Unraveling Donor-Centricity: Love is the Answer

May 24, 2017

If we’re so smart, how have we lost our way?

I recently saw this comment on my friend, Mark Rovner’s Facebook wall:

And the question is: do we really want to create a better world, a more just and equitable world, one that celebrates and acknowledges diversity, or do we want to be right?

Mark’s post resonated with me, especially after just reading Vu Lee’s blog post, How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising. Actually, I’ve read it a few times since it’s been published.

I’m so very grateful to Vu for moving this dialogue along. At a time when everyone in our sector is looking for paint-by-the-numbers solutions and jumping on the latest guru bandwagon promising “My Next Free Consulting Session,” or the mother of all fundraising plans to transform your fundraising, it’s refreshing to come across someone who actually encourages our sector to think.

And I guess that’s why I’m torn about this post. Who doesn’t love Vu and his frank, funny explorations of life in the nonprofit sector? So I want to like this post, but frankly, Vu’s analysis of donor-centricity doesn’t match my experience at all.

I invite you to consider some things that may prove useful to a productive talk:

A big problem I encounter is the absence of what “donor-centered” really means, as Vu never pins down a concrete definition, though he does provide the vocabulary to assemble an understanding of what it looks like, and after a second read, I was able to get there, though some of the nonprofit professionals I spoke to weren’t.

As one of my subscribers noted:

“I also read “How Donor-Centrism Perpetuates Inequity, And Why We Must Move Toward Community-Centric Fundraising.”

I am still trying to wrap my brain around Vu’s concept as well. It took me three attempts to read the full article because while reading it I felt like my brain was gonna short circuit.

For me the primary issues with the article are; 1) I felt neither of the concepts ‘donor-centric’ and ‘community-centric’ fundraising are clearly defined by Vu, so Vu’s premise and logic are nebulous and, 2) in my experience non-profits are not supported (monetarily at least) by communities but individuals.”

Vu aligns himself with donor-centricity very briefly, agreeing with some of its core principles, but for the most part, he delves into donor-centricity “at its worst,” outlining various problems he sees within it, and describing it as “pervasive,” and that this pervasiveness plays a key role in perpetuating social inequity. What pervasiveness is he talking about? Is he referring to organizations who adopt donor-centricity “at its worst?” It sounds that way. But then, it’s no wonder he sees a problem because these organizations aren’t actually embracing an authentic form of donor-centricity at all.

But what does the upside of donor-centricity actually look like in fleshed out form? From the post it’s never quite clear. Yes, when fully engaged in contributing to solutions for social problems, tackling them from the roots — from their worst form, upward — makes a world of sense. But what Vu talks about is not donor-centricity. It’s a faux form, a shell without any substance, depth, or authenticity. With his blog post, Vu has created a space where he not only highlighted donor-centricity gone wrong, and made no distinction, but invited those who lack a clear understanding of the authentic version of donor-centricity to come at it from the same angle.

Ultimately, what good does that actually do?

I was reminded of a famous 1952 speech given by a lawmaker on the subject of whether Mississippi should continue to prohibit or legalize alcohol. When asked how he felt about whisky, the lawmaker replied:

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty… then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine…and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes…if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies…then certainly I am for it.

The heart of Vu’s criticism appears to be located in his view that donor-centered attitudes about fundraising and community-centered fundraising are at odds with each other, existing as mutually exclusive forms. I don’t agree with this logic because for a long time now, I’ve been of the belief that donor-centricity and community-centricity actually go hand-in-hand. I think we can all agree that Bernie Sanders’s campaign proved to be the perfect example of that. But if an individual can’t find themselves in the community and carve out their own identity in order to function at full capacity, where does that leave the community? Where does is leave individual donors? Isn’t how we address a community different from how we address an individual person? Recognizing that individuality is where we can begin.

Vu opened a door because he provided an endless supply of interesting points. There were a lot of responses from fellow fundraisers and donors. Readers spoke to feeling “uncomfortable” with the very notion of donor-centricity, and spoke of it as “infantilizing” donors, “inflating donor’s egos,” or even as disingenuous.

This isn’t donor-centricity as I know it.

Extreme perspectives and a generalization of them as somehow indicative of the field are plentiful within Vu’s donor-centricity interpretation. That’s a bit like looking at steroid-using bodybuilders and reaching the conclusion that working out with weights is bad.

And, while I despair the oft-heard refrain of “nonprofits should operate more like businesses,” the fact remains that if a business had the kind of customer retention rate that the nonprofit sector has seen for decades, they would quickly close their doors. Imagine running a local pizzeria and selling a customer once — and never again. Yet retention is practically mentioned as an afterthought.

What’s also lacking in this conversation is one of the most important aspects of donor-centered fundraising: the commitment and consistency piece.

