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Donor focus should drive development

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Karla Williams

With 120 years of fundraising history behind us, and four techniques codified, one might assume a nonprofit organization need only to implement them, one at a time.

The time-honored giving pyramid actually implies such simplicity.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

The four techniques — annual, major, capital and planned giving — are not simple techniques that can stand alone.

They are complex development programs, reliant on each other.

They require a seamless integration to be effective in today’s complex and individualistic marketplace.

Current research on the changing face of donors demonstrates that giving is more self-determined and specific.

Baby Boomers are decidedly more mission-driven than campaign-driven, selecting causes to support on their terms and timelines. They demand transparency, innovation, excellence, impact and, most of all, choice.

Today’s donors are not motivated by our fundraising infrastructure or language, and may actually be turned off by them.

Let’s look at how our technique terminology can inadvertently stereotype donors.

The term “annual-giving” implies that a donor should give one gift, once a year.

But that suggestion would actually be counter to a donor’s mindset.

Loyal donors are inclined to give more than once a year to a variety of offerings.

Or they may choose to give generously every other year, but are terribly confused when they are not listed in every annual report.

The term “major-giving” implies donors who have made big gifts, or have the capacity to make them, are more important.

Money is the measure.

What about donors who have been giving $100 each year for 10 years? Is their affinity for our mission not “major”?

It is doubtful any donors would choose to be labeled, much less according to their money.

Let’s look further at techniques that are traditionally separate and how they de-motivate donors.

The technique of “capital-giving” is a holdover from the mega-campaigns initiated by Harvard and Yale in the mid-1800s.

This particular technique was designed by white males for white males. Today’s diverse donors, including females, males, boomers and ethnic groups, do not want to wait five years for your next big campaign, nor do they like being solicited by their two best friends.

They just want to invest, today, in your organization’s growth.

Finally, consider the technique known as “planned giving.”

Donors seldom use that term. They naturally want to create legacies but resist planning for their death.

So this technique should not be restricted to those walking with canes.

The Bill Gateses of the world are prime examples of a generation of donors who are more likely to give everything away during their lifetimes. Legacies are not synonymous with old age.

21st-century donors and fundraising techniques defy labels and stereotypes, so let us not confuse techniques with motivations.

Donors are motivated by innovative human service programs, targeted cultural projects, educational technology advances, and by individualized scholarships.

Annual, major, capital and planned giving are not donor motivational elicitors; they are merely fundraising techniques.

So let’s take our time-honored techniques and terminology, and integrate them in a seamless way, so we are more donor-centered.

So rather than focusing exclusively on donors’ ability or campaign methodology, let’s restructure our development programs by focusing on donors’ affiliation to people in our organizations, known as “linkage,” and on donors’ affinity to our organizations’ mission, programs and services, known as “interest.”

Let’s go so far as to redesign the old giving pyramid into a dynamic and seamless constituency circle, where donors are naturally inspired by our mission, not configured by our fundraising techniques.


Karla Williams is principal of The Williams Group in Charlotte, N.C.

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