Five Thoughts for Impactful Fundraising (and a short ethics lesson)

It caught me completely by surprise. We hadn’t talked about it directly during the interview process, but we’d been talking about my coming on board with the organization for over a year at that point. It seemed like a great fit. It was a  mission that I truly cared about. But…

But then the question came a few days too late. I had resigned from my former position and it was too late to back out. The question boiled down to: who are you bringing to us (in the fundraiser’s magic black book)?

Perhaps in some fields this wouldn’t be a huge issue. However in fundraising for charitable causes we are held to a higher standard. Relationships with donors belong to the organization we work for, not with the individual professional fundraising staff. The website for the Association of Fundraising Professionals has some great resources related to this and other ethics issues related to fundraising (

From that question, it didn’t take me long to realize that the miscommunication was based in a misunderstanding that fundraising is not sales. Rather, it’s about an organizational commitment to building partnerships with people and organizations who have the ability to contribute to a cause. That was a very hard learning experience, but I did learn some very important lessons and it helped me to formulate the following criteria for impactful fundraising programs:

  • Board Led. Major gift fundraising programs require significant board involvement. It means that the board is personally contributing to the organization and helping to connect the organization with people in the community who they know to be passionate about the cause (note: this doesn’t mean arm-twisting all of their friends to give, but rather helping to identify people in the community with the interest in and the ability to contribute funds to the cause).
  • Donor Driven. It’s not about you the fundraiser. And it’s not about the organization. One of the earliest lessons for me is that potential contributors do not think the same way I do – and they probably don’t think the same way you do either. So learn about your contributors, find out what they like and don’t like. Don’t assume that because you prefer 4-page letters that only talk about the organization that they will too (or whatever your preferences happen to be).
  • Mission Centered. We’ve probably all heard this phrase more times than we can count: it’s not about the money, it’s about the mission. Don’t talk about how the organization needs to hire two more staff members, talk about what changes will be able to happen in the lives of those you serve and in the community you’re working in. As Penelope Burke suggests for thank you letters, start letters with ‘You’ (rather than the traditional ‘we here at ABC org thank you for…’).
  • Engagement Focused. So I’ll admit, there are some donors who really only want to write a check. However, there are more and more (especially among younger donors) who want to be involved. Some ways to engage people in your work could include having time-limited teams that focus on a particular issue the organization is dealing with. Or volunteering in the programs, or working on a board committee (having potential board members volunteer on a committee first allows you to determine whether or not they would be a good fit too).
  • Impactful. Deep down, I believe everyone wants to make a positive difference in the world. Charitable organizations are a great way to do that. Make sure that your materials effectively communicate the difference you are making. It could be through a story about one of your clients or statistics on how many of your clients are getting jobs or going off welfare, etc. But remember, people typically make decisions to give based on emotional reasons (and then look up facts to back up their decision).

Those are my thoughts – what are yours?


Five Thoughts for Impactful Fundraising (and a short ethics lesson) — 3 Comments

  1. Your message resonates with me Kirsten.I’ve seen way too many organizations strong-arm their board and the community for names and contributions. Only to forget that it’s the impact of the mission that causes people to give and the relationship the organization has built with the donor that creates long-term support.

    • Ditto Lori. The co-directors of an organization I used to work for would hound me to hit-up my circle of well connected friends. I declined and, in doing so, minimized the awkwardness to the work place instead of spreading it to work, family and friends.

  2. Kirsten,
    That issue of bringing along the donor list comes up much too often.
    For fundraisers who aren’t members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, (and even those who are), it’s worth another look at the Code of Ethical Principles and Standards. You’ll find them here: