Fundraising experts: Enough with the donor sycophancy!

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Today, please grab your favorite beverages and snacks and get ready for a rant. Recently, a fundraising expert posted a post on LinkedIn, written in the the perspective of a jaded, exasperated donor, chastising nonprofits for how they treat donors. Excerpt from this post:

Why are you so incurious about me, about where I came from, what forces shaped me and what differences I seek to make? Why, when you do respond, is in with forms and templates. Why do I feel you’re just checking boxes? Gift receipt: check. Thank you (now AI generated): check. Annual report: check. Why do you assume that is all I want? […] I am philanthropy. I am weary of knocking on non-responsive, hollow or narrowly creaked open doors. I have resolved to knock on fewer, to be more careful where I lay my tokens, to put more stipulations on my giving and to be more explicit about your accountabilities to me.”

He did end with a poetic flourish: “I have become what you taught me to be.”

Other colleagues in the thread tended to agree. One, for example, wrote: “The best advice I have received as a new ED of a young nonprofit is to never take funders for granted. Put in the time to follow up with a call or write a personal note of gratitude, sharing the stories that were made possible through their generosity. If you truly believe in the mission, you have gratitude for those that make the work possible.”

All right, let’s dive into this. For decades now, the fundraising experts of our sector have rallied around this philosophy of appeasing to donors, ensuring they feel seen and valued and even “loved.” Despite the progress of movements like Community-Centric Fundraising, it is still a very persistent philosophy. It manifests itself in various ways, from workshops on how to “engage” donors better, to donors feeling upset because they ONLY received a form letter instead of a handwritten note, to the various development pundits wagging their fingers at the inept, thoughtless nonprofit leaders who fail to put their donors on pedestals and wash their feet.

Yes, I know there are tons of nonprofits and nonprofit leaders who suck. Those who fail to follow-through on acknowledgements, who aren’t transparent in their information, who aren’t very communicative, who even have disdain for donors. There was even one nonprofit leader who punched a donor in the face and screamed “Pay more taxes!” (But I apologized, and now we’re friends.)

But amidst all this, we haven’t taken time to acknowledge that traditional fundraising philosophies and practices have started warping people’s perspective of nonprofit work and turned it basically into retail. Instead of us as a community trying to work together to solve entrenched issues like homelessness, poverty, racism, child abuse, climate change, etc., we’ve all become like retail shops. Like we’re all a bunch of gyms competing for members, and those of us with the best customer service get more clients and money, and customers who are disgruntled can leave angry reviews warning others to stay away.

Decades of this pervasive “nonprofit as retail shops competing for customers” philosophy have caused significant damage to our work. It’s dulled our sense of urgency. It’s shifted our priorities from solving challenges and sunsetting, into self-preservation and a continuation of the inequities we’re proclaiming to fight. We need to recenter our perspective because we’ve strayed way too far.

Imagine you’re a resident of a small village. One night, a house catches on fire. The fire starts spreading, and more houses are going up in flames. You and the other villagers gather buckets, shovels, and other tools. Those who are experienced in fighting fires direct others on what to do. People contribute water from their well and rain barrels or whatever they have, using buckets to try to put out the fires. Others run into the building to help people trapped inside to escape, while a few provide first-aid to the injured, and yet others provide comfort and assistance to children who can’t find their parents. Everyone works together to put out the fires. It’s successful. The whole village now spends time trying to rebuild. Neighbors pitch in to help those who lost their houses.

Now, imagine the same scenario, but with the retail approach we’ve hammered into how we do fundraising. As the fire spreads throughout the village, people gather to put it out. However, a few people with water to contribute watch with suspicion to see which person trying to put out the fire gives them the most attention and makes them feel most special. The people who are experienced at putting out the fires and directing other people are expected to write thank-you notes and make phone calls whenever they get a bucket of water. If they are not thankful enough, they may not get enough water. The folks with medical expertise helping with the injured with burns and smoke inhalation don’t have ointments and band-aids, so they ask around for them. “I’m sorry,” says someone, “I gave you some band-aids last time there was a huge fire that burned people, and it took you two whole months before I got a phone call to thank me!”

A whole group of people start giving advice to the exhausted folks trying to put out the fire, on how to get the villagers who have water to part with this precious resource. On the community board, one of these experts posts this message:

“Why are you so incurious about me and what kind of role I would like to play in putting out the fires? Why do you not want to know what happened in my childhood that causes me to prefer to give only to those using wooden and not metal buckets? Why, when you respond to my questions about where my water is being splashed, and my preference for how the splashing to be done, it is with brusqueness, as if you had something more important to do? I am weary of being pushed aside when I gave nearly ten gallons of water. I have resolved to help put out fewer fires, to put more stipulations on the buckets of water I contribute, and to be more explicit about your accountabilities to me when you’re out there trying to save houses from burning. I have become bitterness incarnate, and it’s all your fault!”

I would like all these fundraising experts to look around them. Everything is burning down. Many of the issues we’ve been tackling have worsened significantly. The earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. The basic rights our predecessors fought for—reproductive rights, voting, marriage equality, etc.—are quickly being reversed while fascism expands exponentially. And our democracy teeters on the edge of collapse as our governments not only condone genocide but supply funds, weapons, and diplomatic cover to those who are committing it. We as a sector are not a strip mall with different shops to appeal to the whims and passing interests of potential customers. We are dealing with existential threats. We no longer have time for the tap dancing and charades you have taught as fundraising best-practices.

If you are fundraising expert and you don’t see it, if you don’t recognize the urgency and seriousness of what we as a sector and society are facing, if you are focused on the egos and feelings of donors and whether they are thanked enough or given enough attention when everything is on fire and those fires disproportionately affect the most marginalized by race and gender and disability, then you are protected by multiple layers of privilege. And your privilege needs to be examined and mitigated for, because your teachings and ponderings are not innocuous. When the entire village is on fire, it is already difficult enough to try to put it out without people bitching about whether they got thanked enough or treated special enough for contributing a bucket of water.

I will end here with this: I, like most of my colleagues, am too a donor. I contribute to many organizations that I care about. I contribute because I believe in the importance of their work and because I do not have the expertise to do that work myself, so I donate when I can. I know these organizations and leaders are facing challenges and barriers in every direction as they try to make our community better, a community my kids and I live in.

If I donate to you, it is with a spirit of deep appreciation for your work. It is with the understanding, from personal experience, of the uphill battles you face, ones that often require you to sacrifice your physical and mental health, your standard of living, your time with your family, your future well-being. You do not need to call to thank me. You do not need to write me handwritten notes. I am more than happy with a form letter, or no letter at all. I am happy to know you’re using your time to make our community better, and I hope you can find rest when you need it.

You do not need to be curious about who I am. You don’t even need to remember my name or my face or what made me decide at that moment to donate to you. When everything is burning down, knowing that you are out there trying your hardest to put out the fires, it gives me hope and it makes me proud that we exist together in community. Please do your work, and rest when you can, knowing that you have my full gratitude and the understanding that you have more important things to do than worry about my ego.