How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising


[Image description: Two fluffy brown and yellow ducklings with black beaks and eyes. They’re snuggled up against each other, One looking right, the other one looking left. Image obtained from]

Hi everyone, this is a lengthy and serious post that I wrote after a period of thinking, and I hope it will lead to some vigorous conversations. Two years ago, I wrote a post called “Winter is Coming and the Donor-Centered Fundraising Model Must Evolve.” Since then, I’ve had more conversations with colleagues and donors, attended more conferences and workshops on fundraising, and did some more reading. Also, I donate to several nonprofits, so I can also draw from my own experience as a donor.

From all this, I think we have a serious problem with the donor-centered approach. Namely that the pervasiveness of this model in our sector may be perpetuating the very inequity that we are seeking to address as a sector.

I believe in many of the tenets of donor-centrism—don’t treat donors like ATMs, appreciate every gift of any amount, don’t take donors for granted, build relationships, be transparent, etc. I just don’t believe that donors should be in the center of nonprofit work, or even the center of fundraising work. Yes, the pervasive donor-centered concept is more nuanced than that, but the name itself, donor-centered, intentionally puts donor right in the middle. And many fundraisers have unconsciously or consciously taken this into account, insisting on treating donors as the most important element of our work. There is so much language now about treating donors like “heroes” or even “superheroes.”

An argument can be made that the donor-centered model has been so prevalent in our sector because it works. There are lots of data showing that different donor-centered strategies work. But just because something works does not necessarily mean that it is intrinsically good. Think, for example, of fishing. Data may show that a certain bait works really well. If you use this bait, you will catch more fish, guaranteed. So everyone who can afford it starts using it. What happens then to the fish population, to the pond, to the ecosystem? Just because you can catch a bunch of fish, does that mean that you should?

Of course, that is a very simplistic analogy, and insulting to donors. But in many ways, fundraising in our sector has become like fishing. We treat donors like fish, and we try our best to find the strategies that work, that nets our organizations the most fish/dollars, without worrying about the consequences. But our sector is interconnected, a complex system of interrelated missions. This is a major difference between our sector and the for-profit sector. Cupcakes may have very little to do with shoes or software, but early learning definitely is related to youth development, housing with employment, education with food security, etc. Everything is interrelated in our sector, but we have behaved as if each mission is its own self-sufficient silo, a philosophy that has been reinforced by donor-centrism.

And because of that, a host of unintended problems are created, some of which may be actively preventing us from advancing an equitable society. At its worst, Donor-Centrism:

Reinforces money as the default measure of people’s worth: Whether we intend to or not, we still value people who donate more money more. We define “Major Donors” as people who give a certain level, not according to their personal context but according to set thresholds. These donors get extra attention. It’s understandable; we need to keep the lights on. But it does unconsciously perpetuate society’s ingrained notion that people who have more money deserve special treatment. But what about the smaller gifts? What about the $10 from a student or a $5 from a colleague who is between employment? Are those not considered major gifts? Donor-centrism would say that we appreciate these smaller gifts just the same. But is that really true?

Minimizes other elements needed to do this work well: We know that our work cannot be effective without volunteers, staff, strong board members, funders, consultants, other nonprofits, etc. Placing donors in the center means everyone else must be on the peripheral. Take volunteers, for example. Many of us rely significantly on volunteers, especially around fundraising events. Why don’t more organizations have volunteer coordinators? Why does it seem like an expectation for us to send handwritten notes to donors, but it’s more a sweet afterthought if we remember to write notes for individual volunteers? The argument that donors don’t benefit from donating (but volunteers do benefit from volunteering) is BS and another sign that we have failed to effectively communicate the impact of our work.

Furthers the idea of transactional charity: A tenet of Donor-Centrism, at least of some of the blog posts I’ve read, is the idea that we need to be accountable in reporting to donors exactly what their donation went to. “Your $1,000 helped 10 kids go to summer camp” or “your $50 bought 20 containers of hummus and five pounds of baby carrots for our preschoolers” or whatever. This is an illusion we tell donors, because the combination of hundreds of elements is needed to make programs successful. This reporting practice allows donors to feel a false sense of cause/effect and accountability, but at the cost of furthering their ignorance about nonprofit work, which is holistic and requires so much more than a single donor’s contribution. This ignorance perpetuates the overhead myth and other barriers and harms us and our community in the long-run.

Prevents honest conversations and true partnerships: I’ve gotten into a couple of friendly arguments on Nonprofit Happy Hour and ED Happy Hour Facebook groups (which you should join, since they’re filled with brilliant people) over giving feedback to donors who do or say ridiculous things. Some colleagues, with good reasons, believe we should be very careful about “educating,” providing feedback, or outright pushing back when donors say or do things that harm our work or our community. The power dynamics between nonprofits and donors is not as strong as the dynamics between nonprofits and funders, but it is still there. And the more donor-centered people are, I’ve seen, the more likely they are to believe that it is not our “place” to have honest conversations with our donors. But I don’t think we can make progress in many of the issues we’re tackling if we cannot build true partnerships with donors, which includes pointing out, respectfully and at the appropriate time, when donors are in the wrong, and helping them shape their thinking and actions.

