Relationships vs. Results

Published by Margaux Smith on

handshake2 This is a tough one.

Since I’ve been working in fundraising, and especially over the past year, I’ve been noticing the similarities and the differences between fundraisers that I really admire.

They all live by the principles of Relationship Fundraising, but some really take donor-love to the next level, while others simply use the building of donor relationships as another tool to achieving great results.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘But if you’re doing it properly, donor-focus does get the best results!’

Does it? I’m thinking of controversial topics like premium acquisition, thank you letters with asks, and list trading – things that can increase net income (yes, even in the long run), but really don’t sit well with our donor-focused gut feelings.

The more I observe, the more I wonder if you can truly focus on relationships and results. When it comes down to it, I think all of the fundraisers I admire have one or the other at the absolute core of what they do – it’s either about relationships or results.

For a long time, I was spending 100% of my time on Team Relationships. I even wrote about it a few years ago on this very blog when I expressed my deep desire to share the joy of philanthropy with the world – to change people into charity-loving donors, one cynical non-believer at a time.

And this past week, I read a wonderful example of this from Canadian fundraiser extraordinaire, Rory Green, guesting on the Agents of Good blog. Rory told the story of her young start as a fundraiser, bringing her high school together, not only to raise more money for a cancer charity, but to truly transform into a group of caring and compassionate young people, empowered to make a big difference. This is a huge part of the reason I love what I do – I want to nurture the natural desire people have to help others; to connect. I want to open them up to the joy of giving, and help create a world full of hopeful, loving people.

But as much as this beautiful story excited me, and made me feel like we have the greatest job in the world, the ending caught my eye.

“Maybe the call to action isn’t even money – maybe it’s writing cards to cancer patients, maybe it’s singing at a senior’s home, maybe it’s playing video games with kids in the hospital, maybe it’s planting a tree. It isn’t the money that matters – it’s the desire to help. The money will come later.”

Hmm. As fundraisers, shouldn’t it be the money that matters?

seo-results-300x300It immediately made me think back to the words written last year by my colleague, Jonathon Grapsas.

“You don’t exist for your supporters. They (and you) are the conduit to making amazing things happen. For your beneficiaries.”

Of course we should work hard to focus on both maximizing income and nurturing long-term relationships with donors. But truly being beneficiary focused means that maximizing net income comes first. Focus on getting the best possible results, every time. That’s our job, and it’s a damn important one.

I understand what Rory means, I really do. I know that she’s an incredible fundraiser that’s making charities a lot of money, and I love the ideas she brings up. It’s just the way she worded that sentiment that really got me thinking about my own motives. I can’t help but wonder if it’s almost selfish of me to spend time, money or energy trying to encourage people to care more, when I should be focused on raising more money for those who need it most. Am I wanting to focus on donor-love because it makes me feel good?

If the numbers are telling us that premium recruited donors are sticking around for second gifts, and even converting to regular gifts, don’t we owe it to our beneficiaries to keep pushing these packs as far as they’ll go? Don’t we owe it to our donors to make their donations as efficient and powerful as possible?

But then I still don’t think I could bring myself to put an ask in a thank you letter. I hear real donors so disheartened by the way they’re treated by some charities and I just wish I could give every single one of them a magical experience.

For the life of me, I can’t decide which one I think is right. Does anyone think they’ve found the perfect balance hidden somewhere in the grey area?

Margaux Smith

Margaux is currently living in Sydney, Australia, working closely with incredible clients at Flat Earth Direct, creating digital and direct mail campaigns with them to help change the world. This Canadian fundraiser misses her compatriots in London and Toronto, where she learned almost everything she knows, but is enjoying the Australian sunshine a little too much to leave any time soon.


Rory Green · April 7, 2014 at 15:34

Hey Margaux,

I don’t think it is an either-or. It is both. I focus on relationships because it raises more money.

You missed a few key pointsof my article while quoting me –

One: the event I described went from raising $2,000 – to $12,000.

Two: I was talking about helping CHILDREN understand philanthropy – when I said “Maybe the call to action isn’t even money” – I talk about how the money comes later (not many of the children at my school had major gifts capacity at the age of 9…)

As a fundraiser I serve my mission. I do that by RAISING MONEY. I am most effective as a fundraiser when I am relationship centric.

I wouldn’t kneel at the alter of Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks if they didn’t have impressive RESULTS behind their work.


    Margaux Smith · April 8, 2014 at 02:08

    (Here’s what I tried posting last night but it didn’t work?)

