Donors Not Dollars (Redux)

This post appeared way back in 2009, but it still rings true to me today. Fundraisers are exceedingly proud of the money they raise. They are particularly proud when it is more money than what was raised the prior year. Already I have two problems. Even in a staff-centered development operation, fundraisers alone do not raise money. But, okay, let’s ignore that for now. What I really have a problem with is counting dollars instead of donors.

Fundraising, I really believe, is about relationships. A good fundraiser helps to create and nurture the connections that donors feel about the organization, its mission, the programs it provides. Fundraisers who are focused only on dollars are missing the point.

More insidiously, they are often being untruthful about the value of the money they are counting.

A case in point: I recently lunched with a colleague who waxed eloquent about the fact that the development department brought in almost twice as much this year to the organization as it had in the prior fiscal year. But that wasn’t actually the case.

The main reason for the huge bump in revenue was a bequest. Nothing wrong with a bequest, but I think it is wise to pull out these unique gifts when comparing income year to year. It’s not like this donor is about to make another gift any time soon. Moreover in this particular case, there was some question as to whether the organization should be a major beneficiary so a lawyer was hired on contingency, and his take was 35%. Counting the entire amount of the bequest, therefore, is somewhat disingenuous.

Another large “gift” was actually a contract between a company and the organization that was written as a restricted gift. There is nothing wrong or illegal about this, but the development department had little or, more likely, nothing to do with this transaction.

I don’t mean to pick on my colleague. He’s a really good fundraiser. Far better than I ever was. But, and here’s where we part company, I have always been more interested in creating a development program is sustainable and, therefore, responsive to the ongoing and ever-changing needs of an organization than in getting any single gift.

To me that means tying the goals and objectives of the organization to what the development department is doing. Making sure, in other words, that I am raising the gifts that are needed and not just the gifts I can get. The key to that, I believe, is having a solid core of donors who are committed to the organization, care about the mission and, therefore, are receptive helping out when there is a specific need.

When your focus is on raising dollars, too often your time ends up being spent on gifts that make your bottom line look good but do very little for your programs.

When I started in this business, there was a real move to change the term “fundraising” to “development.” With good reason, I think. The former has a focus on the funds. The latter, on the building and growing of the relationship. When times are hard, as they most certainly are now, it becomes too easy to simply scramble for the gift. In the long run, however, I think that hurts everyone.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers.  Learn how she can help to build your fundraising capacity so you are raising donors not dollars at  While there, sign up for the free monthly newsletter.