Relationship Fundraising: It’s complicated

Published by Rachel Beer on

A couple of years’ ago, a wise and brilliant friend, also a fundraiser, said to me over coffee:

‘Relationship Fundraising only needed to be written because the invention of databases meant fundraising could be done on an increasingly large scale. And, because it was on such a large scale, and needed to be automated, fundraisers needed to be reminded to treat donors as human beings – like they used to when their donors’ names, contact details, giving histories and other important information was kept on address cards.’

br8rf2I can’t promise this is verbatim, but I’m confident it’s nearly there, as I’d never really considered this point before and it struck me quite profoundly at the time. Fundraisers needed a book to remind them that humans are hard-wired to need relationships, because databases can’t create those. They’re just tools. Like address cards.

The same friend* also said, ‘Ken Burnett has probably forgotten more than I ever knew’, so you’ll understand this isn’t a pointed comment about Relationship Fundraising, the book, or the philosophy. Rather a comment on the challenges of doing high volume fundraising like a human being.

Given the annus horribilis this has been for fundraisers and fundraising in the UK, never has the need to put the spotlight back on this seemed greater.

But, as far back as 1996, Ken said himself:

‘Relationship fundraising is, after all, just a currently fashionable piece of jargon … I wish I’d paid more attention to its subtitle – “A donor-based approach to the business of raising money.” Those ten words, I believe, are ultimately much more important than the two words that precede them.

Relationship fundraising is an approach. Just that. It is not a theology. So why has the term become so misunderstood and so widely misused?’

It’s true. Fundraisers talk about relationship fundraising yet few seem to practice it, perhaps because they’re not sure what it is, or how to ‘do’ it. For something that sounds so simple, it’s surprisingly complicated.

Some don’t buy the ‘relationship’ bit. Matthew Sherrington argues the idea we’re really developing relationships with donors is deluded:

‘Have you ever met anyone who talks of being in a relationship with a charity? Do you talk that way? No. There’s not one organisation I give to … where I’d say I had a relationship with them. They might wish for that, but they can dream on.’

The word ‘relationship’ is used in many different ways, and in many different contexts, but my understanding of it in ‘relationship fundraising’ is in the sense of a reciprocal, human relationship. I’m not going to get too bogged down now in discussing whether the relationship is between donor and fundraiser (human and human), or donor and cause (‘people give to people’). Only to say that I think that’s situational, too. After all, many people give to charities because they have a relationship with someone they’re sponsoring to run the marathon and – no – they usually don’t want to have a relationship with the charity their friend is fundraising for; their relationship is with their friend.

But there are many donors who do want a relationship with charities they support – who also value relationships with individual fundraisers at those charities (I do find it odd people don’t get this about individual giving but do with major donor, community or events fundraising). They will have some kind of relationship with the cause, too, of course. They may not call it ‘a relationship’, but who really does that anyway – except perhaps Facebook?

I remember an interview in the Evening Standard with steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, where – almost as an aside – he mentioned his son’s philanthropy:

‘My son and his wife are engaged with Great Ormond Street Hospital.’

It stuck in my mind because I was so surprised that he chose the words, ‘engaged with’. It felt like they carried weight. He didn’t say his son and his wife were, ‘in talks’, or ‘in discussions’ with, ‘being cultivated’, or ‘developed by’ a charity.

‘Engaged with’, describes agency on the part the donor (unlike ‘donor cultivation’, which implies something being done to donors). It’s mutual. We use it to describe a mutual agreement to marry – a commitment to one of the most important relationships in many people’s lives. And we say we’re ‘engaged’ when we are actively listening and really interested.

That same year, Aditya and Megha Mittal donated £15million to the charity; at the time, the largest amount it had ever received from a private individual. I’m sure, to reach that point, the team at the charity and Mr and Mrs Mittal had all invested a considerable amount of time, energy and emotion in the relationship between them and being ‘engaged’ probably felt like an appropriate way to describe that.

Relationship as the other measure of success

Whilst the ultimate aim of any fundraising is clearly to generate funds, perhaps the benchmark of relationship fundraising is the quality of the relationship alongside the usual fundraising KPIs?

I’d suggest that the measure of this is whether the donor feels a connection beyond the transactional; one that has value and meaning for them – not just value for the charity – and they identify this.

I had a bit of an epiphany this summer, reading through transcripts from interviews with donors (conducted as part of donor experience project), where I feel I heard this, in donors’ words, time and time over, in phrases like:

‘I like hearing from them.’

‘I feel like I know the people.’

‘We feel very attached.’

‘The newsletter makes you feel like you’re part of the family.’

‘We really do feel connected.’

‘They tell me what’s been going on.’

‘It’s all pleasant and friendly. You warm to it.’

These donors were definitely describing a relationship with the charity. They may not have used the words, ‘I am in a relationship with’ them, but what they described was at the opposite end of the spectrum to a transactional relationship. It was emotional, it had depth, it brought them ‘joy’ and they genuinely valued it.