    Sorry Rory! I was trying to be clear that I knew what you were saying and agreed with the post, but just the wording of that last bit in particular make me think about the slightly opposing views that so many like-minded fundraisers take on certain things. I hope this didn’t come across as me criticizing your post because I really love what you wrote! I just think it’s really interesting when data and our gut instincts sometimes disagree.

    –> And I’ll now add, the best part about this post has been our subsequent discussion :) Thank you!

Rory Green · April 7, 2014 at 15:43

Also – that blog post was not a critique of premium acquisition mailings, planned strategically to identify the pre-disposed and offer them an opportunity to get involved with a cause you believe they care about (information you may have collected through name trading). It was a critique of a cupcake sale run by a teacher. They are two very different things.
When done with a results focused strategy, the former can be both results and relationship focused, the latter is only focused on results. The former can be the start of a long wonderful relationship – that may one day lead to a monthly donation or a will gift. The latter ends with the eating of a cupcake.
Huge difference,

    Stephen Pidgeon · April 7, 2014 at 16:55

    Hello Rory and Margaux, great debate.
    Of course it’s not black and white, it’s blissfully grey and I offer Chuck Longfield’s current passion as proof. He’s shown that if you phone a new donor who has just given a gift, simply to say ‘Thank you’, nothing more, just ‘thank you’, then their value in subsequent years goes up by 40%. Now, when Chuck quotes figures, you know they are right – Chuck is Mr Analysis! So here is an example of pure relationship building that delivers more income as a result.
    What more could you want!!

      Margaux Smith · April 8, 2014 at 02:39

      Hi Stephen :)

      It’s so, so grey. I adore Chuck Longfield’s stats, and that one is no surprise. To me, that kind of thing IS black and white though. We know that Relationship Fundraising works.

      What I wonder about it the actual grey area – when the numbers tell you something works, even over the long-term, but your gut gets uncomfortable, maybe you aren’t pushing people to the point where they stop giving (Rory rightly pointed out that civics will give out of duty when asked) but maybe you’re still pushing people to the point where they resent you, where they feel upset that you asked in that way. I guess it’s measuring the hard-to-measure.

      I’d like to think it’s about listening to your donors, but when they tell you to stop mailing them so often, or not to waste money on address labels…

      So much grey :) But that’s why it’s a career to be passionate about, right? If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so much fun.

Margaux Smith · April 7, 2014 at 15:45

Sorry Rory! I was trying to be clear that I knew what you were saying and agreed with the post, but just the wording of that last bit in particular make me think about the slightly opposing views that so many like-minded fundraisers take on certain things. I hope this didn’t come across as me criticizing your post because I really love what you wrote! I just think it’s really interesting when data and our gut instincts sometimes disagree.

Benny Callaghan · April 7, 2014 at 17:00

A beautiful reflection on the life and motives of a fundraiser Margaux. Thank you for being so open and vulnerable in your exploration.

All true and long-lasting giving must flow from love – that is the underlying principle you keep coming back to. My sense is that like Rory says, it doesn’t have to be either/or. Demonstrating results and keeping focused on outcomes is a way of showing donors we care about their gifts through our accountability. They want to see results, so we help show them how their giving is making a difference. This is a way of showing how we care about their love of giving.

And in the process of sharing and communicating this, we are raising awareness of the power of giving too.

I love to see our donors as partners in achieving results. This way I can walk side-by-side with them. It really is a gift to be a fundraiser.

    Margaux Smith · April 8, 2014 at 02:51

    Thanks for your comment and I absolutely agree :) I guess my questions arise about the little things, mainly in DM, where certain tweaks and tricks may increase results, but it’s hard to measure how the donors are actually feeling. Like I said in my comment above, some donors, especially older donors, may still be giving out of a sense of duty, but may not be happy about it. So do we say ‘how awful, we should stop asking in that way’ or do we say ‘we can try to be nice about it but we’re making more money for our beneficiaries, so we must keep going’.

    It’s great to suggest measuring lifetime value, but I’m still not convinced that’s a simple answer. It’s truly a delicate balance :)

Beth Ann Locke · April 7, 2014 at 19:15


Thanks for writing this! I believe it is important to have these authentic conversations, even if they leave us feeling vulnerable in our responses.

When I first started reading your post (I was eager as many Canadians I know are a fan of you) your desire to “open them up to the joy of giving” resonated. And I also agreed with the need to have results; that is what we are paid for at some level.

But in the end I’m with Stephen and what he said about “pure relationship building delivers income.” And I believe it is true. We are a conduit of the nonprofit… we are raising money for them. But when you are having a relationship with a donor, trust is the bedrock of a lasting relationship. You are asking for their dreams and their assets (at least in major gift fundraising).

