The Future of Fundraising is Organising. Because Together, We Can …!

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

The future of fundraising will no doubt be something we don’t even know about yet. You know, the next Big Thing. Of course, it’s going to be digital, isn’t it? Probably. Maybe. Or it could be as simple as embracing supporters as partners, and thinking about engaging with them differently.

The convulsions in the UK over fundraising practice, regulation and data protection are forcing some long-needed soul-searching about supporter experience and what it might mean to be really donor-focused. The sad truth is that people just don’t like the fundraising techniques in play, and their tolerance of them, in the interests of supporting the cause, is wearing thin. Those of you in other countries might be watching with bemusement. It’s still working fine for you, is it? Just don’t be complacent. This stuff catches on, and a lot of it is no bad thing.

So change is a-coming, “for I will not raise money by vile means”, as Shakespeare had Brutus say in Julius Caesar. (Indulge me here, non-British readers – it was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 22nd April last week). But then, how we raise money has always changed as techniques and channels emerge, evolve, explode, become less cost-effective and burn out.

What I think really has to change, is how we view supporters in the first place. Not just fundraisers, but our organisations too. The worst of today’s fundraising is the marketing machine, encouraged by organisations with an eye on the money but not the supporters, milking them for their cash but keeping them at arm’s length. “Thanks, but leave it to us now”. That’s not how it should be. People are not generally supporting you, the organisation. They are committed to the mission. Describing them as supporters instead of donors is a step in the right direction, but perhaps still not enough in the way we think about them.

Talk of engagement and experience, and the opportunity for integration with campaigning is necessary stuff, but falls flat if it’s just viewed in the context of ‘retention’. Why? Because ‘retention’ is still all about you, all about how you hold on to ‘them’, the supporters. It’s not about why they should stay. It’s not about what they could do. It’s not seeing them as collaborators in the mission.

Rules_for_RadicalsAnd this is where I think fundraisers could learn a thing or two from the ideas and tradition of grassroots organising, the principles of which were laid out by Saul Alinsky in his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals. At this point, campaigning colleagues might jump in and say, we do that already.

Not so fast. Charity campaigning can be quite as directive and extractive as fundraising, and in my experience, campaigners are far less concerned than fundraisers about supporter relationship or retention questions. This petition, that protest, sign and turn up. Like fundraising that milks the cash cow, give, give, give. Then we start again. And we’re surprised about problems of retention?

‘Organising’ not a word much used outside of labour unions, and is generally associated with the far left. It’s not much used in the US non-profit world either. But it’s at the heart of much community grassroots action, and a proven model of movement-building in the US political cycle.

“An organiser’s job is to help ordinary people do extraordinary things”, said Cesar Chavez (and isn’t that the same as any fundraiser’s job?). Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American farmworker and civil rights activist who founded the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960s, winning rights for exploited farm workers in California. Barack Obama famously cut his political teeth as a community organiser in Chicago and his “Yes we can” slogan was lifted directly from Chavez’s: “Si, se puede.”

organize fish graffitiOrganising is the guiding principle of community action, and an organiser facilitates that. You don’t tell people what to do; you listen. You help people identify their own problems, and help them organise around the issues they want to address and fight for. It’s about challenging power, building community and movements, belonging and solidarity, common purpose and making a real, tangible difference. Isn’t that what we want for our supporters too?

Two experiences led me to the similarities between organising and fundraising, and the opportunities of thinking this way.

In international development, long gone are the days of NGOs wading in with answers and telling people what’s what, for their own good. Well, you’d hope so. I remember a story from a colleague spending a week to reach and visit a community in the Amazon who’d asked for assistance. At the end of his stay, they told him: thanks very much, but we don’t need your help now. He’d helped them work out what they could do for themselves. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a community in Nigeria that had been helped by the NGO I was travelling with to build a school (their bricks and labour, the NGO’s money for the tin roof). They still did not have access to clean water, but they had a school. That might not have been your priority, but it was theirs, and the NGO had listened and followed their lead.

Listening, guiding, working it out together and helping people arrive at a solution they own and can do for themselves. ‘Empowerment’, in the jargon. I’ve always found it a strange disconnect that INGOs experienced in this approach with the communities they work with, couldn’t see that exactly the same process applies with exciting and energising supporters. Why, instead, should it be ok to tell people what they should know, with a message of “give us your money and leave it to us”?

And then I spent a few years as Fundraising Director for Greenpeace in the US, a full decade ago. Digital was still relatively new to everyone, never mind understanding how to use it. Fundraisers and campaigners were still nervous about letting each other at ‘their’ donors and campaign supporters. (Depressingly, many still are). But Howard Dean had just run his ground-breaking Presidential 2004 primary campaign, becoming the first political campaign to be funded by thousands of small donations rather than big money. And it was done through online and community organising.