It was wonderful to hear the affirmation, from donors themselves, that it is absolutely possible for people to feel this connection with the charity they support and that giving can be a genuinely fulfilling experience.

How do you define Relationship Fundraising as a practice?


Credits: Craig Linton (http://www.fundraisingdetective.com)

Ultimately, you won’t have a good relationship with someone that doesn’t listen to you and take on board what you say – who honours your feelings and your wishes (this not the same as agreeing with them and is probably all the more weighty as a result). A relationship where that is not reciprocal rarely goes the distance.

But it takes time to develop a relationship. So how can you evaluate whether you are practicing ‘relationship fundraising’ when you’re speaking to potential donors and new donors who haven’t been able to get to know you properly yet, and may not have had time to develop high levels of engagement?

Perhaps there could be a simple test, similar to the Bechdel-Wallace test, for Relationship Fundraising?

One of the reasons the Bechdel-Wallace has gained so much traction (whether you agree with it or not) is because so simple and specific – cutting through the infinite variables. A test for relationship fundraising would need to be similarly granular for it to be as easy to apply.

It’s tempting to chunk it up too much, and ask something like:

  • Is the charity interested in what matters to its donors and are its actions aligned with this?

But we very quickly get into the territory of broad themes, where interpretations of what that means could differ wildly, which defeats the object of such a test.

So it would need to be something like:

  • Does the charity remember what its donors tell it?
  • And does it respond accordingly?

What do you think?

Thanks to Adrian Salmon for inspiring this post. When we were chatting and he said words to the effect of, ‘perhaps the test of relationship fundraising should be: when a donor phones a charity and tells them something, the charity records it on its database’, to which I said, ‘AND uses it’. It made me think of the Bechdel-Wallace Test and got the cogs whirring.

*I always want to give credit where it’s due, but I’m not name checking here because the person in question is very private and probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

Rachel Beer

Rachel Beer has been a professional fundraiser since 1999, with experience gained from at several fundraising creative agencies in the UK, as well as in house. Currently a fundraising consultant, she specialises in helping organisations to take their fundraising to the next level – creating fundraising brands, appeals and campaigns that excite existing supporters and attract new donors and fundraisers. She also works with teams in house at charities, helping them to develop the skills to get the best possible results. In 2008, Rachel created NFPtweetup - a regular series of events to promote effective use of technology in the charity sector, and she is well known as a fundraising expert, digital specialist and strategist for the third sector.


Matthew Sherrington · December 1, 2015 at 11:50

Great post Rachel, but hang on, you’ve seriously quoted me out of context!

My blog on Engagement Fundraising was all about the idea of Relationship Fundraising needing a ‘re-brand’ (obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek there), precisely because it was so misunderstood. It was all about it being a supporter-focused approach, on which I know we are on the same page.

The dig of mine you quote there is not about donors not feeling they have a relationship (as you beautifully illustrate – some, hopefully many, do). It is about fundraisers talking to supporters with the expectation that they have or want one, rather than keeping their eye on the prize of their deeper connection and engagement with the cause, with the view to longer and greater support.

Of course every supporter has a transactional relationship. But as I say in my blog, Relationship Fundraising is a mind-set, and as you say, it’s an approach. Great, if supporters end up feeling they have one. Your idea of a KPI on this is really nice. But I’d still say let’s not kid ourselves they start out wanting one, and let’s not make the mistake of talking to them presuming they do.

    Ben Holgate · December 23, 2015 at 05:34

    Thanks for the clarification Matthew. The way we understand it here at Plan Australia is that ‘relationship fundraising’ is for every donor, but the extent and quality of that relationship is solely at the donor’s call…from a totally transactional and remote relationship to a richly symbiotic one based on frequent two-way dialogue. We are a way from achieving this, but the commitment is there.

D.C. Dreger, ACFRE, MA/NOL · December 3, 2015 at 16:04

Many items worthy of comment, but my basic is that it is indeed possible, prudent and productive to have a truly reciprocal relationship with donors. I have done so, especially with leadership.
My other comment is that I’m concerned when major gift officers have more than 125 prospects. While the database can be helpful, keeping it updated AND getting out to visit with prospects, can become daunting.
Finally, I’ve appreciated the focus on long-term relationship-building which should become “transformational” rather than “transactional,” or as we say here in the US South, “lovin’ on ’em.”


D.C. Dreger, ACFRE
Senior Advancement Executive

Gregory Warner · April 20, 2016 at 17:21

Great post Rachel. Dr. Russell James has a phrase for the social relationship between a donor and a charity: synthetic family. He’s proven in his research that philanthropy is a social act that uses the same mechanisms in the brain as family bonding. So, indeed, people DO have relationships with charities. A lot of his evidence can be found here: http://imarketsmart.com/resources/

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