Short-changes our donors: I know, donor-retention rate is still pretty dismal in our sector. But I’m not sure it’s because we’re not donor-centered enough and that we need to double-down on it. It might be that donor-centrism might work in the short-run, but in the long run, fails to truly inspire our donors. Think about relationships. The best and happiest ones, the relationships that last, are never ones where one partner is put in the center and constantly heaped with attention and catered to. The best marriages have strong communication, a strong belief in the future, and shared values, but also vigorous, challenging conversations and disagreements and occasional explosive but cathartic arguments.

Perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games: It seems Donor-centrism has resulted in many of us being in competition with one another, using the latest data, to see who can thank people fastest and in the most effective ways, who can tell the best most emotional impact stories, who can be most “accountable” in terms of “overhead” rates and stuff, etc. I’ve seen workshops like “25 Creative Ways to Thank Your Donors” and “How to Make Thank-You Videos that Stand Out.” Has it reached a point now where the iconic handwritten thank-you note is no longer be enough? Meanwhile, I attended a workshop where a presenter said, “Most importantly, make sure you have four stars on [charity watchdog site], because donors are comparing you to other nonprofits, and they won’t be impressed if you don’t have four stars.” This is crap, for many reasons, some of which I’ll be expanding on in future posts. All of this competition perpetuates the Nonprofit Hunger Games, where instead of working together to solve issues, we nonprofits are forced to fight with one another, resulting in all of us and our community losing.

While those are all serious problems, there are several even more serious issues that our sector and the fundraising field in particular has not really talked about. Without intending to, Donor-Centrism:

Proliferates the Savior Complex: The constant inflating of donors’ egos through tactics like the usage of “you” in everything and narratives painting donors as protagonists and heroes saving the day may make them feel good and donate more, but is that what we really want in the long run? Do we really want to further this philosophy that donors are heroes and saviors, that they get nothing in return except appreciation and feel-goods? What is the cost to society when we reinforce the notion that some people are saviors and others are there to be saved, versus getting everyone to understand systemic inequity and their role within it, and how they themselves also benefit from creating a strong community that they live in?

Perpetuates the othering of the people we serve: An insidious effect of the Savior complex is that people see other people as “others.” “Others” exist in our minds in a binary state, either as enemies, or as those to be helped, never our equals. With this current political climate, we’ve been seeing a lot of people perceiving and treating fellow human beings as “others/enemies.” But the “Others/People-to-be-helped” mindset is also destructive. I mentioned the analogy earlier of donor-centrism being like us standing by the shores of a lake telling donors “You helped us buy bread to feed these ducks. Because of you, 50 ducks didn’t go hungry! You are a hero!” instead of getting donors to understand they too are ducks and that their lives and happiness are tied to all the other ducks and to the pond that they share. We cannot build a strong and just society if we reinforce in donors the unconscious perception of the people we help as merely objects of pity and charity to be saved.

Crowds out the voices of people served: As I mentioned in “The Infantilization of marginalized communities must stop” and other posts, there is an assumption that the people receiving services don’t know what’s good for them or what solutions would work. There is a dissonance in that those we consider “major” donors are often not the people who are experiencing the challenges we are trying to address, but donor-centrism gives them a level of credibility and belief that they hold the solutions. The more we reinforce donors’ sense that they are experts when they are not, the more we diminish the voices of those who are most affected by injustice and who thus may have the best solutions to address it.

Further marginalizes already-marginalized communities: As I’ve mentioned before in “Time Inequity” and other posts, a significant number of organizations led by communities of color, LGBTQ communities, communities of disability, rural communities, etc., are small. They are unlikely going to have as robust a development department as larger organizations. But they do some of the most critical and urgent work, often with some of the smallest resources. The more we reinforce in donors’ minds that they should be thanked immediately, that they should be communicated with based on their preferences—“I only want newsletters to be emailed to me in November, preferably on a Tuesday”—the more they, and we, see it as normal and expect it. There is no way many organizations led by marginalized communities can meet these expectations with the limited resources they have, which means that the donors may see these orgs as disorganized or incompetent. Larger, more resourced organizations, using principles of donor-centrism have trained donors to expect handwritten thank-you note followed up with phone calls within a day or two of donations. So when a small organization doesn’t contact you until two weeks later, it’s understandable if donors are not impressed. It doesn’t matter that this small organization may not have any development staff, and that it has been using its limited time and funding to prevent people from getting deported or to have conversations with kids of color or people with disabilities about how to protect themselves from bullying and hate crimes in this terrifying political climate.

Inadvertently fuels systemic injustice: So much of our work is to address the challenges caused by wealth disparities, much of which is built on historic and current injustice. To constantly put donors in the center and appeal to their emotion and ego means there is less time and energy devoted to helping our donors understand and navigate the systemic injustice that they may be inadvertently contributing to. By fueling our donors’ egos, we unconsciously tell them it’s OK, that they don’t have to think about the hard stuff, about privilege, about disparities, about racism in the education and criminal justice system contributing to the wealth gap that they may be benefiting from.