Like it or not, too many nonprofits are still looking for that magic bullet. How many times have I witnessed an organization say — almost begrudgingly — “Alright, we’ll try this donor-centered stuff!” and proceeding to send out an appeal laden with “yous” — but lacking in any real sense of partnership or knowledge of the reader? When it doesn’t slay their goal, they smugly declare, “Okay, just as I thought: this doesn’t work.” They’ve latched onto donor-centricity at its worst. They’re doing it wrong.

And then there are episodes of backsliding; those cases when donor-centricity is authentically embraced and well-implemented and it does work…but the organization actually returns to the old way of doing things. I’ve witnessed regression time and time again. I saw a client increase their individual fundraising by 23% — and bring in a host of new donors (from a house file) — just by one highly segmented letter that was loaded with donor love, only to return to the same old “dear friend” letter (and lackluster results) for the next appeal. When you experience success, you build on it. Far too many nonprofits are engaged in “fits and starts fundraising,” which is, sad to say, akin to being trapped on a hamster wheel.

Vu’s critique is detailed, containing a lot of points worth addressing at length:

Reinforces the measure of default of a person’s worth. That’s something inherent in our society and true about many situations, including the fact that it’s essentially impossible to navigate living in the United States without using the dollar as currency. We can’t escape this reality, in the nonprofit world or otherwise.

Here’s the thing though: this most definitely isn’t the way nonprofit organizations who have worked with me for any length of time view their donors. Quite the contrary. These folks have grasped a clear understanding of the importance of recognizing and acknowledging each and every gift. Of making the $10 donor feel special. Authenticity can take precedence, and I’ve witnessed no shortage of instances where it has trumped monetary worth. And what also trumps monetary worth is humanity and connecting through it. Think about it…

Why did that first-time $10 donor give, and who are they? Isn’t that worth knowing? And how will knowing grow the relationship? 

Minimizes other elements needed to do this work well: I’m not exactly sure what nonprofit organizations Vu refers to here. I certainly hope that all organizations are aware that the roles of their staff, volunteers, board members, and funders are each vital and essential to the organization’s life. Acknowledging the donor’s contribution by speaking to them in a direct way, the gratitude way, though, shouldn’t diminish that importance. Why would it, unless you’re operating on Vu’s interpretation of donor-centricity at the exclusion of all else? “Exclusion of all else” is a bad idea, no matter how you slice it.

Furthers the idea of transactional charity: Love it or hate it, we are moving into a new world of total transparency. People are naturally curious, and giving in 2017 is easier now than ever. It’s a fact: people want to know where their money is going, and they should want to know. We should expect them to want to know. There’s a reason I don’t donate to charities at the grocery store. I would prefer to give to them directly, and I’ve got no idea how much of my money is actually going toward the betterment of the organization in question. Here and now, when it comes to transparency and how we respond to it, we have a choice. It is a big, wide world out there, with people making charitable donations every day. Transparency and specificity is where it’s at. For a stellar example of transparency, click here.

Prevents honest conversations and true partnerships: Quite the contrary. It has been my experience that when you’re truly focused on donor-centricity, honest conversations and true partnerships naturally evolve and flow. This doesn’t necessarily mean the stars align and kismet happens. Of course, the effort is required. Think again of the donor who made a $10 gift. When we recognize the humanity aspect of fundraising, it opens up a world of possibility. If we lose that, yes, we are in danger of falling into the dreaded realm of donor-centricity at its worst. Anyway, if you’re looking for an example, take a good look at this recent blog post from Greenpeace. 

Short-changes our donors: Here’s that very place in the post where retention is treated almost as an afterthought. Vu’s assessment of the impact of donor-centricity on retention, again, is not donor-centricity. It is a caricature of it: flipped, injected with steroids, and unsympathetically characterized — and then put under a microscope. Vu’s idea that donor-centricity may only be garnering short term results because of its failure to inspire long-term support, again, points to what he’s been fleshing out this entire article. But when donor-centricity (in its purest form) treats donors as individuals and speaks to them with directness, transparency, and creativity — not to mention good old pure gratitude — well. Need I say more?

Perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games: With every gift that arrives in your office, you have an opportunity. For connection. For communication. Will you view it as an opportunity — or as an obligation… a “have to?”

Regarding the bogus charity watchdog sites: why on earth allow them to influence you? If I attended the same workshop as Vu did, where the presenter proposed the idea that a great rating was essential, who knows? I just may have up and left. When you’re immersed in true donor-centricity, your focus will be on building lifetime relationships, not on competition with other nonprofits. 

Proliferates the Savior Complex:  I believe the notion of heroes has been around long before the term “donor-centric” was coined. “Inflating egos” through the use of the “you” pronoun? Our sector, as a whole, has a tendency to vastly overcomplicate things.

Further marginalizes already-marginalized communities: I’ve received thank you calls from tiny under-resourced nonprofits — because they make it a priority. I’ve received hand-written thank you’s from small nonprofits — because they make it a priority.