At Greenpeace, we learnt and copied. People wanted to engage in the real world, not just with online petitions, and their real world. Our campaigns became more targeted to local issues. Global warming was made real by focusing on shortening skiing seasons affecting local incomes, bugs killing maple trees affecting syrup production, flood risks in coastal areas, pollution from coal power stations affecting children’s health. Supporters hosted house parties to engage friends and neighbours. They organised community events and protests. And they raised money. Digital was just the tool they used to organise, in the real world.

What was significant was the organisation starting to value supporters not just for their money, but for the part they could play in the mission. And listening and learning from them how best to engage people in the issues, and what they could do themselves.

AgitateEducateOrganize1-297x163“The key to organizing people” said Gregory Galluzzo, a Jesuit organizer and disciple of Saul Alinsky who taught Barack Obama, “is to listen to what they said the issues are, and then either nudge them to live up to their standards or get them to understand the source of their pain and how they could organize to eradicate it”.

Maybe you’re a fundraiser in an organisation that doesn’t campaign. It would be lazy to think this can’t apply to you. In the end, we want to enable people to make a difference to the issues they care about – the mission. Our role is to help make that happen, and help make that real for them. Our future fundraiser’s role means being skilled at listening, at getting people involved, engaged and motivated, and helping them identify what they can do to make the difference they want to make. If you can’t think what that might look like, maybe your supporters can.

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE, Adv Dip · April 25, 2016 at 19:14

Very nice piece, Monsieur Sherrington. Do tweet it!!

Yes, community organizing. Yes, donors are as lovely as beneficiaries. Great fundraisers (and great organizations) realize that the donor is as important as the beneficiary. The NGO is a conduit. The NGO must be prepared – like the fundraiser must be prepared – to gently direct a donor elsewhere where her interests lie… Not pushing her to give to “my NGO and my beneficiaries.”

Happy birthday to Bill Shakespeare. How I love his work. I’m one of those “fell into fundraising people.” I have a masters degree in 20th century comparative literature (French and American). But of course, studied Shakespeare!!!

    Matthew Sherrington · April 28, 2016 at 20:28

    Thanks Simone. Good to be in touch on twitter too now!

Penny Plowman · April 27, 2016 at 10:35

Great blog – really enjoyed reading and great ideas that feed into how change happens as well as raising the money to make the change happen,

    Penny Plowman · April 27, 2016 at 10:36

    Thank you!

    Matthew Sherrington · April 28, 2016 at 20:29

    Thanks Penny, glad you liked it!

Chris A · April 28, 2016 at 13:33

Hi Matthew,
I like the article – its challenging and thought provoking. Some of the principles behind the argument I think are valid – but having been, like you, on the inside of an NGO for 10 years I don’t think it truly appreciates how the organisations are built or the inter-relationships that exist and are necessary. As a starting point – are we a conduit? We might be on a flow chart. But that potentially misrepresents the specialisms and experience of our development and programme colleagues. We aren’t Western Union and the value-add in between is based on the dedication and commitment of experts in programme who have to make decisions and choices based on a vast body of evidence and research that is not easy packaged in a communication, nor should be. A supporter with deep levels of empathy and some appreciation of, for example, poverty or humanitarian issues largely from the media or their own travels shouldn’t necessarily be more deeply involved in the process of the conduit than they already are as a supporter. The arguments about parent governors in UK schools for instance; arguably people closer to the mission and in the community, but not necessarily meaning they have the understanding of how best to run a school. On the other end of the flow chart; the beneficiary-led approach I can see the logic – but I disagree that NGO’s should be more supporter-led. To have fundraisers in an NGO demanding or suggesting an organisational overhaul in the operating model to better involve supporters in the practise and profession suggests not that theirs just something wrong with fundraising, but also there’s something wrong with our approach to development, aid, programming, national advocacy outside of the UK etc. Then the reality check of a fundraising division asking the programme division to change course and develop what could be more palatable, involving programmes for our supporters; that suggests compromising the programme and the outcomes. What works isn’t often what sells. There is a gap between what a supporter see’s, hears and thinks about the work of NGO’s and the practical application that should be closed but I don’t think it logically follows that it creates an opportunity to be more supporter-led.

    Matthew Sherrington · May 8, 2016 at 09:38

    Hi Chris,
    thanks for engaging in the debate. But I think you challenge two things here that I’m not at all advocating. First, no, charities are not just conduits. Of course they have expertise that has to come into play. But they are enablers, and NGOs take that role particularly seriously when it comes to the sharp end of development practice. Why not with supporters? And to the second point, that doesn’t mean programme delivery becoming supporter-led – not at all. My point here is that supporters are generally kept at arms length, not from influencing how things should be carried out (about which they may or may not have a view or expertise), but from feeling they can contribute more to the mission than just stumping up cash. I’ve written elsewhere about charity ego being a large part of why the public, in the UK at least, feels increasingly distanced from them. Charities need to remind themselves that to a large degree they are servants of their supporters, whose goodwill and desire to see change happen provides the resources the charity needs to act. That doesn’t mean charities shouldn’t then apply their expertise to determine how best to use those resources. But there’s a lot more charities could do to enable people to stay committed and feel more part of the mission than you generally see. That’s the mind-shift an organising approach could deliver.

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