The donors are the true resource of the nonprofit, not the cash accounting at the end of the year. That that is what you are working to build, because the donor can be your advocate, your volunteer, your champion and your cash supporter. But only if there is a relationship… transactional fundraising (or trying to eke more money this time to meet the goal by whatever means) does not build a firm foundation (in any sense of the word).

I believe that if you are building a charity/ NGO for the long term, then building a relationship of trust and bringing the donor closer will provide the needed support, even if it isn’t this year. Benny summed it up nicely, btw, evoking a partnership.

    Rory · April 7, 2014 at 19:37

    Absolutely Beth!

    I think in major gifts as well, there is a tremendous amount of value in the non-cash gifts we can get from our donors. Their expertise and advise can help shape programs that deliver our mission – and make smart and better use of our resources.

    AND, as Karen Osborne has showed us, when major donor are “all in” they give more. You can miss opportunities like that if money is the only way you measure results.

      Dennis Fischman · April 7, 2014 at 22:54

      Friends, I hope it’s okay for me to weigh in even though I am working in communications these days and not directly in fundraising. It seems as if among communicators, there’s a huge distinction between those who focus on fundraising and those who stress community-building and brand-building. At least Kivi Leroux Miller says that’s the great divide, and I trust her every word. See http://dennisfischman.com/2014/04/07/what-kind-of-communicator-are-you-anyway/.

      I’d suggest that even among fundraisers, there’s a similar divide–and it isn’t necessarily based on what the individual fundraiser believes. Isn’t it more about what your organization stresses and your job description demands?

      So, what I would take away from this discussion is that we all need to have a heart-to-heart with our organizations about what counts for them as success.

      If they talk relationships, they have to walk relationships. They have to measure lifetime value of a donor you retain, instead of this year’s donations from donors you churn.

      Or they have to say, “Hit this year’s targets or else.” But being unclear about what the real measures of success are isn’t fair to the fundraiser, and it isn’t helpful to the organization either. My two cents.

        Margaux Smith · April 8, 2014 at 03:10

        Absolutely agree, Dennis. As fundraisers, we need to be clear with our boards and CEOs that pushing each appeal might mean pushing people away in the long run. If they want to grow over time, they need to play the long game :)

    Margaux Smith · April 8, 2014 at 03:07

    Totally agree, Beth :) And as I said to Molly, I really should have said somewhere that I only work in direct marketing – major gifts is a very different game. I still wonder though, if sometimes we worry so much about what donors think that we hold back on raising as much as we could.

    And on the flip side, maybe we push them to the point where they’re giving begrudgingly, out of duty but not joy.

    It’s a very delicate balance in DM I think.

Molly Freeman · April 8, 2014 at 02:00

I really think it depends on your program. One of the major benefits of aquiring new donors is that they will hopefully become monthly donors, leadership-level donors, estate giving donors, etc. Most DM donors don’t require the level of stewardship as a major gift donor in order to convince them to give their $25.

Our major gifts and estate giving team will put a lot of work into sole relationship building, because they know the pay-off in the end will be much greater. Our goal as the annual giving team is to bring in new donors, allow them to continue donating more and more by mailing them as part of our house file – and if they become prospects for MG or EG, that’s when the real intense relationship building can happen.

Not to mention, in most (if not all) cases, an organization’s annual giving donors will FAR outnumber the MG donors. We don’t have the capacity to give our AG donors as much pure stewardship love as the MG team, but we do it where we can…mainly through no-ask segments of DM pieces and newsletters, and an annual stewardship postcard.

In my opinion, it’s not a matter of “relationships vs. results”, because I truly believe relationships = results. I do think though, that we just need to be aware of what KIND of relationship each donor really requires in order to motivate them to give. For a DM donor, maybe communicating to them through a newsletter is all the relationship-building they need. But for a $50 million donor…it’s a very different kind of relationship building. But aren’t both these methods still relationship building when it comes down to it?

    Margaux Smith · April 8, 2014 at 03:01

    Hi Molly! :) Thanks for commenting.

    I REALLY needed to caveat my post with a disclaimer about how I like in a direct marketing bubble haha. Major Gifts and bequests and so many other channels are really different. I guess my thoughts just float around in the DM space where I work day-to-day, and it’s all about subtle tweaks and changes, and then measuring the numbers in results.

    Every fundraiser I know believes great results come from good story telling and personalisation, but some fill packs with lifts and incentives, some go bare-bones, some do welcome packs and some don’t, some do newsletters and some don’t, and I really think a lot of the little tweaks and subtle differences in what people will or won’t advocate for, comes from what’s really sitting at the core of why they fundraise – will they protect their donors or their beneficiaries first and foremost.