Our sector has been talking a lot about equity, diversity, and inclusion. But not so much in the context of fundraising. As a colleague of mine, James Hong the ED of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, says,

“We rarely talk about race and equity in fundraising. We always talk about race and equity in the context of programs, services, advocacy, etc., …never fundraising. Right now, this donor-centered model of fundraising isn’t designed to build power. It’s designed to make money. And frankly, you can double the revenues of an organization, increase donations, staff, etc., and still fail horribly at your mission.”

And this is the critical missing conversation within the work of fundraising through individuals. With a few exceptions such as the awesome Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) and Social Justice Fund Northwest (SJF), we lag behind in having these discussions, so strong is the drive to increase revenues. The majority of the conversations I’ve been a part of around equity, diversity, and inclusion still focus on how to get people to give: What strategies do we need to use to get diverse communities to give? How do we attract diverse development staff…who have the skills and connections to get diverse people to give? Rarely has the conversation been about the wealth gap, systemic oppression, and how we can use fundraising principles and practices to build the power and voice of our community. And this may be a reason why there are so few development staff of color and why the ones that we have may be burning out. It’s exhausting emotionally and spiritually to constantly have to ask the people who may not be aware that they benefit from injustice to contribute to help end it.

Of course, this is not to say that all aspects of donor-centrism are bad and contributing to injustice. But as our demographics change, as our society’s problems become more numerous and complex, we must look at our fundraising philosophies and practices through a lens of equity and social justice. We need a model where we respect donors and build strong relationships with them, but where they are not in the center. They cannot be in the center. None of us can be in the center, for all the above and other reasons. The community we serve and benefit from must be in the center.

I am working with some colleagues to develop a set of principles for what I’m calling Community-Centric Fundraising, a model that is grounded in equity and social justice, prioritizes the entire community over individual organizations, fosters a sense of belonging and interdependence, presents our work not as individual transactions but holistically, and encourages mutual support between nonprofits. This set of principles will be presented in a future post.

I know not everyone will agree with all the points in this post. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Please provide your comments, suggestions for principles, and feedback in the comment section.

(And also, RVC is looking for a Development Director, who will help us to create a strong and equitable community. We have awesome snacks!)

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59 thoughts on “How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising

  1. Sara Adhikari

    Thank you for this very thought-provoking piece. I share many of these views – for eg. never understood why non-profits see each other as competition, particularly where donors are concerned – but feel a loner when I voice them in a sector that I am relatively new to

  2. Kate Hitchcock

    What an excellent post. I work at a grant funder in the UK (so slightly different from what you are talking about here) and these points really resonated with me. As a Grant Manager, I believe it is important that grantees/applicants are honest and, where appropriate, challenging. How else can we stay up to date with the key issues and learn from what we have funded? Also, this may be more of a British thing, or because I spent most of my career working in charities, but I get rather uncomfortable if I’m treated as a ‘hero’. I love to hear about the impact of the funding (good and bad, again I want to learn) and it’s great to know if grantees have been happy with my performance as their Grant Manager, but gushing praise about how generous I have been is absolutely not necessary – especially considering it’s the Foundation’s money, not mine! I’d much rather focus on what my grantees are doing and how we can help them do it even better.

  3. Al Cantor

    Nicely put, Vu — and a distinctly different angle from the usual fundraising rhetoric.

    When you write about how a donor-centric approach prevents honest conversations and true partnerships, I think about the way in which organizations that are tilted too much toward the donors allow the donors’ priorities to become the institutional priorities.You start doing things to meet the donors’ interests, rather than to meet the mission.

    Thanks for this piece. It’s important to say.

  4. David Tucker

    You’re right on point, Vu! A very thought-provoking piece – I’m looking forward to learning more about ‘Community-Centric Fundraising.’ Thanks for making this rainy and cold Monday suck a lot less!

  5. USwager

    Wow. This should go viral. Excellent, hard points. And so much more true now, with the destructive nature of the current administration becoming a national emergency. Donors need to be engaged more than ever, which may mean they will need to be educated, challenged and yes, to be told that they’re not always going to be the center of attention. And frankly, doesn’t that show more respect for donors than constantly coddling and flattering them, and protecting them from uncomfortable truths?

  6. Lisa Barton

    In my first job as a fundraiser for a community action agency many moons ago, a wise mentor gave me a tea bag label that read: “A philanthropist is one who gives away what they should be giving back.” This post brings that thought full circle and finally puts some real context to that tea bag label that has stayed with me all these years. And, I also think that we will need to reorganize our entire economic system to solve this donor-centric imbalance. And, part of me thinks, what’s wrong with those who should be giving back giving it away instead? At least they are aware that there is an imbalance. It’s a sticky wicket this topic. Lots to unravel.

  7. Vanessa

    Thanks, Vu. My charity has few donors and no real donor program (we have good sales so we’re ok) and one of my personal blocks around this has been the ego-puffing I’ve been told was required, perhaps especially in the arts. “What do donors want? To be made to feel special, that they’re in an exclusive club with access to special privileges,etc.” Rich people often already feel those things. It has always felt disengenuous. I’ve kept looking for another model, and I’m excited to hear more about this one.

