Fundraising Isn’t about Money…Neither Is Giving: Part 1

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Stop! Stop! Please stop now!

If you and your board and your staff think fundraising is about money…not good. If you think donors are just giving money…not good at all.

Fundraising helps people follow their own interests, express their values, and advance their own aspirations. Our work is about emotional fulfillment.

As Dale Carnegie, 1930s self-help guru, said, “You’ll have more fun and success when you stop trying to get what you want and start helping other people get what they want.”

Why is it so hard for fundraisers and NGOs to understand, accept, and embrace this donor focus?

Because you’re all focused on your mission? So you think everyone else is focused on your mission? You universalize your own passion. You think that donors give money to your organization to fulfill your mission. The truth is, donors have their own personal missions.

Fundraising and giving aren’t about money

Donors give through your organization to achieve their own desires…to fulfill their own aspirations…to live out their own values. Your organization is the means to the donor’s end.

I’m a huge Seth Godin fan. Pay attention to this marvelous blog post:

The brand is a story. But it’s a story about you, not about the brand.

“Yes, every brand has a story—that’s how it goes from being a logo and a name to a brand. The story includes expectations and history and promises and social cues and emotions. The story makes us say we ‘love Google’ or ‘love Harley’…but what do we really love?

“We love ourselves.

“We love the memory we have of how that brand made us feel once. We love that it reminds us of our mom, or growing up, or our first kiss. We support a charity or a soccer team or a perfume because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.

“We can’t easily explain this, even to ourselves. We can’t easily acknowledge the narcissism and the nostalgia that drives so many of the apparently rational decisions we make every day. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not at work.

“More than ever, we express ourselves with what we buy and how we use what we buy. Extensions of our personality, totems of our selves, reminders of who we are or would like to be.

“Great marketers don’t make stuff. They make meaning.”

And by the way, if you think the donor’s focus on self-fulfillment is bad, you’re wrong. The fact that people—like you and me—have aspirations and fulfill them through charitable giving…that’s glorious and beautiful. The fact that people like you and me choose to give through different organizations…that’s glorious and beautiful.

Fundraising and fundraisers are story listeners and storytellers.

We fundraisers listen to stories about clients, those who are served…whether that’s a child, a puppy, a tree, a melting glacier, a patient, the actor, or dancer.

Then, you and I retell those client stories. And we invite those clients to tell those stories in their own voices.

Now, you and I should also be listening to donor stories. Because donors are the real heroes of all fundraising stories.

Unfortunately, we’re pretty darn poor at listening to and then retelling donor stories. We don’t do much inviting. We retell…seemingly grudgingly.

Instead, we tell our organization’s stories. How great our staff is. How swell our board members are. How absolutely great our organization is.

We fundraisers and our bosses and boards and program staff make our organizations the heroes. And then we expect donors and prospects to applaud from the grandstand. We expect prospects and donors to applaud by throwing money at us.

And we’re pissy when they don’t. Yes, pissy and whiny!

How much longer will nonprofits act so stupidly? How longer will you ignore what so many experts keep telling you? The donor is the hero. The donor isn’t sitting in the grandstand looking down at your great plays on your great field. Donors are the heroes. And donors are right down there on the field, part of your team.

Everything is a tale. Life is stories.

Fundraising isn’t about money. It’s about the hearts and minds and values of donors.

Giving isn’t about money. Giving is about the hearts and minds and values of donors. And donors are the heroes of the story.

Here are two of my favorite quotations. Post them on your wall. Chant them at board and meetings.

  • “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”—Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist
  • “Everything is a tale. What we believe, what we know. What we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated.”—Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

How good a story listener are you? How about your board members and your staff? How effectively do you celebrate your donor heroes? How effectively do you tell your story?

Now, think about your own philanthropic stories

My dear deceased friend Tim Burchill would ask his students to write their philanthropic autobiography. Tim founded—and taught in—the Masters Program in Philanthropy and Development at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Now, I ask the program students to interview each other and then write the donor hero’s story.

The Buddha tells us it’s the journey that matters. And that’s the donor’s journey—not your organization’s journey.

