Sales and Fundraising

A friend and I have an ongoing argument—she is horrified that I even think that there is a correlation between sales and fundraising, let alone that I believe they are virtually the same. I am frustrated that she can’t see the connection. So I was particularly excited to hear from Ron Walrath, VP for Development at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

“[W]e have to sell our product…every day,” he wrote. But he doesn’t think of that as a problem. “When one adopts a sales approach,” he continued, “strategic vision, mission, operations and detailed development plans all begin to mesh into a coherent effort aimed at customers and prospects.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sales too often has a dirty name. People think of someone who is slick, a little greasy, conniving, and not quite honest. Ron and I both have sales backgrounds, and I don’t think either of us fit that description. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) doesn’t agree with it either.

According to them, professional selling is "The holistic business system required to effectively develop, manage, enable, and execute a mutually beneficial, interpersonal exchange of goods and/or services for equitable value."

I like that definition, just as I like thinking about myself and my colleagues as “professionals.”

What’s to argue with having vision, mission, program and development all meshing? Transactions and relationships should be mutually beneficial. It’s what we should be aiming toward. I think that’s why I find the sales model so enticing.

In all my sales training, the emphasis was on selling the benefits of my service or product and not on the features. That’s what I think we should be doing in fundraising—show our prospects how what we do benefits our clients and our donors. In order to do that, we—the fund development staff and volunteers—need to understand what those benefits are. That means, as Ron implies, we need to have a strategic vision and mission for our organizations. We must have an operation that promotes the mission and vision. And we must have a development plan that will raise the necessary funds for the operations.

The plan, of course, will not by itself raise money. That’s where resources—human and otherwise—come in. They support the plan. People have to work the plan, and they must have the skills and tools to do that.

All of which pinpoints what I think is the basic differences between most sales and most fundraising. Salespeople generally get trained on the products and services they sell. They know the features and the benefits. Fundraisers are too often fuzzy about what they should be raising funds for. Our training tends to focus on fundraising channels rather than on the purposes. The more complex the organization, the more problematical that problem becomes.

And then there is the fact that too often fundraisers are not rewarded for raising funds. I’m not—repeat not—advocating for a commission based model, which is how much of sales works. But there is something about the concrete connection of what you do with how much you earn that is missing from fundraising and which too often leads to no fundraising at all.

In short, we need to stop thinking that nonprofits are “above” selling and recognize that there is nothing wrong—indeed there is much right—in, as Ron Walrath says selling our product every day. After all, our “product” is something we should be proud to tout and prospects eager to buy.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Her online classes will soon be available at <a href=>