  8. Jennifer Player

    Very thought provoking, indeed. And I am in agreement with you but I think the challenge for me is how to make that transition with our donors without sacrificing the dollars that we are so reliant upon. I have found that even around the topic of overhead (which I think we have all been discussing for years), it is challenging to lead the way on that topic when so many other organizations are still perpetuating that myth. Most major donors (and board members, for that matter) still believe that overhead percentage and scores on watchdog sites are the most important metrics. If other organizations are telling donors that they are heroes and we aren’t, will they stop giving to us or do we at least need to prepare for that? Would love your thoughts/insights on how to begin these conversations with donors and to deal with what might (at least in the short term) be negative impacts on our fundraising dollars.

  9. JL_Laurie

    Oh thank you thank you thank you. I am so uncomfortable with the whole donor-centric, donor love thing and feel like I am the only one. So thank you for putting into words many of the concerns I have felt about the model. It’s bound to stir up controversy and discussion but as you point out, that’s where the good stuff happens.

  10. Barbara Morrow

    So very well put, Vu. I’d love to see more opportunities brokered that allow honest, constructive feedback between funders/philanthropists and NPOs.

    1. Meredith

      In many ways, I saw this piece as a bit of a rebuttal to the NYT piece, which ignored/waved away the larger social costs of the donor-centric model.

      But yeah, from a practical perspective, we have found it incredibly difficult to thread this needle. It does feel like an either/or situation—either you’re fully funded or you feel good about your fundraising model. It seems next to impossible to get both without being ridiculously lucky.

  11. Jennifer Heyer Krikava

    “It’s exhausting emotionally and spiritually to constantly have to ask the people who may not be aware that they benefit from injustice to contribute to help end it.” This is exactly how I’ve been feeling of late, but haven’t been able to put words to it. I have moments when I ask myself if I’m in the right profession because I often struggle with the questions and issues you raise about how we fundraise. Your post is such an encouragement and increases my resolve to not shy away from these difficult questions within my organization, and with the donors/funders who support us. Thank you for once again igniting an important conversation in our sector.

  12. abstract668

    You have put into words many of the thoughts I have had over 20+ years of nonprofit fundraising, and I am grateful for this post! I want to take it a step further. A lot of the work we do is work that should be paid for by our collective society, such as helping people get an education, a roof over their head, health care, and legal assistance. Instead the US is set up so that the super-rich can decide where their wealth goes, rather than putting it through the democratically elected system where our collectively chosen representatives decide what our collective needs are. Meanwhile the rich are spending a lot of this money convincing us that democracy and taxes are bad, and that our public education system has failed.

    On another front, I pay attention to how fundraising works in churches. Most progressive churches want magical fundraising (can’t we get a grant for that?) I have been urging churches to inspire their members to give more generously by making giving a spiritual practice. Progressive churches can’t do what evangelical churches can: tell people that God needs their money.

    I believe that we need to end selfishness and promote inter-responsibility as a cultural value. Some of us have these values within our families: I know of a family where one sister who is making lots of money in the tech sector offered to pay her sister’s tuition for medical school as their parents move toward retirement. We need to learn to share our resources and appreciate all the things we do for each other and to do things out of love for humanity, not selfishness or recognition.

    One more thing: please put “silo” on your list of WORDS THAT SHALL NOT BE USED”.

    I can’t write more while tapping my phone in bed! I SO appreciate these columns!

  13. shanaho

    Thank you for writing this post! I struggle every day in my job with how our fawning over donors inadvertently sends donors (and our clients? don’t even get me started there) the message that the privilege they enjoy at the expense of everyone else – the privilege that allows them the disposable income to make “major” gifts – is totally not a problem, not at the very crux of the very inequalities we’re trying to overcome. And it gives the people with the money all the power, as always, so in our programming, we end up doing what donors want to fund, instead of what our communities need. So to use your example, the donor wants to fund hummus for the kids, but none of the kids even like hummus, so while the donor is patting himself on the back (and we’re telling him he’s a hummus hero), all the kids are going hungry at snack time anyway. (I’m assuming you’ve read “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”? It’s a classic, and no less true than it was decades ago when it was written.)

    So my question is, how do we fundraise with integrity? How do I write an appeal letter, for example, to wealthy donors that doesn’t say “you have the power to save the ducks!” but instead “we are all ducks together”?

  14. Kim Carpenter Drake

    I love that you are challenging some of these notions around the hero worship of our donors. I will also be a devil’s advocate and say that we need to face realism about the environment and marketplace in which we work. My notion of donor-centric is more about being people-centric. I work every day with organizations that have grand ideals and lofty visions for their work without consulting the reality of meeting all people where they are. If we aren’t willing to authentically engage with all of our stakeholders, we run the risky of preaching instead of leading – and our work suffers if we leave community leaders behind, even when we are working to broaden the equity of that leadership.

