No, it’s Not Like Sales! Five Common Myths About Fundraising



Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 28, 2019.

While reporting and writing about fundraising for more than 20 years, I’ve often been struck by common misperceptions among leaders of charitable organizations about raising money—even sophisticated ones who command big budgets and large staffs.

It may be because charities are led by board members and executives with little fundraising knowledge or understanding who nevertheless have seniority over their employees who seek donations. Or it could be that fundraisers themselves, especially if they are early or mid-career professionals, have misperceptions about what it really takes to attract big donations.

Whatever the reason, I’m convinced that most charities could raise a lot more money—if they worked to correct five common myths about fundraising.

Myth #1: Donors always give to meet an organization’s or a community’s needs

Among donors making the largest contributions, giving almost always reflects very personal motivations. People give to things that have touched their own life or that of a loved one.

I found a simple way to illustrate this point when I taught a master’s level course on fundraising communications. I asked students to imagine they had unlimited funds and pick one or two charitable causes that would receive their most generous gifts—and explain the reasons for their choices.

Starting the exercise, I candidly shared that I would make big donations toward the study and treatment of mental illness, which my brother struggled with, and research into cancer, the disease that killed my mother.

The students’ top causes were—like mine—aimed at tough issues with which they had personal experience. Or they wanted to give generously to something that brought them joy. For example, one student who was a passionate birder said he’d give to preserve avian species and habitats. Another, an avid athlete, wanted to support programs teaching kids to excel in sports.

Not a single person in my years of teaching the course mentioned giving because an organization or a community needed or wanted them to. Yet so often, a charity’s solicitations focus on the organization’s or its clients’ needs, rather than the (admittedly harder) task of first identifying people with some interest in or relation to the cause, and then building connections between those individuals and the organization’s charitable work.

Myth #2: Raising money is the development department’s job

Well, yes and no. Raising money is the development staff’s job, but an organization will never reach its full fundraising potential without participation by its leading executives, board members, and others in securing donations.

Yet many charity leaders feel that hiring one or more fundraisers means they no longer have to worry about bringing in money. I remember Curt Simic, president emeritus of the Indiana University Foundation, describing some consulting work he’d done with an organization where a recently hired female fundraiser was in the hot seat.

The organization’s top leaders couldn’t understand why donations weren’t flowing in a short period after hiring the new fundraiser. Simic explained that the fundraiser could never do her job without their active participation via introductions to potential supporters, presentations about programs, visits to donors, and other tasks related to building authentic and lasting relations with donors.

Chief executives and board members try to offload fundraising onto the development staff because they think fundraising means asking for money, which they don’t want to do, says Carol Weisman, a St. Louis-based consultant who calls herself “the goddess of governance” for her work with charity boards.

When Weisman encounters leaders who are reluctant to help raise money, she explains that “fundraising is like chess, every piece moves a different way.” Board members and other charity leaders can be deeply engaged in fundraising without ever asking for money, she says.

For example, a trustee with a beautiful home could host a party for a select group of top donors. The head of the board’s finance committee can vouch for the fiscal health of the charity on a grant proposal. The executive director can give a presentation to the local chamber of commerce about ways the charity has improved the community, thereby enhancing its business climate. And the list goes on.

Weisman and other experts advise giving new and existing board members a clear idea about how much they are expected to donate to the organization and how they’ll participate in fundraising. Weisman recommends creating a menu of ways trustees can participate in raising money and asking them to commit to one or more fundraising activities every year.

Myth #3: Fundraising can be equated with sales. Fundraising and sales have some elements in common—for example, you might hear a salesperson talk about “closing a sale,” while fundraisers sometimes refer to “closing the gift.”

But there are important differences in these two pursuits. In selling products and services, salespeople offer the customer something that has a personal benefit to her. Whether it’s satisfying a mother’s urge to wear a beautiful dress to her daughter’s wedding or fulfilling a middle-aged man’s dream of finally owning an expensive sports car, the customer (or someone they care about) realizes a personal benefit from the sale.

Fundraising is not the same: Yes, donors give money to causes they care about for reasons rooted in their life experience. But other than some feel-good vibes from helping others and perhaps a tax break if they itemize their tax return, the chief benefit for donors is making the world a better place.

Donors are giving to help others, not themselves, and the ultimate recipient, more often than not, is unknown to the donor. For the person leaving a bequest to charity in his or her will, there will be no beneficiaries until long after she has passed away.

You can sum it up this way: Customers, looking inward, pay to fulfill their personal wants and desires. Donors give to realize dreams, and in doing so, look far beyond themselves. It is far easier to appeal to people’s immediate needs and desires than it is to awaken their desire to help others they’re unlikely ever to meet.

Myth #4: In donor visits, asking for support is the top objective. Over the years, I’ve interviewed many charitable individuals and families, the kind of people who make fundraisers’ jobs worthwhile and with whom it’s a privilege to work.

Yet most of those generous people can recall being asked to open their wallets without the solicitor expressing the slightest curiosity about their charitable interests or what they are trying to achieve with their contributions.

One woman told me that she and her husband greatly reduced their donations to a particular nonprofit because every time they were approached by that charity’s representative, “he always has his hand out.” The only reason the couple continued to give at all, she said, is because “we believe in the cause.”

Other less-forgiving donors in this situation stop giving altogether, and who can blame them?

This disconnect between an organization and its donors is the key reason for the promotion of so-called “donor-centered fundraising,” a term coined by consultant Penelope Burk, who wrote a book with that title. Why is it so hard for organizations to put into practice this simple concept of putting the donor first?

One key reason: Board members and other charity leaders who equate raising money with sales (see above) push fundraisers to be more aggressive. The more doors you knock on, their thinking goes, the more likely you are to get to “Yes.”

That approach may work when appealing to a person’s self-interest. It backfires when an organization is raising money from people who have dreams about making the world a better place, in many cases long after they’re gone. In those cases, rushed and frequent solicitations feel like what they are: a one-sided request for money driven by the organization, rather than a sincere effort to help the donor achieve his or her dreams. If you want to raise a lot of money, do the latter.

Myth #5: The more solicitations people receive, the more likely they will give. I feel like I hardly need to make the argument against this misperception, given what I’ve said here already.

I first encountered professionals touting the benefits of frequent solicitations very early in my career when I wrote about direct-mail fundraising. Officials at direct-marketing companies handling charities’ efforts to raise money through the mail were quick to point to results showing that frequent solicitations work.

At first, they seemed to have a good argument: Direct-mail fundraising is one of the most results-oriented types of fundraising and the most studied. The companies could point to hard results showing that they netted more money for a charity if they mailed, say, six or seven solicitations per year to every household on their list than they made from one or two.

But I saw a different result in my own home. After making a gift to a local public-broadcasting station, my husband was bombarded with subsequent letters begging for a repeat gift. We seemed to be getting mail from the station every time we opened our mailbox.  Disgusted by the onslaught, my husband vowed he’d never make another donation; years later, he has kept his word. Unbelievably, we still get solicitations from the station, which go into the trash.

Another sign that bombarding donors is not effective: When I first started writing about direct-mail fundraising, response rates from recipients who responded with a donation averaged about 3 percent. Today, less than half of one percent is normal.

A better way to interact with donors, in my view, is to ask them to stipulate how often they want to hear from your charity. Then honor their wishes.

And after a few attempts, stop asking people who don’t respond for money.