Choose relationship fundraising. Or not.

Published by Adrian Sargeant on

You’d be hard pushed to overstate how important the concept of ‘relationship fundraising’ is to many fundraisers. You only need to do a quick search on 101Fundraising to realise that.

But despite it being one of – if not – the dominant mode of thought about fundraising, there is remarkably little agreement among practitioners about what relationship fundraising actually is, or what a relationship approach might practically mean for the way in which we steward our relationships with donors. Again, take a wander back through the 101Fundraising archives.

That’s partly because since Ken Burnett first coined the term and outlined the discipline’s principles in his 1992 book, there has been very little theoretical development that has put flesh the bones of the basic relationship fundraising idea.

Practitioners possess a general sense of what relationship fundraising means as a guiding philosophy, but little idea of the theories, tools, and frameworks that could guide their approach, nor the results that might be achieved if they did so.

So fundraisers put certain practices in place and some of them work and some don’t. But few are aware of the psychological theories that allow them to understand why this is, or to predict what might work in the future.

This is the gap that Rogare – the fundraising think tank run by my colleague Vol 2 coverIan MacQuillin at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy – aimed to fill.

Working with Ian and Professor Jen Shang, we reviewed the current theories about relationship building and relationship maintenance in social psychology and outlined how these might be used to take relationship fundraising in new directions.

Here are some of what I think are the key insights from our ‘Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here?’ project, which was funded by US organisations Bloomerang and Pursuant.

Meeting donors needs

What donors want out of a relationship changes over the course of the relationship.

At the start of a relationship – the point at which new donors begin their relationships (in fundraising terms, ‘acquisition’) – people are attracted to the cause or organization because of the good work it does and how it helps its beneficiaries.

But – and the research is very clear about this – once that initial, acquisition, stage has passed and donors are ensconced in the relationship (assuming that they desire one in the first place, which cannot be taken as read) their focus changes.

They are concerned much more about what the relationship delivers for them and much less about what it delivers for the other relationship partner – in the nonprofit context, that’s the organisation, the cause, and even the beneficiary.

Enlightened relationship fundraisers always recommend talking about the donor rather than the organisation in donor stewardship and retention communications, and this is why. Donors will be more satisfied with any relationship they have with a charity if they feel the charity is meeting their needs (rather than the needs of the beneficiary). You may not like this, but it’s what the theory unequivocally tells us is the case.

So then, what are those needs that donors want met, and how can fundraiser draw on social psychology to help meet them? Lets look at a few that we highlighted in our research.

Donors have needs such as a need to belong and be connected with other people, for growth, self-actualization and self-fulfillment.

Self-Determination Theory, for example, explains that to feel we’ve lived a fulfilled life, we must develop perceived competence in articulating our love for others. Fulfillment only occurs, however, when individuals experience a genuine sense of connectedness with the object of that love.

Self-Verification Theory says that people can always feel better if others important to them see them in the same way they see themselves. That is they Rogare RFwould like to experience consistency in their lives, and the role of others in close relationships with them is simply to confirm what they know already about themselves. So charity communications should continually reinforce the positive feelings of giving and supporting a cause, showing the donor how they are living the fulfilled life self determination theory predicts they need.

Then Self-Enhancement Theory suggests that rather than merely reflecting who a donor is in our communications, we should be reflecting equally on whom that donor could be, stretching their sense of who they might need to be to live a fulfilled life. If charities constantly inspire their donors to become the very best they can, they will become their best source for living a more fulfilled life.

Relationship fundraising – a choice

The whole focus of relationship fundraising could – note we are saying could, not should – shift to a more ideological focus on the donor in that the intention of relationship fundraising would be, according to Self-Determination Theory, to help the donor live a more fulfilled life, which is a life that allows a person to become highly competent of acting in one’s love of others, and to feel that they are good at doing that.

But that is a choice that fundraisers need to make. In our research, we also looked at the theory behind relationship marketing and whether that could be transferred to relationship fundraising. There is actually little evidence to suggest that the relational approach works in a business to consumer (BTC) setting, or that such BTC relationships even exist. By analogy, we should not expect them to work in charity marketing, encompassing fundraising.

So this is what we mean when we say relationship fundraising is a choice. Some donors – perhaps whole tranches of them – may not need nor even want the relationship approach and would be better served by more ‘transactional’ methods (but they do deserve the utmost in good, old-fashioned customer care).

We’re not saying one approach is better than the other. It depends on whom fundraisers conceive of as the ultimate beneficiary of their marketing activity. Is it solely the user of charities’ services or are we genuinely interested in the outcomes for our donors as well?

Adrian Sargeant

Adrian Sargeant

Adrian Sargeant is director of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy. He is widely considered the world’s foremost fundraising academic, formerly holding the Hartsook Chair in Fundraising at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. He also holds visiting appointments at Avila University and the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, Queensland University of Technology. Professor Sargeant has published more than 10 books and around 150 peer reviewed academic publications in the domain of individual giving, fundraising and nonprofit marketing.


I. Bond · January 22, 2016 at 16:33

Thank you Dr. Sargent et. al for this study which provides evidence of psychological underpinnings to donors’ motivation to give. I would add that organizations might first make sure relationship fundraising is the best course of action, given their organizations’ mission and business model, as analyzed in the Stanford BS study by W L Foster, et. al, http://bit.ly/1nqwELD. But where investing a large chunk of limited time and resources into individual fundraising is a good bet, this study is gold!

What’s more, your identification of “whole tranches” of “transactional” donors is very useful to the relationship fundraiser. In special event fundraising for the arts, we call these donors the “Social Butterflies”, they are mainly interested in attending a fashionable party or in seeing a particular featured attendee or guest at the event.

Although, in a purely practical sense for fundraisers, identifying and knowing when to divest relationship fundraising efforts on these donors can be tricky, at best.

Tim Kitchin · January 23, 2016 at 10:56

Good piece, but as ever in life, there is a third way and even a fourth way. The tension between the ‘benefactor’ model of accountability (which leads to transactional marketing) and the customer model (which leads to relationship marketing) are not the only choices. There is a third approach – to treat donors as investors, as build rational, impact-led relationships with them based on actions not promises. But even this is flawed in accountability terms. What is actually needed, and must urgently emerge, is a hybrid which brings beneficiaries (or their proxies), charity managers, and donors into mutual accountability. Impact 2.0, if you will.

Mike Ziemski · May 20, 2017 at 22:53

Nice article. As the Chinese proverb states, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” With that in mind, “fundraising” is not “fund raising,” and “development” is not the umbrella term for “fund development,” “relationship development” and “professional development.” Further “fundraising” is not “development” is not “advancement,” and, eventually, “growth” and “sustainable” will BE terms that need to get thrown into mix to describe where an organization is and wants to get to. For instance, “relationship fundraising” might be one thing, but “sustainable relationship fundraising” might very well require a different set of constructs and strategies to be effective.

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