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Beyond "Donor-Centric:" The Risks Of Overemphasis On External Partners

donor-centric fundraising
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve inevitably encountered the phrase “donor-centric” in the context of nonprofit fundraising. Apart from being one of the most ironic terms in the business—shouldn’t every organization that relies on funding from donors be focused on…donors?—its meaning has gone from revolutionary to hackneyed in no time flat.

If you HAVE been living under a rock, donor-centric fundraising prioritizes the needs and wants of donors in the delicate dance of moves from prospect to lifelong supporter. Instead of showing up with a generic prospectus and expecting a large gift, fundraisers employ donor-centric tactics behind the scenes (deeper prospect research, more deliberate portfolio tiering based on donor engagement) and during the cultivation and solicitation process (learning more about communication preferences, crafting proposals that speak directly to an individual donor’s particular desires). The concept is sound; both donors and the organizations they support benefit from an emphasis on authentic relationship-building and a focus on donors’ needs.

But being vocally and logistically donor-centric poses risks to nonprofits, too. Or, rather, going overboard with donor-centricity, at the expense of internal harmony and the organization’s people, is potentially problematic. In their efforts to appeal more meaningfully to donors, nonprofits should be aware of the following situations in which donor-centric fundraising can cause more problems than it solves.

1. Harassment by donors.

In news that should surprise nobody, even nonprofits are susceptible to the toxic influence of external bad actors. Virtually every nonprofit fundraiser I know, especially women and persons of color, has experienced harassment from donors, including gender bias, unwanted sexual advances, and racial animus. A general rule for organizations to follow seems obvious: If a donor harasses a member of the staff, then that donor is no longer welcome to participate in the mission, financially or otherwise. But often the pull of donor funds—disguised as donor-centricity and catering to a donor’s needs—outweighs the objective right thing to do.

I have seen firsthand the chilling and dehumanizing effects of donor harassment reported, but unchecked, in furtherance of giving donors the benefit of the doubt. The effects are staggering and disastrous, and the message is that a donor’s bad behavior is excusable as long as their checks clear. This may seem like an extreme example, but blind preference for donors’ needs, wants, and whims happens frequently, and the results are disastrous.

Addressing harassment by donors is painful but necessary, and it should be pretty linear: If a donor harasses a member of the staff/board/team, then that person, and possibly the organization they represent, is no longer welcome to give, volunteer, or work with the nonprofit. In practice, that’s a tough line to draw, and even more difficult as the related amount of gifts goes up. It’s one thing to dismiss a $100 annual fund donor; walking away from a five-, six-, or seven-figure individual or corporate gift is a more intimidating prospect, but still necessary.

2. Misalignment between donors’ values and nonprofits’ missions.

Not every conflict between donors and the nonprofits they support is as obvious or grave as when a donor harasses or abuses a staff member. Sometimes the match between a donor’s needs and an organization’s missions doesn’t align, whether due to a misunderstanding on the donor’s part of the underlying mission and programming, or an evolution of the mission itself that no longer aligns with the donor’s values.

A real-life example: Major gifts officer Crew, in consultation with the director of major gifts at a large regional nonprofit, identified the Smiths as a top prospect for a transformational gift proposal for the nonprofit’s upcoming campaign. Mr. and Mrs. Smith were, on paper, some of the organization’s most highly-engaged donors: making five-figure, unrestricted annual gifts for more than 20 years; historically willing to take calls from fundraising staff; and making multiple gifts outside their annual commitment in the previous five years.

Crew arranged a meeting with the Smiths to check in and request permission to schedule a follow-up meeting within the next 12-18 months to present them with a proposal. Up until the last five minutes of the meeting, everything seemed great, but then Mr. Smith asked, “Why don’t we see any white people in your marketing materials lately? Doesn’t Organization X serve working class white people anymore?” Crew was surprised considering the organization’s major marketing and mission communications angle for the last few years had focused on racial equity, specifically providing opportunities for populations of color.

