The people who made relationship fundraising work

Published by Derek Humphries on

imagesI’ve stayed out of the current relationship fundraising debate, a little unsure what to say that I haven’t said many times already in the past 20+ years. But I found myself wondering why hasn’t the world embraced relationship fundraising? The obvious answer is that no one has done a good enough job of making the case (something fundraisers should know all about). And then I tried to recall those people who really did make it work, and what they had in common.

Some brief context…back in the last century, I spent 14 years at Burnett Associates, nine of them as MD. It was a sensational agency – principled, creative, committed, with the best parties.

It was also a niche agency – the wider world of fundraising wasn’t really on our radar. We were all about trying to inspire individuals using direct marketing (at a time when the World Wide Web was a new-fangled irritant which we knew would never catch on…).

And it was an agency that owned a word, which is an immensely powerful marketing position. That word was, of course, ‘relationship’. Yet, much as we had a strong point of view on relationships, the successes we had were massively reliant on people outside of the agency.

So, while this is by no means an exhaustive list, let me introduce you to three people who made relationship fundraising work (and then I’ll tell you what I think they have in common):

Honestly, I don’t even remember the name of the first fundraiser. It was the early 90s. I was leading a team pitching to the RNLI (the UK’s volunteer lifeboat service). To help me understand what made RNLI tick, I went to visit a couple of community fundraisers. One of them turned up 30 minutes late, and said: ‘I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. The crew were out on a shout last night [a rescue]. So I’ve just been visiting a few donors to let them know that everyone got back safely.’

Obviously at this point I realised I had nothing to teach RNLI about donor-oriented fundraising. Even today, I suspect some of the best relationship fundraising is happening at community and major donor levels. Just people in conversation with people.

Second, not an individual but an organisation, Greenpeace UK. I’m looking at you: Charlotte Grimshaw, Annie Moreton, Jan Chisholm, Chris Williams. When talking to these great clients, my sentences often started thus: ‘I’m making this up as I go along, but why don’t we…’

Often they said ‘yes’. Which is how we came to send out a mailing with a £250k tick box (which worked), and sent postcards to middle donors to apologise for not being in touch for a while (read that again, we apologised for not being in touch for a while), and kept supporters up to date on what was happening behind the scenes by sending out interviews with the chief exec (posted to donors on, er, ‘tape cassette’ – younger folk may wish to google this).

Third, Adrian Burder at the National Canine Defence League (now the Dog’s Trust), for whom we developed the Sponsor A Dog ‘product’. Adrian was entirely at home with the idea of sponsored dogs writing letters, Valentines and Christmas cards to supporters. It taught me that charity supporters aren’t in any way allergic to marketing provided it connects with their own (sometimes zany) values.

So, an unknown community fundraiser, Greenpeace UK, Adrian Burder. What did they have in common?:

  1. Strong personal values aligned with strong and uncompromising organisational values. These weren’t values grafted on by a brand agency. This is about a deep-rooted alignment of personal and organisational DNA.
  2. They took responsibility. They didn’t seek permission from their superiors. They didn’t defer to guidelines, or a handbook, they just followed their instinct and intuition. Results followed. (I’m not saying they didn’t care about evidence or numbers, believe me they did. It’s just that the principles came first.)
  3. They took risks. They were unafraid. They didn’t do what they’d always done, so they didn’t get what they’d always got (and not once did we use the word ‘innovation’!). They invariably looked for opportunities to do new things rather than reasons not to do them.
  4. They laughed. We had fun. We shared a sense of the ridiculousness of some of what we did.
  5. They didn’t blame. Sometimes we let each other down. We never blamed each other (at least not for long!); we just got on with it.
  6. They got people. They never lost sight of the individuals who were receiving and interacting with their communications. The home visit to let you know the lifeboat crew are safe. The postcard to say sorry we’ve not been in touch for a while. The Valentine’s Card from the dog you sponsor. Each of these communications was simply about making the supporter feel better (and, no we never used the word ‘stewardship’ either!).

In a complicated world, if you want to make your (relationship) fundraising work better, why not start by checking that list and seeing how you and your cause measure up?

Derek Humphries

@derekhumphries is a Creative Director at DTV Group working on worldwide DRTV campaigns and films, and a consultant Creative Strategist working with the Resource Alliance.


Mary Cahalane · March 14, 2016 at 16:47

Oh gosh, yes! This is how it’s supposed to work – and it really does when you can put the right people together.

Thanks for a wonderful reminder, Derek.

    Derek Humphries · March 14, 2016 at 22:16

    Thanks for the comment, Mary. Yep, anything I ever got right was mostly about the right combination of people at the right time.

Sadie Moore · March 14, 2016 at 23:27

Very interesting Derek! Reminds me of the Truly Great Fundraising findings from Adrian Sargeant. Sadie (Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation)

    Derek Humphries · March 15, 2016 at 10:10

    Thanks Sadie, and flattered that you make that connection!

Richard Radcliffe · March 15, 2016 at 09:50

Hi Derek , I have known you and admired you for decades and loved your blog. But I have two comments. Firstly I am not sure you can “own” the word relationship. That stuck in my throat a bit. Secondly I feel what went wrong was the definition of relationship fundraising. I prefer the definition of relationship marketing by Leonard Berry in 1983 which was to advance and enhance customer relationships to convert casual customers into loyal clients.
In retrospect the problem in my view was the way relationship fundraising was used as a power tool to force relationships onto supporters when they should have been given more respect.