And my experience as a donor has impacted my work more than any training I have ever taken. How many opportunities are missed by not making it a priority to learn why your donors give? I think of the dozens and dozens of organizations I have given small gifts to (in the range of $10-20), as part of a two-year study. These were organizations I could have easily become a monthly or repeat donor to.  If only they had asked. If only they had bothered to learn about my passions. My reasons for giving.

In her article, How Do We Fundraise Now?, Kim Klein of Grassroots Institute Fundraising outlines the very same strategies that I have been teaching and recommending for several years, including (first step) thanking, and most notably to diversify.

I believe that donor-centricity and donor service lies at the heart of the future of fundraising. This is what will take our organizations far beyond fundraising and into the joyful creation of the world we are all working towards.

It goes beyond your donor communications, although we’ve touched on it. Most notably in Lisa Sargent’s brilliant guest post, Ushering in the Age of Donor Realism: Six Ways My Donor-Centric Copy Is Shifting.

Bringing your donors into your mission speaks to fully incorporating your donors into your organization. Learning from them. Listening to them.

In a recent group training, I used what I have come to fondly refer to as the “Rachel” exercise. If you’ve never read Rachel Ramjattan’s article, Why do Fundraisers Think Money is Scarce?, go. Read it now. I’ll wait.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

What kinds of questions does this article raise for you?

  1. Would you have the courage to do what Rachel did?
  2. What could happen if you allowed donors’ interests to influence your work?
  3. How can you incorporate donors into your work? Do you have a donor on your board?
  4. When was the last time you called a new donor (perhaps “only” a $20 gift), to say thank you and ask what prompted their gift?
  5. And, of course, what if you operated from a philosophy of abundance instead of scarcity?

Again, my work with you is not to provide you with a paint-by-numbers system for fundraising success (although I have, time and time again ;). My real work is to get you to think — each and every day — about your donors. About their passions and motivations and what makes them tick. And why they gave to you.

It’s worth mentioning that recent studies, as revealed in the New York Times article, How to Get the Wealthy to Donate,  reveal that, “We thought we could not just sway wealthy people’s behavior but also change their minds, persuading them to embrace communal values. We failed.”

I’m not sure there is any need to create a new paradigm of fundraising. Donor-centered or community-centered is not the destination or goal. Our goal, our job as fundraisers is to fund our mission. When practiced — both consistently and well — donor-centered fundraising is the best and most reliable method of getting you there and growing community and strong individual relationships in the process.

Perhaps the best solution would be to focus on mastering what actually works. People do change. But human nature doesn’t. Meet your donors where they are. Not where you think they should be or where you’d like them to be. (Tweet this!)

Great fundraising is focused on the long-term — taking that donor from first-time gift…to lifetime. And it’s built around the science of human behavior and what actually works. We see it time and time again: the very practice of donor-centricity leads to community.

If there was a shortcut, I’d have found it. Leading with love – and gratitude – will never steer you wrong.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Kaplan May 25, 2017 at 11:13 am

Good points. Vu’s blog was interesting, but it betrayed on ongoing theme that has run through all of his writing — an aversion to individual donor fundraising based on the assumption that nonprofits based in communities of color cannot successfully mount individual donor programs. I recognize that it is more difficult than nonprofits based in more affluent communities with long traditions of individual giving, but there is no inherent reason that communities of color cannot embark on the journey. In short, another “curse the darkness rather than light a candle” approach — to use another old saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Your observation that communities are comprised of individuals is spot on.

Pamela Grow May 25, 2017 at 11:43 am

I wholeheartedly agree that nonprofits focused on diversity can – and should – make a commitment to an individual donor program. There is a tendency overall to make assumptions about our donors, rather than embracing a genuine understanding. Thank you for commenting.

Tracy May 25, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Nice piece, Pamela. Now I definitely have to go back to Vu’s article and give it a good read because I have the same concept of “donor centric” that you do. For me, fundraising is a form of organizing. The first fundraising writings I read were Kim Klein’s. I see donors as partners working for change, and that means working *with* them, respecting them. The rest goes from there.

Pamela Grow May 25, 2017 at 9:58 pm

Kim was one of the first trainers I ever encountered. She is amazing. You are right: the rest, including community, flows from there. Thanks for commenting, Tracy.

Pamela Simmons May 27, 2017 at 9:10 am

Thank you for your post Pamela. Since reading Vu’s provocative article I have been disturbed by its content. He expresses a fear that I see expressed in many fundraisers – The fear of getting to know the humanity of donors. We have barely scratched the surface in understanding our donors. Donor-centricity is in its early stages and there’s so much more we can do to drill down to the heart of a donor and see whether the organization’s values are aligned with the donor’s values and how to seek alignment if that is possible. Missions can be accomplished with strong alignment.

Pamela Grow May 27, 2017 at 7:21 pm

I hadn’t considered that aspect, Pamela, but I think that you have made a brilliant point. We’re all so quick to jump on the latest tech or social media tool. But I believe that having a deep grounding in donor-centricity – in what makes your donor tick – supersedes any tool.

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