  15. Theresa Nelson

    Some very thoughtful points, but maybe being overly donor-centric is not the real issue. In thanking donors and telling them about the impact of their gifts, we are –
    or at least should be – connecting them to the community who benefits. It should not be a quid-pro-quo of lots of donor goodies for giving. The fact that an increasing percentage of donors people don’t want benefits for their gifts reminds us of this. As to telling donors about the impact of their gifts. you can turn the overhead myth on its head by including the real costs of sending that kid to camp, fully loaded with overhead. not juts the direct costs. That’s reality, and a good place to start sharing the truth with donors. Ultimately, most donors would prefer the truth, I think.

  16. David Turner

    This was great—thank you! Two related points that come to mind:

    a) The flip-side of making donors into heroes is that we miss out on (or even seem to deny) the agency and resilience of the people our programs exist for—that sounds like a crummy idea when you’re trying to inspire donors as partners, but it also just isn’t right.

    b) When it’s taken to its extreme (I’ve seen it, and it isn’t pretty) donor-centrism demands an influential seat at the program planning table, in the same way marketers in the private sector want a seat at the product development table. I understand why they do, but in our sector, there are often very good reasons why our programs are the way they are instead of a more donor-friendly alternative. I’m grateful to work for an organization that does some of what it does even though it doesn’t make for the most donor-friendly model. When we allow fundraisers the same voice as project participants in our program planning, we all end up with child sponsorship programs.

  17. Jason

    I agree that making donors out to be heroes can be harmful (both to them and the organization), however I’m not sure that all of what you described falls into that category.

    I’m thinking about when we tell a donor “thanks to you, X many people have food, Y people are housed, etc”. I get that it can seem as though it’s inflating a donor’s ego, but I really see it as making a direct connection between the donor and the work being done. I actually wonder if doing this breaks down some of the barriers that you’re concerned about. Put another way, I’m hesitant to say “thank you for supporting us so we can feed X people”. With that said, I think it’s important to put that in the context, and tell the donor “When you feed X people you build a stronger community that will benefit all of us because of Y and Z reasons”. I guess to me donor-centric fundraising isn’t just making the donor a hero and stopping there, it’s connecting the donor with the mission and making them see how the work of the nonprofit impact them (even if it’s indirect).

    With all of that said, I’m interested in hearing your views of community centric fundraising. I work as an MGO for a larger organization, so to be sure when I meet with a donor I am promoting one organization, but at the same time I take great care to never disparage other orgs (and in fact frequently reference other places I know that do similar work). However, to be blunt, while I recognize the harmful effects this can have on smaller orgs who can’t hire MGOs, I really can’t say that I’m going to stop promoting/advocating for my organization when I meet with donors because it’s my organization that’s paying me.

    I don’t say all of that because I disagree with everything you said… I think you raise a lot of very valid points, and I’m very interested in reading your follow-up. I just think that to me, without seeing your other end, it seems to go against what does work in fundraising, which I’m hesitant to sign onto.

  18. Rhiannon Orizaga

    From the perspective of someone who gives to various nonprofits (not a lot but what I can), I think it’s most inspiring to hear them talk about the people they serve and what they’re getting out of it. I don’t need a thank you card, but I love getting a newsletter update of what’s happening. Best of all is when the language empowers clients (vs diminishing them). I think that’s one way to build a relationship and a donor’s sense of investment in a cause.

  19. Seth Ehrlich

    Vu, you continue to be spot on with your insights. Your line about the difference between for-profit and non-profit reinforces that nonprofits are messy and really difficult. We need to continue to come back to the needs of the community and how the mission of the organization can address those needs.

  20. Jen Beatty

    So much to think about here. (After many, many years on the fundraising side,) I am new to the FUNDER side of things and work for a local family foundation. At the end of the day, it IS the donor making the choice to say “yes” to this and “no” to that. I wonder how I can incorporate these ideas and thoughts into the work I do every day and how I can help shepherd the (very generous and thoughtful) family I work for towards these ideas. I will definitely stay tuned.

    Thanks for helping me start my Monday in a very mindful way!

  21. Denice Rothman Hinden

    Thank you Vu for this incredible thought provoking piece. What I so appreciate about this is the care and candor with which you ask these important questions. I am anxious to bring this post to our Social Impact Coaching Community of Practice for future discussion. I will gladly share our thoughts!

  22. Anne Hoyt Taff

    Vu – thank you for putting this together. I think about these concepts a lot and work to minimize them in my own fundraising approach. So grateful to have this piece and this community to back me up when I share my “radical” ideas about perpetuating problematic money/power dynamics. Please let me know if you and your colleagues need any help crafting your community-centric model.

  23. Stella St Page

    These are the things that keep me up at night. We know that the 4-page letter with multiple envelopes is the most effective fundraising package. But how much paper do we have to waste, how much money on postage do we have to spend, to raise that money? Is it worth it?

  24. Suzanne

    This is the best piece about fundraising I’ve read in a long time–and I’ve been in the field for 23 years. I’ve always believed that every gift is important, and those $10 a month for 20 years donors are just as valuable, if not more so, as the one-time “major” donor who gives because she went to an event. Unfortunately, our current system of donor worship is the expected and often demanded norm. I will never forget a tirade by a major donor to a school for at-risk students, where I was CDO, when he discovered that a senior had been accepted at the Seven Sisters college his wife had attended. Although his generosity had contributed to great outcomes for needy students, our kids weren’t supposed to go to schools like that. It broke an invisible wall for him; he was truly mortified. For me, I began to think about how our system creates inequities by focusing resources on the charities that donors choose to support for any number of reasons, but usually because their friends are involved, rather than our doing the hard work of strategically creating a society that benefits all.