    Derek Humphries · March 15, 2016 at 10:15

    Hello Richard
    Oh heavens, it really has been decades…
    On your first point, what i meant was that there was a period of 2-3 years in the mid-90s when it felt like Burnett Associates owned the word ‘relationship’ in a marketing sense (so close was the association between the book and the agency).
    Second, I’ve always been useless with power tools! I always felt that relationship fundraising was common sense and common courtesy mixed with permission marketing.
    All the best

Charlotte Grimshaw · March 15, 2016 at 10:20

Thanks Derek! Agree with you about the key elements, plus at Greenpeace we had a CEO who really got it, was willing to spend time on fundraising when required, and really trusted us with the task

    Derek Humphries · March 16, 2016 at 09:07

    Greenpeace CEO, Peter Melchett, was great. In his recorded updates and when speaking to Frontline supporter meetings, he totally got the need for the we-couldn’t-do-it-without-you speech (partly of course because without corporate and Government money, Greenpeace more than most causes appreciates the importance of each individual supporter).

Suzanne · March 15, 2016 at 11:47

Hi Derek, great blog, fab reminder (I still remember great times at BA and I learned so much…). I shared this with my team of FR here at WFP and will use it to inspire them.

    Derek Humphries · March 16, 2016 at 09:08

    Thanks Suzanne. I’m sure you’ve recruited good people, and if so, then much of this is about trusting one’s instincts.

Lesley Pinder · March 15, 2016 at 14:02

Fabulous post Derek, thank you! I found myself nodding vigorously at all of the 6 points. I think trust comes in to it too, trust in fundraisers to do the right thing and make the right call…which is hard without number the stability and sense of collective identity that comes with number 1, in my experience.

    Lesley Pinder · March 15, 2016 at 14:03

    forgive the rogue ‘number’ in that last sentence. ;-)

      Derek Humphries · March 16, 2016 at 09:10

      Agree. Hard to do great (relationship) fundraising in a silo.

Kym · March 16, 2016 at 00:31

Hi Derek
As someone who is listens to donors and potential donors for a living, I’ve been wondering the same thing – why isn’t there more emphasis on the relationship? I now wonder if it’s not so much that the case needs to be better made (though that would be great), but that it’s the wrong audience. By that I mean it’s not the fundraiser. It’s the CEO. If a nonprofit is genuinely committed to cultivating a relationship with donors, they need to be offering the opportunity to volunteer, give in kind, be involved etc as well as make a donation…and seeing their supporters under a broader umbrella of activities. This is not the job of the fundraiser who is rightly interested in raising money, it’s that of the CEO who manages the structure and functions of the organisation. If there was an upstream function in nonprofits, much like alumni relations departments, there could be a recognition and enabling of
supporters over their lifetime, keeping them engaged as their capacity and interests evolve. It may not be realistic to expect fundraisers to think outside of driving financial support, if that’s how their performance is evaluated. A broader organisational commitment to facilitating all the ways a supporter can give to an organisation is what is needed.

    Derek Humphries · March 16, 2016 at 09:16

    I think you are absolutely right Kym.
    The ‘business case’ for great fundraising (just like a fundraising case for support), is wasted if it’s directed to the wrong audience.
    Too often we have ended up talking to ourselves.
    The CEO is fundamental. Interesting that Charlotte mentioned her Greenpeace CEO in her comment above. Interesting that Adrian Burder (mentioned in my original post) went on to become CEO of his organisation.
    Recently in the UK we have seen very few CEOs equipped to defend fundraising, let alone proactively champion it.
    A tough but crucial job for fundraisers when they have to inspire external support while also campaigning for internal support.
    Thanks for your comment.

Wiebke Doktor · March 18, 2016 at 08:24

Dear Derek,
I see this in Germany as well. Although our fundraising approach is bit different (like every country is having it’s own spin), the main problem here is the little trust in fundraising and in fundraisers. Thanks for reminding me, what I am literally fighting for. As being the owner of an agency I do see a lot of different organisations, but in the end they all struggle with the same obstacles.
Greetings and kind regards

    Derek Humphries · March 18, 2016 at 08:42

    Hello Wiebke
    Thanks for your comments.
    It’s interesting that you are also seeing a lack of trust in fundraisers/fundraising in Germany. I fear it is an issue that will spread. All the more reason to make giving a pleasure for supporters!
    My current experience in Germany is limited to direct response television, where we see generous public giving in response to strong, emotional appeals.
    With best wishes

Ralph Macpherson · March 23, 2016 at 02:51

Thank you Derek for sharing your insight.
As someone with experience in a pharmaceutical sales environment your description of the value there is in building a healthy ‘relationship’ with customers/donors really resonates with me. Creating empathy with people and making them feel special, indeed is just common sense really but so important to nurture. Its positive impact can be mutually satisfying as I know from my charity work.

    Derek Humphries · March 24, 2016 at 10:26

    Thank you, Ralph.
    Yes, i’m sure the principles are transferable into almost any environment.
    We all carry out actions in our daily lives to nurture relationships, from telling our nearest and dearest that we love them, to random acts of kindness that just help make the world go round. Yet we so easily forget those simple things when we are in a semi-mechanised marketing environment.

Prerna Kulkarni · April 5, 2016 at 12:47

Thanks Derek for sharing interesting findings about key elements of fundraising

James Allport · April 13, 2016 at 12:24

Thanks for this, really interesting. I think it all comes back to bringing the supporters as close to the work and beneficences as possible. Dogs Trust is a good example, people love getting a letter from the dog. Dog lovers often have conversations with their pets.

The key thing is making the move away from purely transaction value driven models and calling it a relationship. And replacing it with a genuine value exchange between the charity and the supporter. That increases retention and in the long term lowers recruitment costs and attrition.

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