    I wonder if some of it comes from how much time you spend with either donors or beneficiaries….so much to think about :)

      Molly Freman · April 9, 2014 at 16:22

      Hi Margaux! :D

      I see what you mean. For instance, we were presented with the option of doing a test on a holiday card pack in our August prospect appeal. Our director was very wary – wondering what donors were going to think about receiving holiday cards so early, worried that donors would think it was a cheap attempt to acquire them through premiums. But there were others on the team who paid more attention to the stats that said that particular premium = higher response rate. So I think (in the DM world, at least) it really depends on personality.

      Maybe the bigger question is how can we make these DM pieces or premiums be seen as relationship builders as opposed to something we need to “protect” donors from..

      So much to think about, indeed!

Claire Axelrad · April 8, 2014 at 09:15

I think there’s a distinction to be made between practicing donor love — i.e., caring enough about your donors to build a true relationship that’s based on revealing yourself to them and encouraging them to reveal themselves to you — vs. trying to browbeat them into caring about your cause. You can’t do that. But even if they might be predisposed to care (because they share the values your organization enacts), they won’t be moved to do so if you treat them like ATMs. That’s the difference between transactional and transformational fundraising. Sure, you need to raise money. But it truly isn’t about the money. Money is merely a symbol of what can be accomplished with it. Our job is to convey that accomplishment. To show donors what they’ve accomplished. To treat them like the heroes they are… and to keep on showing them how we feel about them. That doesn’t mean we don’t ask them to make philanthropic investments in our work.

Sander Bouten · April 8, 2014 at 10:04

Making donations as efficient and powerful as possible isn’t a claim to make for fundraisers. Sure, you can thrive to effectively raise funds as efficient as you can. And you can withstand the pressure of management to squeeze the donor as a lemon until there’s nothing left to squeeze (dramatic: and then toss it away). But the power of the charity itself is not in your hands. I do believe though, that you can show your donor – even when you’re freelancing – what your charity is doing. And how. And why. Make me feel why ‘you’ matter and I’m yours.
No problem to disregard this if you think this is off topic.

Ken Burnett · April 13, 2014 at 17:42

Hi Margaux

Interesting stuff and it’s good that you’ve raised the issue. Though, I too don’t agree that it has to be a choice between relationships or results. I’ve said right from the start (and Relationship Fundraising is 22 years young this year) that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if it doesn’t lead to more money raised in the long term.

It’s an old truism, but fundraising isn’t about money. Money is the means to the end, not the end itself. The end is the ongoing relationship we can build between a donor and our cause, both giving to each other. As giving is a voluntary action and seldom responds well to pressure, the relationship has to suit the donor and will be driven by his or her desire to make a difference.

People tend to assume relationship fundraising demands a close, frequent, personal relationship. Nothing of the kind. If the donor says, ‘Contact me once every ten years to tell me how you’ve spent my money and the difference it’s made’, that’s fine. Do that. That’s a relationship – the relationship the donor wants.

Premiums and other short-term gimmicks don’t help fundraising in the long term.

It’s about whatever works best to keep the donor interested, engaged, believing and giving to his or her optimum. The relationship should be the one the donor wants, with which she’s most comfortable.

Here’s the dilemma though. Comfortable people tend to do nothing. Fundraisers don’t always want their donors to feel comfortable. So they have to be challenging, stretching and inspiring too.

Which I feel is why fundraising is so fascinating. And not something that everyone is good at, or even gets.

Best, Ken.

    Derek Glass · July 3, 2014 at 06:07

    Once again, Ken Burnett has just spun some double speak. As Margaux points out — premium mailing do work. They do increase second gift rates, they do generate superior long term value. They are not “short-term gimmicks” by any financial measurement.

    Premiums do keep donors interested, engaged, believing and giving. The do result in conversion to regular giving, and bequests.

    And yes, they violate the very principles of relationship fundraising. So do list swaps and asking for money in thank you letters, both of which also work and generate superior and sustainable income over the long term.

    In other words, violating the very principles of relationship fundraising does raise more money. And that’s why relationship fundraising “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans”, in many ways.

    Thank you Margaux for having the courage to raise these issues. Those on the other side of the debate will try to portray you as a “churn and burn” fundraiser who treats donors like ATMs. Ken Burnett himself will chime in and insinuate that your work uses “short gimmicks” that don’t “help” in the “long term”. In spite of all the data to the contrary — he’ll throw that kind of nonesense at you anyways. That’s how he and his disciples have historically debated this in the past.

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