    Keep posting, Vu, because people need to hear what you have to say so very eloquently.

  25. Diane Freaney

    Vu – this is brilliant. You have covered everything I have needed to hear.

    As a donor – it pisses me off to have an organization wastes time and money and paper sending a thank you note for a gift. Bad for the environment. Bad karma for my soul. I support organizations based on shared values. It offends me to get an award or a thank you note.

    IMHO the whole non-profit industry has outlived its usefulness. Today most states have Benefits Companies – in Oregon, we have Oregon Benefits Companies. Oregon Benefits Companies are taxable entities – if the Company makes a profit, the Company pays taxes. But guess what – a profit is totally under the control of the Company. If the Company wants to make less profit, the Company can put more money back into the community – by sponsoring events that are accessible to everyone (free), providing product to community projects and events, paying for local art and so much more.

    If a donor “has to give money away” to reduce taxes. the donor can reduce income by providing mortgages at ZERO interest to local families or “start up loans” that never need to be repaid. Or ZERO interest student loans to local students. Or repairs to a senior’s home, allowing them to afford to stay in their home. What is your favorite way to support our community?

    1. Carol Clarke

      This post is most interesting. Question for you Diane: what would you rather receive than a hand-written note? It’s one of the things I’m best at, the cards are always personalized and well received. However, I’m more than willing to embrace new ways to demonstrate gratitude to donors. Thanks in advance.

  26. Pete Noll

    My first thought, is to truly appreciate that this article is an invitation for dialogue Plus, I applaud the chops 100%!

    I also love the comment section. It gets to the fun and hard stuff about how do we respond to calls of challenge to the system (obv. there are 1,000s of pioneers), creating a radically different one or do we try to steward this shit storm to a soft landing.

    I sure as hecks don’t know. But I think, when leaders throw out that possible higher calling, the approach to donor centric v. community centric (or I would say, community-based centic), it motivates me more to envision my role in his complex eco-system, always mindful that I, nor anybody, really knows much,

  27. Jill

    I appreciate this article from both the perspective of having run a nonprofit and from being a donor. I worked for years helping to create a Buddhist monastery, which by its values, doesn’t fundraise but instead continues to freely offer teaching, retreats, and spiritual support to people. It has done very well just allowing people to offer what they can, when they can and not focusing on money.
    Recently, I sold my house in CA and retired in Seattle. I made more $ on my house than expected so in addition to making a donation to the monastery, I made several large (to me) donations to a variety of organizations and I included a note saying this was a one time donation (and explaining why) and to please not put me on fundraising lists or mailing lists because I didn’t want them to spend their money on trying to get me to make another donation. Some did and some didn’t, and I don’t donate when I am feeling harassed for money (for instance, some turned around and sent me a plea almost immediately for more money). I didn’t expect handwritten notes or gadgets etc. and certainly don’t need to be treated like a hero. (In fact, some of this makes me suspicious that they are too focused on getting money rather than their mission.)
    I LOVE reading about the the nonprofits I supported in the newspaper or getting short email newsletters from them. I appreciate being able to offer support, even though it’s a lot less now that I’m on a fixed income, and still dislike having it extracted from me through endless requests which make me feel like an ATM that’s gone dry.
    I am really interested in learning about community-centric fundraising!

  28. Carol Clarke

    “It’s exhausting emotionally and spiritually to constantly have to ask the people who may not be aware that they benefit from injustice to contribute to help end it.”

    Vu, one of your most powerful pieces, ever. Thank you.

  29. Alex

    This article was hard for me to read. I really agreed with parts of it, and disagreed with other parts. I disagree with the general idea that our donors need to recognize their contributions to systemic injustice because I feel like that is lately tied to political affiliation. People who don’t recognize their “contributions to systemic injustice” can still do a lot of good for the community without seeing the world through that lens. I don’t want our industry to alienate those people– many of whom do a lot and give a lot to help the community. Who are we to promote the way that our donors should look at the world?

    I feel like there is a middle ground. I believe that we cannot deny human psychology and that people want to feel good when they give. I do think we can share with them the impact of their gift, and include the cost of overhead in that sharing. I think we can have honest conversations with donors about the struggles of our organizations and our communities. I absolutely believe that donors shouldn’t sway how we operate our programs–unless it’s really a good idea. I think we can make them a hero and also talk about how they benefit from their gift too as a member of the community they are giving to. Essentially, I think we can do donor-centric without the clients as “other” element or the “crowding out voices of people served” that are worrisome.

  30. Christa Mazzone Palmberg

    Thank you, Vu, for this powerful and thought-provoking post. Your critique brings into clear focus for me the way our current fundraising practices support white supremacy given than the vast majority of donors around whom we’re centering our work are white. It seems to me our overall work of undoing racism and de-centering the white experience is parallel to the work you lay out before us of de-centering donors from the central focus of our fundraising work. Thank you for this post and the many others that challenge and encourage.

