ story from the Sun and the Daily Mail. Mrs. Cooke’s family confirmed that, though she did get a lot of charity mail, at times too much, she liked supporting charities and it brought her comfort." 

The genie, however, was out of the bottle. It was now OK to publicly criticize charities. And, according to Ken, in a sustained media attack unlike anything ever seen before all sorts of horror stories came out of the woodwork, focusing mainly on bad or insensitive fundraising pressure on vulnerable donors. Eighteen months later the flood of media attacks shows no sign of halting, while public trust in charities continues to fall.

Lest any Canadian charity start to feel smug, being able to properly serve large numbers of smaller donors seemingly continues to confound fundraisers on the Canadian front too.  Conferences and congresses, such as those put on by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) have offered dozens of seminars on this topic alone, yet many seem at a loss to execute.

This author wrote about her “donor stewardship” frustrations in a 2015 blog called Listen up, fundraisers and often thinks a skip through Miss Manners Guide To Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour might do the trick of helping fundraisers be courteous to donors.

But in addition to the relationship problem, there is an alarming trend that equates “donor-centred” with “donor-directed” that is gaining increasing traction.

Penelope Burk, donor-centred notable, and author of Thanks and Donor-Centered Fundraising suggests that “having the gift assigned to a specific program, project or initiative more narrow in scope than the mission of the not-for-profit” is, in fact, one of the three essential requirements of “donor-centred” fundraising.

In this “donor-directed” universe, donors (including major donors) are encouraged to give money that reflects their area of specific area of interest, as opposed to the need of the charity or, better still, the need of the people of Canada and the world.  This, despite that fact they will receive up to two thirds of that money back in the form of a tax credit. 

Small, undesignated donations from women like Olive Cooke cumulatively provide independence for a charity. They are donations that have gone unheralded for years as the people who make them are transformed by charities into bits of data. 

(I have often wondered if the demographic that makes up direct mail donors wasn’t “old ladies,” a bit more respect would be thrown their way. UK fundraisers refer to them as ‘Dorothy donor’ or ‘little old ladies from Tunbridge Wells’. In Canadian fundraising, I’ve heard them called Gladyses or simply “old lady donors.”)

But the trend towards solicitation of designated donations, even if the donations are for activities that may not be a charity’s priorities, threatens independence in a serious way. For a bigger read on that topic check out Charity mergers and “wealthy big-name donors.” 

The focus on donor-directed money is becoming a concern among many sector observers.

Ken Burnett clarifies that this is coming from a different place than his ideas around relationship fundraising.

“While I’m an enthusiast for allowing donors to earmark their gifts and at least to know broadly where their gifts are going and what they achieve, I don’t think most donors would want or expect to be given more than that degree of control. Donor-directed fundraising has little to do with the donor-centred fundraising that I advocate – my point is that as giving is voluntary and has no direct benefit, good or service, we need to provide the joy of giving so donors will want to do more of it.”

This is the difference between courtesy and relinquishing independence, a difference that charities need to be smart enough—some would say smarten up enough—to get right.

Gail Picco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years, most of which as President of Gail Picco Associates. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector and of non-fictionCap in Hand: How Charities Are Failing the People of Canada and the World published in January 2017. Gail works as a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and serves as Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival.

For more information on Ken Burnett’s work visit 

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