The notion of “donor-centred fundraising” raises alarm bells. It seems to share ideological roots with corporations that proclaim they are ‘customer-centred’.1 For example, Amazon.com’s highly-vaunted customer focus has been widely vilified for coming at the expense of other stakeholders, especially employees and suppliers.2 Corporations such as Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, and Uber with questionable records on caring for employees, suppliers, the environment, and communities use the language of ‘customer care’.
For generations, non-profit sector employees have struggled with reasonable work hours, fair pay, benefits, job security, and opportunities for advancement. Does ‘donor-centred fundraising’ represents yet another assault on the non-profit worker?
In a local example, an agency went all out upon the arrival of a $50,000 donation. (I think the donation was a portion of a real estate sales fee). There was a dinner, plaque, and public acclaim for the donor. Meanwhile, the agency did little to provide satisfactory employment and recognition to a revolving door of underpaid front line staff working in unsafe facilities with at-risk clients. The staff were expected to attend the dinner in the evening, on their own time.
Richard Branson is probably the most famous advocate of one contrasting approach. He says “take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business. It’s as simple as that.” 3
Although the phrase ‘donor-centred’ is troubling, the written material does not openly advocate following through on the implied threat to other stakeholders such as employees.
‘Donor-centred’ appears to be more of a catchphrase. It indicates that donors are essential to the success of the mission. Working with donors requires an understanding of the donor’s interests and objectives. Donors want to know that their donations are not wasted and are put to work on worthwhile things. They want good-quality communication which means fine-tuning publications, resources, websites and social media so that these reach particular donors in ways that are meaningful to each of them.
In thinking about this subject, I realized that it is unusual to be asked, ‘what motivated you to support our charity?’ or, ‘we haven’t seen you at any of our events this year, what is missing for you?’ I have also felt the sense that after making a donation, the money and organization disappear unless you give a lot of money.
I found the ‘donor-centric Pledge’ helpful in framing a discussion with donors and potential supporters. 4 It offers a list of simple, memorable rules for keeping the donor front and centre. Here is # 22. “That the donor's perspective defines what is a "major" gift.”
I find ideas about understanding and communicating with donors to be helpful. I also understand why fundraising consultants adopt current language from the corporate world. Although the ideas have been sufficiently ‘watered-down’ and ‘humanized’ to be palatable in a social justice environment, I wonder if some of the baggage from an increasingly unjust corporate world has been carried along with them. I can imagine this material produced by well-meaning fundraising specialists might be used to further pressure hard-pressed social service workers. Will someone be forced to do unpaid overtime, writing thank you notes by hand and from home late tonight because donors should get one within twenty-four hours?