To Crew’s further surprise, Mr. Smith went on: Not only did he and his wife want to see more white faces, but they were also concerned that Organization X was engaged in “reverse racism” (which I put in quotes because that’s an entirely imaginary concept and also because those are the exact words Mr. Smith used). In that brief end-of-meeting window, the whole tone of the conversation reversed, and Mr. Smith grew increasingly agitated and insistent that he didn’t want his dollars funding grantees that “play the race card.” Crew wrapped up the meeting without engaging with the last question, and promptly called his supervisor to strategize. His question: Should they reconsider the upcoming proposal, despite the on-paper donor engagement, because the Smiths’ values and Organization X’s values didn’t align anymore?

At this point in the funder-nonprofit relationship, in the wake of such a profound fracture in values and mission alignment, organizations that consider donor-centricity sacrosanct will often make the wrong decision and continue to pursue gifts from donors whose espoused values simply do not match up with organizational ethos. That not only undermines the mission itself, but it also does a disservice to the donors, whose needs and wants seem to be a top priority for the organization.

3. Overlooking internal culture and staff needs.

Donor-centric fundraising can often turn into the nonprofit equivalent of “the customer is always right.” The latter, a foundation of client-focused customer service in the private sector, has itself bumped up against the question of whose needs and voices matter in a situation that pits customers against employees. Certainly, high-quality customer service is critical, but what about when a customer or client abuses an employee? Even more nuanced, too, is when hyperfocus on customers jeopardizes employee wellbeing and team integrity because a company is too invested in maintaining clients than upholding its staff members’ values.

The same risk is very real in nonprofits. The example outlined in #2 above, taken to its unfortunately common conclusion (i.e., keep pursuing the donors, even though their values clash with the organization’s mission), can lead to internal turmoil and feelings among staff that their employer is more interested in money—no matter what the source—than integrity. The cognitive dissonance between a nonprofit’s mission and a base of donors whose individual philosophies actually undermine that mission can be maddening and can destroy internal morale.

Equally dangerous is when a nonprofit deploys its limited resources disproportionately in outward-facing activities like fundraising in the name of absolute donor-centricity, rather than working to build and maintain an authentic, values-aligned internal structure. This, too, can result in an intractable conflict between the organization’s public face and its inner workings, to the detriment of committed employees. For example, if a nonprofit outwardly commits to deep anti-racist work and spends its time crafting elaborate donor-facing materials touting its efforts, but does not itself invest in dedicated internal DEI work, HR professionals with integrity and sensitivity to diverse populations’ needs, and a constant commitment to creating a healthy environment for all employees, that same maddening and destructive cognitive dissonance can infect the entire workforce.

All of this isn’t to say that being donor-centric is bad. It isn’t, just like a deep focus on customer service isn’t bad. But holding donor-centricity out as a nonprofit’s pinnacle value—at the expense of thoughtful values alignment between donors and the organization—is dangerous, and can result in immeasurable harm to individual employees, teams, and the organization at large.

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  • Mary Cahalane

    I think there's a definitional problem in this supposed push-pull between "community-centered" and "donor-centered" fundraising. Donor-centered is about welcoming people to be part of the mission. It only works well when the organization - across the entire organization - understands the mission and how that mission is accomplished. Donor-centric is NOT about allowing donors to mistreat staff, or demand the mission change to suit their preferences. If that's allowed to happen, the organization is NOT focused on its mission. The mission is the defining idea of the organization. If it's poorly understood or poorly enacted, problems will result because of that vacuum. Donor-centered refers, instead, to a way of communicating that invites the community into the mission. It isn't in opposition to community-centered - it's how community is built. The opposite of donor-centered is rather, organization-centered. And MOST fundraising is still organization-centered. That's all the "we do this, this and that so we're awesome and you should send us money". Fundraising is an amazing opportunity to build community around a mission. And that's why it needs to be funded. Not for fancy brochures. But for the people needed to create relationships with people who want to support the mission. (Donors, volunteers... even sometimes beneficiaries.) Management at all levels needs to address donor bad behavior. And yes, most of us have experienced it. That's another whole problem, though. That's NOT donor-centricity!
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