8 donor-related philosophies and terminologies we need to change or abolish

[Two brownish-grey bunnies, standing on a blue blanket, looking nonchalant. Image by irmelinis on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. I just found out, thanks to messages from several of you, that email notices of new blog posts have been sent out to very few people since the beginning of January. I had just assumed the sudden sharp decrease in traffic was because a lot of people hated me. But now, I know it’s because a lot of people hated me AND because of tech issues. Thank you for your patience while the problem is being resolved. In the meantime, there’s a new blog post every Tuesday, so please create a recurring appointment on your calendar called “latest NonprofitAF masterpiece drops.”

This week, we talk about a few philosophies and terminologies related to donors. As a field that is dependent on the largesse (and sometimes smallgesse and mediumgesse) of donors, we’ve developed our own mental models and language around them. As our practices advance and evolve, thanks to movements like Community-Centric Fundraising, we need to examine what still works and what needs to be changed or phased out completely.

Read more: 8 donor-related philosophies and terminologies we need to change or abolish

Think about the “donor pyramid,” for example. Remember when we couldn’t go to a fundraising conference without hearing some mention of the Pyramid? Now we hardly hear about it at all, probably because there’s general agreement that it sucks. Which is too bad, because it always conjured for me a cheerleader-like pyramid composed of donors, standing on one another’s shoulders, maybe holding pom-poms, forming a human triangle, which was a fun image to have.

Below, in no particular order, are a few other things I think we need to reconsider. As usual, this is just my opinion, though some of it may be blasphemous and cause some of you to be very vexed. Please feel free to disagree and add to the discussion.

1.Donor intent: The wishes of donors is something we’ve been trained to hold sacred. But there are some serious issues around it. In general, usually donors have less expertise in addressing the problems they’re donating to nonprofits to address, so it makes little sense that we prioritize their intent so highly. And donors who are now in the Great Country Club in the Sky, I’m sure many of them were lovely people, but why should they be allowed to control things from beyond the grave, especially as their intents don’t evolve with the times and the needs of the community and thus often becomes more and more irrelevant and possibly nonsensical? “This fund is only to be used to help children escape the life of chimney sweeping by training them to be cobblers.”

2.Donor engagement: It can be great when donors are fully engaged with nonprofits and are present and helpful. But “donor engagement” has often been warped into this philosophy that donors deserve to be entertained and to receive meaning in exchange for their donations, with terrible consequences, such as donors being involved in things they have no expertise on. The more we train donors to think they deserve to be involved, the more they expect it. How much time should we spend “engaging” donors when there are so many issues that need nonprofits’ attention. As a donor myself, I would rather the nonprofits I donate to focus their attention on meeting their missions than to show me a good time.

3.Donor as hero: Maybe because it “works” to bring in money when we lavish praise on donors and center them in the narrative in the fight against injustice. But it’s problematic for many reasons, including allowing donors and everyone to gloss over the inequitable origin of a lot of wealth (slavery, stolen Indigenous land, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, tax avoidance, colonization, imperialism, etc.). It also reinforces this individualistic savior mindset when what we need to address injustice is a collective, communal way of thinking. So, let’s stop saying we should treat donors like heroes. In fact, let’s just stop it with the hero narrative altogether. Contributing to making the world better does not make anyone a “hero;” it’s the baseline for being a decent human being and community member.   

4.Donor passion: “Our job as fundraisers is to connect our donors to what they’re passionate about.” This is a refrain we hear all the time. As I wrote in “White supremacy and the problem with centering donors’ interests and emotions”,” donors can be great, but what they care about and what is needed to achieve equity and justice often do not align, especially when most donors are white and privileged and often don’t have an equity lens. This is why certain causes get a lot of support, while others barely get a few cents on the dollar, even if the latter are more urgent. “I know democracy is in peril and abortion rights have been gutted, but my passion is horses!” Like with donor intent, we need to stop thinking of donor passion as some sort of sacred and immutable factor we can’t influence. Nonprofit leaders need to do their jobs, which includes educating people on the issues they’re trying to address, and not simply contort their work to meet donors’ whims and passions.  

5.Donor as customer: I’ve seen a few posts from fundraising experts recommending think of and treating donors as “customers” of nonprofits. This is a cynical framework grounded in capitalism, a force undergirding almost all the societal problems we’re trying to fix. It’s rife with issues, among them this philosophy that “the customer is always right,” which is erroneous, as a lot of customers—and donors—are complete assholes. Worse, though, the “donor as customer” philosophy reinforces a transactional mindset where nonprofits are there to “serve” donors, instead of what we need right now, which is everyone—donors, staff, volunteer, funders, boards, clients, etc.—all working together collectively to solve entrenched issues affecting all of us.  

6.Major donor: The idea of “major” donor, just like the idea of “high net-worth individuals,” is grounded in how much people donate, with the higher the amount, the more “major” they are. This has conditioned our sector to treat better and with more deference those with more money. Which leads to all sorts of problems, including concentrating power and influence among folks with wealth. It’s past time to redefine “major donor,” because people with lower incomes—such as students, retired people, children, unemployed people—who give $20, for example, should be considered as much if not more generous than a multi-millionaire who gives $5,000. But maybe it’s time to phase out this term and framework completely and treat every donor of any amount equally.

7.Donor wall: Along with phasing out “major donor,” we should reconsider how we recognize donors. Right now, those who give more money tend to get more recognition, such as their names being listed more prominently in annual reports, they get special titles based on the level they give, and they get immortalized physically through things like donor walls. Again, we need to think about how this trains not just the donors to behave, but also how we perceive them. I’m not opposed to a wall of names, or a garden path of bricks with names or whatever, but it should include everyone who contributed to an org or a project’s success: not just “smaller” donors, but staff, volunteers, board members, etc. After all, without these folks, nothing would have gotten done.

8.Donor love: This basically encompasses everything that’s problematic above into a single gross term and concept. I am not sure the term “love” should be applied anywhere in our sector, except as a grand encompassing sense of love for humanity and community, the way that MLK imagined it. To apply it to any single group, whether they are staff or leadership or donors, makes it weird and reinforces sycophantic dynamics. So let’s knock it off. And we can also cut out related terminologies and philosophies like “dating” or “courting” donors, too, because ew.

Let me know your thoughts. And if there are other donor-related stuff we need to reconsider. As our field evolves, so should the terms and concepts we use. If you’re still using any of the above, discuss with your team what they actually mean within the context of your or your org’s work, and whether it’s time to change things up a bit.

Please continue speaking up for a permanent ceasefire and a free Palestine