Some Say Fundraising is Just Sales: They’re Wrong!


by Tori O’Neal-McElrath

Early in my 30-plus year career in the philanthropic arena, I was looking for a major gifts officer for a reproductive health clinic in Los Angeles. Of the many résumés I received, one was from a candidate with ten years of solid experience-but for eight of those ten years, he worked for religious charities that opposed the values held by my organization.

Within the first ten minutes of his interview, he taught me a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career. With no prompting from me, he said he was sure I had questions around why he was applying for a position at a health clinic that was also a key player in the reproductive rights arena, when he was clearly not supportive of our stance on key issues (his words, not mine).

He went on to say, “I don’t believe in any form of birth control, but I am a darn good fundraiser and can sell ice cubes in a snowstorm. Your major gifts position sounds great, and your salary is more than decent-so I’m here! You should give me a chance to show you how much money I can raise!” To this day, I remain baffled as to why this candidate would even apply for a position with an organization so misaligned with-in truth, diametrically opposed to-his purported values.

In sales, you don’t actually have to believe in the product or service you’re hawking. That is not true with fundraising-at least not if you’re doing it right!

Why The “Sales” Approach Doesn’t Work

I’ve had the privilege of working on both sides of the desk in philanthropy: serving in fundraising and communications positions with nonprofits, and in staff and consulting capacities for grantmaking institutions. A few things I’ve heard repeatedly from program officers and major donors are:

  1. They feel like development staff are always trying to sell them something. The conversations have a “used car salesperson” feel to them, rather than an authentic engagement.
  2. There are times when donors have been left with the sense that the development staffer doesn’t really-REALLY-know or understand the organization’s work. No, they do not expect development staff to be subject matter experts or be conversant in every detail of the program for which they seek funding. However, donors expect fundraisers to be able to answer basic questions about the program or service. When development staff are not deeply connected to the programs and services-when their passion for the work does not come through in an authentic way-once again it feels like sales.
  3. Donors only hear from development staff when they want something, or when it’s required, such as when they’re actively fundraising or a progress report is due. Hearing from fundraisers only when you’re making an ask reduces what could be an authentic partnership into a transactional relationship-one that is ultimately easier to walk away from.

Development Is About Belief

I submit that the science, art, and “magic” of fundraising should be built on a foundation of true belief:

  • Belief in your organization’s ability to make an impact;
  • Belief in those your organization serves; and
  • Belief in the funder and their desire to create change in partnership with your organization.

The calling for all of us who raise money should be to evangelize… not to sell.

I define these terms related to fundraising as follows:

Evangelize: to talk about how good you think something is. To transfer your authentic enthusiasm for your organization and the impact it makes to another who seeks aligned impact.

Sell: to give or hand over (something) in exchange for money. To convince or persuade.

You might think this is a “potato/potato” situation, but what I am highlighting here is that two things matter: intention and altruism. Your intention to sell a funder commoditizes your work. In so doing, you completely ignore the altruistic nature of philanthropy to which we should all aspire, and which motivates donors large and small. To evangelize is to transfer your enthusiasm and belief in your organization, its work, and its effectiveness in a way that connects to the potential funder’s theory of change-their understanding of what actions and outcomes are required to create change.

What Does This Look Like?

A couple of years after my encounter with the “good-on-paper-but-completely-values-misaligned” candidate, I met with one of our major donors for lunch. This was one of those donor stewardship meetings to which I was referring-not time for a renewal gift or teeing up any sort of ask. I simply reached out to her and asked if she wanted to…READ MORE