  31. Danielle Kempe

    Wow Vu.

    I started reading the post as a bit of a skeptic, but you make some great points.

    I think it’s a case of doing anything without intention can be a slippery slope.

    It’s tough to think about, since I’m a fundraiser, and I want to do what works to raise the most money.

    You’re right though, that we don’t think of the savior complex we’re setting up.

  32. Mijo

    Hey Vu, thanks for writing this, it is such an important discussion! And thanks for the shout out to SJF. <3 I agree with almost everything you've written here but I think you go with to broad of a brush on some of it.

    For example, I agree that telling donors they're superheroes is really problematic and entrench a lot of racism/classism. But that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with "you" language. "You are part of this movement," "You help shape the future of funding the movement in the Northwest," "You understand the importance of funding this work," are the types of "you" statements we use. I don't see how that would entrench racism/classism (tho I am open to critique of course). I don't think "you" language is problematic at all — I think everyone likes to be spoken to directly and feel personally included, that just makes sense — it's just how you use it.

    I also think there's a big difference between “Your $1,000 helped 10 kids go to summer camp” and “your $50 bought 20 containers of hummus and five pounds of baby carrots for our preschoolers." The first one is true and includes overhead. The second one is untrue and reinforces the overhead myth. There's nothing wrong with explaining impact. It feels good to know you've had an impact, whether you gave $10 or $10k. We just have to educate donors correctly in the process.

    To me it boils down to respect. We should respect our donors enough to get to know them as people and appreciate them. We should also respect them enough to treat them like adults, have grown up conversations with them, tell them things they might not love to hear.

    And still, it's messy AF. Because money is messy AF in our society. And this — "It’s exhausting emotionally and spiritually to constantly have to ask the people who may not be aware that they benefit from injustice to contribute to help end it."– is the real realness.

    1. Christa Mazzone Palmberg

      Thanks for the critique, Mijo. A helpful contribution to the conversation. Appreciate the work you and SJF do!

  33. Melissa

    I worked on the programmatic side of a non-profit that focused on donor cultivation and private events, rather than community engagement or direct service delivery. You can imagine how much programming I was allowed to do. While I loved being a part of a mission-driven organization that sought to create societal change through awareness, we failed to serve the very people whose stories drove our organizations’ work. This is partly my own personal opinion, but several individuals affected by these issues had approached me asking this very same thing. They had a desire to connect, also believing in our mission, but were referred to national hotlines and other service providers. I’m a social worker with 19 years of experience in non-profits, and up until this experience I had never had to turn folks away so we could focus on keeping our donors happy.

  34. Lydia P

    Thank you for this. Also, ducks should not eat bread, it’s really not good for them. (I may or may not work for a bird-focused npo.)

  35. Kate Sundquist Atkins

    If you need any additional minds to work on what a community-centric fundraising model would look like let me know!

  36. Mary Cahalane

    Vu, there’s so much I want to say that I wrote a post for next week. It’s long. (Sorry).

    But the simplest response is that I think we might be working with differing definitions here.

    I love small organizations. I love the donors who stretch to give $10. There is so much meaning there! So while fundraising can easily get lost in counting and measuring, good fundraising is about connection. Mission and donor, problem and solution, people who care with each other.

    More next Tuesday… but thank you for such an in-depth conversation!

  37. Diana Boeke

    Sign me up! 100% on board with you. Been swimming against the current on this for years. Nice to find a buddy who can articulate the issue so well. You are right. We infantilize donors as much as we do clients. I trust that donors will appreciate truth, and be honored by the trust and insider knowledge-sharing when we take time to educate and​ build real community.

  38. Christine Jeffers

    This is a very thought provoking post.

    I think that if all nonprofits were created equal and started on equal footing with the same resources that maybe some of what you write would make sense and could be applicable. but we don’t live in that world and I know you recognize that.

    Each organization is free to define what a major donor is to them. For some organizations it is all of their donors, for some it is donors who give anywhere on a scale of $ 25 to $100,000. All gifts and all donors deserve to be treated with respect. That’s why we have the Donor Bill of Rights. Unfortunately not all donors are treated with respect.

    Transactional philanthropy may very well be perpetuating the overhead myth. But I don’t know many $25 dollar donors who want to give nonprofits money to pay the electric bill. Because the mission is not about the electric bill or the rent. Donors want to support the mission. It’s up to creative fundraisers to demonstrate how overhead is fulfilling the mission.

    What truly perpetuates the nonprofit hunger games are leaders who are not open to change, growth, partnerships and innovation. Founders who wouldn’t know how to get out of the way even if a speeding train was heading straight for them. And communities that are not having the right conversations.

    I love heroes. Guess that started when I was 9 years old and watched my father rush into a burning building to save someone. Heroes give us hope. They set the bar higher. They accomplish things that make us forget we are mere mortals. And yes donors are heroes. So are the clients and communities we serve.

    The “other” mindset is destructive. The only way around that is to create more empathy in our workplaces, our visions, our communities and our organizations.

