Fundraising is broken. Fix it.

It happened again. And I’ve had it up to here (*as he raises his hand 2 inches above his head*).

This post may get me in trouble but this is important.


I was visiting with a community business leader yesterday. He told me that he and his wife had supported an organization several times over the years, but he hadn’t heard from them in 14 months. The communication he received yesterday was a solicitation for a significant gift. Done via email. Out of the blue.

If that doesn’t surprise and horify you, it should, but surely this will. He politely declined. In his words, he and his wife had understandably ‘moved on’. In return, he immediately received a ranting email from the fundraiser calling him out for his lack of support.

Ho.Lee.Cow. Stop it already!

What happened? Where did this go wrong? It’s an epidemic racing across the country and affecting every cause. It’s destroying the field of fundraising and the nonprofit sector. And I don’t blame the fundraiser (entirely). For those unaware, data released recently from Compasspoint should have fundraisers and nonprofit CEOs more-than concerned. (Download and read the full report)

Simone Joyeaux summarized politely:

“In summary, here’s the scoop: Development officers quit. Bosses fire development officers. Boards don’t play. Organizations don’t get it. This vicious cycle threatens financing of the sector. And, this has been going on for years and we aren’t really fixing it.”


I think it’s a lack of patience and focusing on true philanthropy. Organizations are spread too thin (few staff, barely funded), causing the organization to put undue pressure on their fundraisers who then pressure donors and send clear signals of desperation (cue the story above) and have completely unrealistic expectations on top of it. It destroys any hope of a positive relationship and future with those donors. No wonder half of all donors don’t renew!?! We’re waisting an incredible amount of time and money recruiting/aquiring folks only to treat them horribly and then we have the nerve to wonder why they don’t stick around!?!?

Phew. Enough ranting. What’s the solution?

CEOs – Realize that donors want and expect to hear from you. Fundraising should be YOUR priority, not something you hire someone to take care of. Be intimately involved in the process, in the hiring and for goodness sake, pay a competitive salary to attract and retain talent in a relationship-based position. Understand that the development director’s job is to pull levers and orchestrate you, the board and other major advocates in engaging your network to build support for the organization. Until they’ve been a part of the team for several years, they won’t have the relational credibility to be successful.  Like sales, financial advisors and other relationship-based business, the first few years are establishing repor and won’t bear fruit for some time.

Development pros – You’re more to blame than CEOs. Yes, I said it. This is YOUR profession. It doesn’t mean you should do it alone but OWN this issue. Fix it for yourself, then your organization, then help others do the same. Do your homework before taking a position. Then do it again. A strong relationship is imperative with the CEO. Spend some time with them. If you don’t get more than an hour or two – that should be a clear sign that they don’t understand the magnitude of hiring a development pro.  Meet with the Board Chair. Talk about these issues. Push them on their fundraising philosophy and how they and the board have been involved thus far and how willing they’ll be in the future. Make sure they understand there’s no money-printing press in the back.  And look in the mirror!  It’s easy to point fingers but make sure you have the patience to do this work, understand how to navigate the involvement of others and balance the slow, relationship-based part with being strategically assertive and making asks when appropriate.

It’s not a big deal. It’s just the future of the entire sector we’re talking about…

What do you think? Do you struggle with this? Is there a different problem we should be zooming in on?

10 thoughts on “Fundraising is broken. Fix it.

  1. Well I am horrified at the thought of a ranting email from a fundraiser – talk about pointing fingers at the wrong person. When we hear the term “the customer is always right” shouldn’t that apply to donors as well (even though it may not always be the case)?

    I think you hit the nail on the head with paying a competitive salary to retain talent. And, let’s face it, fundraising is tough, tiring work. There will be turnover no matter what. But, NPOs (CEOs and others) need to develop succession plans and work diligently (and I mean diligently) to maintain current and potential donors. That’s not too much to ask, right? 🙂

  2. on the other hand…. training does not help the “jerks in fundraising jobs” factor just like lawyers, engineers, yes doctors and corporate executives most of whom have MDs, LLBs, MBAs, MEs and every training credential possible… It’s hard to exorcise the jerk factor…..

  3. Great post Nathan. A ranting email? Wowzers- that’s not appropriate in ANY profession. I am so blessed to work for an org in which the CEO works with me to cultivate new donors and nurture relationships with existing donors. Because of our long-term fundraising strategies, we have seen our fundraising increase greatly the past few years- after a horrific dip in previous years. I appreciate your ranting. Thanks for the post.

  4. I’d love for a bunch of development folks to keep a daily journal for a month. Write down what you do all day—meetings you take, appeal letters you write, databases you update, individuals you call. Then share this journal with your board and the rest of your team.

    My frustration as a board member and as a volunteer is that I don’t know what development staff is doing, so I can’t help. I am happy to give suggestions or pitch in, but I don’t want to work at cross purposes.

    So, what are you doing?

    1. Robby – thanks for your comment and serving as a board member. Your suggestion shows a genuine interest in helping but I’d respectfully challenge you in that it seems you’re looking to leverage one of your skill sets (work flow) but it could easily come across as distrust in staff (i.e. ‘what are you doing’ sounds a lot like ‘you don’t know what you’re doing…and I know better’). Depending on the size and development of the organization, it’s not the board’s role to be involved in the day-to-day efforts of staff – but instead to work with the CEO/ED on strategy, vision, fiduciary needs, etc. It’s a tough question but do you want to help how ‘you’ think you should? Or how the staff think you should? Hopefully it’s a healthy mix that works for you both.

      1. Nate, my comment may have been poorly worded.

        I want development staff *to tell me what to do* so that it will help them. And then I’d like them to *use whatever I did* (or give feedback.)

        Need me to make calls? Set up introductions? Edit letters? Hand write thank you notes? Update databases? Something else. Put me to work!

        What often happens in these meetings is that well-meaning board members make suggestions which must be old hat to fundraising pros (“we should have a charity auction!”) instead of being provided with real work.

        I trust development staff to get things done. They’ve been doing it a long time without me! What I don’t trust is that boards and staff are really working together in the way that they should—and the most important disconnect is time and expertise. We don’t spend 40+ hours a week on the cause and don’t have the training you do, so we need to look to *your* guidance.

      2. Ahh. Thanks for the clarification Robby. You’re right, it is the fundraiser’s role to share where help is needed most (with guidance of the CEO) and facilitate the implementation of that assistance. The problem is, it’s difficult, takes time and (in my opinion) fundraising staff give up to quickly on engaging board members and their networks because of that difficulty. We forget that on the ‘ladder of effectiveness’, personal introductions from board members are exponentially more effective than mass communication from staff. But the latter is easier so we stick with that.

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