I assume that everyone reading the Nonprofit Quarterly is a donor. You’re not making a financial transaction. You’re acting out your own emotions and fulfilling your own aspirations.

So what are your stories, Ms. Hero?

What are the stories those fundraisers and those organizations should be telling about you, Mr. Donor?

As a donor, do you feel listened to, and also heard? Are those fundraisers and those organizations honoring you by asking and hearing your stories? Or do they seem like they’re taking notes by rote…just applying some strategy, interviewing donors to keep them around? Do you feel respected and admired? Do you feel part of the team on the field? Or are you just applauding with your hard-earned money?

I have my stories. You have yours. In Part 2 of this column, I’ll tell you about experiences I’ve had telling my stories as a donor. And the risks I choose to take. And the respect and care I receive in return…or not.

I wonder how you will treat me when you read my stories? And the story of telling my stories? I remember the mixed responses I got in this very column years ago….


  • Carol Spinner

    I agree with you 100% the donors are the real heros and fundraising isn’t about the money. Each and every donor has a story and a passion for what they fund. The money is a mere representation of what the donor is compassionate about. I I find most donors are very deep compassion which goes far beyond the eyes. They possess a deep desire which results in them donating and lobbing for an interest that lies so close to their heart that if they didn’t give they couldn’t live themselves. They are truly awesome people!

  • Nora White

    I think sometimes volunteering can be traded by helping one another. For instance, I needed some heavy items moved in my garage which for some people is an easy task. I am 81yrs old and don’t have the strength for some tasks so I had to hire someone and paid $100. for 15 minutes of moving items.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone close to me who could take the time to help me and with a fixed income it adds up when you need to have a few simple repairs done. I also needed a leaky faucet repaired and called a plumber who gave me a senior discount. The total bill for him was $140. and he was done in 10 mins. If my husband were alive he could have fixed this with no problem.

    I want to know if there are any groups in a community that offer trading services like I am a great cook, I sew and can do alterations, and since I also clean houses daily I would be able to provide these as my form of payment and ask for an equal type of fix or task in return. This way I feel it would benefit both parties and get to know people as well.

    I can also learn by watching how the repair is done or teach someone how to cook japanese food and you can never stop learning. I sometimes try to work around something broken or in need of repair if I can’t afford to hire someone and at my age it can be dangerous. I have asked friends and family who have put effort into a repair but most often it will break again so it’s best to find someone who is capable and knows what they are doing.

    What do you think about this? Perhaps you know some people already sharing in a community? Please let me know.
    Have a good day,
    Nora White

  • Donna Knotek

    Retelling donor stories is something that I need to work on, so thanks for this post which served as a reminder for me. Telling donor stories often feels like I’m giving out private information, but in reality the donors passion, why they choose to support your cause, and their enthusiasm are all great things to bring into a conversation with other donors and prospects. Thanks for the reminder. I enjoyed reading this post.

  • Suzanne Vaughan

    Interesting, and I agree that the use of stories and donor identities are more important than financial transactions. However, financial transactions they are, and I wonder when the discourse is going to shift to doing the most good that we can with the money we have? Donors are in the incredibly fortunate position to be able to give away money that most people can’t, let’s help them become bigger, better heroes by ensuring that stories discuss impact and scale as well as action vs. inaction.

  • Johan Matthews

    This is an interesting context for the the donor: The hero of the Non profit’s narrative. However, when I consider the larger narrative of doing good, I observe the rise of the social enterprise which has strayed away from conventional donor –org relations to one of consumer–social merchandise. With this in mind, I’m forced to wonder about the character of the donor within this context and my question becomes how will it be reconciled with the traditional non profit landscape?

  • Karen K

    This is a beautiful post = thank you for sharing it!

  • Sandra Farmer

    Yes, i agree oragnizations put too much emphasis on obtaining funding.Some Organizations forget that donors have a direct connection to the cause. It is important that we recognize donor values and appreciate how close to the heart it can be. Identify. Its not about the money, it about the donor, thenand cause , individual served in the organization. So thank you donors for your service to society. Without donor organizations could not function.