    I think there is a way for nonprofits to show more love towards their donors and not create systemic injustice. No one ever said you can’t be truthful and honest with your donors.

    I have a hard time believing that anything involving love can be bad.

    Unfortunately your post has only made me want to recognize and spread more donor love. I think we all could use more love.

    1. Pamela Grow

      I love this comment – and you for writing it, Christine. As a consultant and a trainer, I teach donor-focused systems to sustainable fundraising success for small to mid-sized nonprofits. And as a (very frequent) donor, I can attest to the fact that stewardship and any kind of impact reporting is sadly lacking in our sector. While the post itself does not give a clear definition of donor-centricity (part of the problem I’m experiencing with it), I’m utterly dismayed by many of the comments here. “Coddling??” “Infantilizing donors???”

      Of course transparency and honesty factors in. I just posted a marvelous example:

      Love is always the answer.

      1. Christine Jeffers

        Thanks Pamela. I know love is the answer. It’s the basis for my consulting practice in Silicon Valley. And you are right. So many organizations that still haven’t embraced it. But the ones that have are thriving.

        1. Pamela Grow

          And it is the basis for all my work and trainings. The organizations that have embraced it – and made a true organization-wide commitment (that is key) – thrive. Your donors absolutely share your passion for changing the world. Your job is to tap into that passion.

    2. Shirley Banks

      “But I don’t know many $25 dollar donors who want to give nonprofits money to pay the electric bill.”

      The $25 donors (or $10 donors like me) may in fact be acutely aware that their contribution goes toward the electric bill. That amount of money is a big deal in our lives, and we know the electric bill isn’t optional.

  39. Jen Love

    Yes to vigorous conversations! As someone who writes passionately about both #donorlove and equity, I found some of this post challenging. But I also do not believe there is a wrong way to reflect on what donor love means to you as a donor or a fundraiser. Just remember that what you like or need isn’t necessarily what your donor likes or needs. More conversations! There is also no wrong way to explore and consider privilege and equity in the charities where you work or where you give. Again, more conversations! Thanks Vu.

  40. Elizabeth Seja Min

    Really appreciate this discussion! As someone interested in archetypes, I’ve always wondered about the donor as Hero as it seems limiting. And exactly what part of the archetypal Hero’s Journey is advanced with donorship?

    Jung’s 12 archetypes include Hero, which has goal of “expert mastery in a way that improves the world” whereas Caregiver’s goal is “to help others” and Explorer’s is “to experience an authentic, fulfilling life.” Rebel’s is “to overturn what isn’t working” and Creator’s is “to realize a vision.” Sage uses analysis to understand the world, and Magician wants to make dreams come true.

    There’s so much out there about archetypes. Given the complexities of our communities and movements, and securing the resources to finance our organizations within, including our strategic alliances with donors and partners — I find donor as Hero only one way to think about it. Not a one size fits all situation.

  41. Dan Hanley

    As one who loves donor-centered fundraising and leadership, this was a fantastic read. I’m glad to see that as a fundraising community there are many who are ready to go beyond treating donors right. The main reason I fell in love with DC fundraising was that so many non-profits had no clue how to treat donors and the DC way provided a starting point for those who truly wanted to partner with donors and not treat them as an afterthought.

  42. Nick Ellinger

    On the issue of racial justice, you might be interested in a study of The microloan site has one of the more donorcentric (donors pick exactly what projects to fund) and transactional (it’s for a specific project and it’s a loan) models. The study is at and it finds that people are more likely to fund a project for people who are more attractive, lighter-skinned, and less obese.

  43. Tara DeRosa

    I just read this twice. For months now I have been struggling with the dichotomy between those we serve and those who support our work; about what this means for fundraising; about the person I often feel I have to be at work; about why the trench between my development department and the rest of the agency gets wider every day. While this post didn’t answer all my questions, it certainly gave me some context for everything I have been struggling with. Thanks for initiating the discussion of a very sensitive, probably contentious, topic. It’s about time someone did.

  44. Justice Seeker

    Great post. I’ve been working for my organization for a little over 3 years now and you hit on a lot of the tensions I’ve picked up on. Keep up the great work. We need leaders who are constantly asking the question “how do we put/keep the poor and marginalized at the center?”

  45. Ryan McConnell

    It depends on whether you care more about real, honest to goodness change in people’s lives, or spending your time trying to make a point.

    I help fundraise for a local homeless shelter. I know that for every $25,000 we raise we can put another bed in for a year. In my mind, a donor who gives $25,000 *IS* a hero. They could have used that money for a fancy vacation or a year of private school for their kid, but instead they provided 365 nights in a warm bed, with hot meals, and clean bathrooms, plus additional services, for the homeless people in our town. Isn’t that the definition of a hero?

    Of course, I could instead spend my time talking about how it’s not fair that the homeless person isn’t the hero, or about how the people in our community who can’t donate $25,000 should be made to feel like heroes, or how there aren’t enough people of color who can donate $25,000 in our town… but you know who doesn’t care about all of that? The homeless woman standing at my door, right now, who I have to turn away because we don’t have any additional beds tonight.

    Decide what matters most, and act accordingly.

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