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Raising Money is Not Sales: 4 Myths of Nonprofit Fundraising Debunked

Updated: Mar 20

Today I said no to the third wonderful organization in six months who could not afford my services and wanted to pay me on some sort of commission agreement. If you're a fundraising professional, you will understand why I said no, but if you're not, this can be a rather confusing decision to wrap your head around. Why would a fundraiser worth her salt, who loves the organization in question, not jump at the chance to collaborate and grow the organization in a way that they can afford?

The answer lies in understanding the fundamental role of the fundraiser. You see, raising money for a nonprofit is NOT sales. The organization is not a product, it is a promise to benefit the public in some meaningful way.

A fundraiser is the bridge between your supporters and your life-changing, oh-so-inspiring program or service. Donors are not customers, they are investors in a mission that benefits others, even if it also benefits themselves. The fundraiser's duty and obligation is to ensure that the donor's investment is made with full transparency, that the funds are stewarded appropriately, and that the investment fulfills the agreed upon purpose. We take this so seriously, we even have a Donor Bill of Rights and an ethical code of conduct.

So, here are the four myths we need to debunk about fundraising:

  1. Commission-based fundraising is fine, it's just like sales. Wrong. We already established why it's not like sales, but here is the heart of why we fundraisers do not accept commission-based contracts: we put donor's interests and the organization's need above our own. If our compensation is tied to your donation size, we have an immediate conflict of interest between our personal interests and your philanthropic intent AND the organization's need. You don't want us convincing you to donate $50,000 restricted to buying sneakers for kids through the Humane Society just because that's what you really care about, never mind that the organization doesn't actually do kids or shoes.

  2. Fundraisers should come with a prospect list. Wrong. Fundraisers are professional middle-people, we bridge the prospective donors with the organization. If we are staff, then yes, we should consider ourselves novice fundraisers and participate in campaigns with our networks as we feel inspired and able to do. If we're consultants, then our prospect list is something we steward with excellence and care. If we are motivated to build loyalty between donors and ourselves over the organization because we're being paid for our list, then we again have an issue of personal benefit in opposition to both donor intent and organizations. Now, if we have a perfect fit donor and we feel 100% confident in the opportunity, then yes, I'm sure we'll bring that person to the table. But no, we don't cultivate lists of donors to bring with us organization to organization except in those instances of 'perfect fit' or in our own personal birthday campaigns.

  3. Fundraisers make the ask so I don't have to do it. Wrong-ish. I've been managing individual giving programs for nearly 20 years, more if you count a few 'just out of college.' In all my years of fundraising I have made many, many requests for donations, so you're not totally off-base in thinking that we fundraisers will ask your donors for money on your organization's behalf. What you do need to understand is that who makes the ask can be the most important part of getting a yes. So, you'll likely hear from us who we think should make that ask and it's not always going to be us. It's going to be the person most likely to get the yes based on relationship, peer-to-peer, expertise, trust, and a host of other factors.

  4. Fundraising is a quick fix. Wrong. Every single channel for traditional fundraising - individuals, foundations, corporations, or government - requires a runway of time to build relationships and generate revenue. Yes, you can raise a few thousand dollars with a GoFundMe, but unless you somehow hit that 'viral' jackpot, that's the end of the quick fix options for fundraising. Everything else takes time and moves on a cycle that we fundraisers organize into a moves management pipeline: identify, research, cultivate, solicit, and steward. And, sad to say, donor attrition is exceedingly high (average 40-45%), so once you get your pipeline in place, expect to be investing in the front end of that cycle vigorously in order to continuously grow.

I hope my explanations here are helpful for anyone and everyone out there wanting to do good in the world and hoping to raise money to do so. It is a noble, honorable, and wonderful thing to do. Fundraisers are your sentinels, they are welcoming opportunities into your 'herd' and blocking threats on your behalf. It doesn't take too long to find glaring examples of things gone wrong when we begin to muddy the waters of personal interest and public good. Thus, establishing a clean and transparent relationship between your fundraiser and your organization is essential to your organization's sustainable growth.

Good luck out there! We need you to thrive!

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