The acceptable face of fundraising targets

Published by Ken Burnett on

If the donor experience, not fundraising targets, should be at the heart of future fundraising strategies, how will our organisations achieve what they need?

Some years ago I squirreled away a cryptic comment from a guy called Toby Bourke, former head of donor acquisition at Greenpeace International and director of fundraising at Greenpeace UK, now CEO at Red Fundraising. It went like this.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard this flight to somewhere between here and where you actually want to get to. Flight time tonight could be anything from one to six hours, depending on how well we do.

 We’ll be flying at an altitude that we hope will be slightly higher than last year but not as high as we flew four years ago when flying was easier. We cannot at this stage commit to a specific altitude. Obviously we hope we will go reasonably high.

 We are hoping for a smooth flight but if there’s any turbulence we’ll conclude air flight is unrealistic in this current climate and land immediately. 

 Now, sit back and enjoy the flight!”

I recently rediscovered Toby’s comment and find I like it still. The point is, you need to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. If you don’t, your chance of getting even close to where you want or need to be is infinitesimally small.

So clearly fundraisers can’t function without targets that stretch them. Without money we can’t continue at all. Without aspiration our organisations will achieve much less than they might. We have to aim high, for the sake of everyone who needs us.

But despite their usefulness – for example in events, in special appeals and in focusing community endeavour – donors, by and large, don’t like targets. They will understand their necessity of course, because they’re neither unreasonable nor stupid. But if they believe preoccupation with achieving your target is the main reason you’re talking to them your chances of success will become vanishingly small. On the other hand, if instead you get the donor experience right you may be surprised and delighted that you’ll raise far more than you were expecting.

Fundamental principle 1. Fundraising isn’t about money.

American fundraiser Shannon Doolittle puts it well when she says, ‘A donor’s heart isn’t stuffed with cash, it’s filled with passion. And that’s what you have to tap into, dear fundraisers.’

By all means calculate the money you’ll need for your appeal or the coming year and work out how you’re going to raise it. But see your financial objective in its proper place. As veteran fundraiser Harold Sumption used to say, ‘if you start by asking for money you won’t get it and you won’t deserve it.’ So it’ll pay fundraisers to be very careful about how they talk about their targets to donors, if they need to mention them at all.

Asking for money should be the last thing you do after communicating appropriate information and inspiration. By then the pressure should be off, the outcome a foregone conclusion, decided by the donor.

Fundamental principle 2. Giving is always voluntary.

One of the best fundraising propositions of all time, this classic ad from Help the Aged in the 1970s depends entirely upon the inclusion of price. Where else could anyone get such value for money? These five inspirational words and a surprisingly low requested figure prompted thousands of enthusiastic gifts, each from a donor who instantly ‘got it’ Many will have given more, because in the coupon the fundraiser cleverly left the amount blank, for the donor to decide. See the full story on SOFII.org

One of the best fundraising propositions of all time, this classic ad from Help the Aged in the 1970s depends entirely upon the inclusion of price. Where else could anyone get such value for money? These five inspirational words and a surprisingly low requested figure prompted thousands of enthusiastic gifts, each from a donor who instantly ‘got it’ Many will have given more, because in the coupon the fundraiser cleverly left the amount blank, for the donor to decide. See the full story on SOFII

Targets are not the concern of donors and they shouldn’t ever be even aware of them. Instead all they should see is the cause, themselves and their part in making the required difference. Fundraisers should see targets as applying to donors collectively, in groups, rather than to any individual. Donors must always be free to decide for themselves how much or how little they give, or whether they’ll give at all. This is not optional, it’s a fundamental human right, nothing less. Fundraisers should celebrate it, not try to get round it. Donors of course also decide whether or not they’ll give a fundraiser a hearing. If fundraisers are to continue to be allowed to raise funds publicly the public’s right to say no has always to be accepted, instantly and without question.

Fundamental principle 3. No pressure is acceptable. Ever.

This needs no embellishing. Fundraisers might be advised to inscribe this principle on their heart. Passion and enthusiasm, yes. Pressure and persuasion, no. For fundraising to work it has to be all about inspiration, not at all about persuasion.

Fundamental principle 4.  Fundraisers should be as concerned about donors who don’t respond as much as they are about donors who do.

Reaching your target shouldn’t over-ride concern for the donor. You’ll only achieve your fundraising potential if donors are happy, inspired and want to stay because, in future, fundraisers will be judged as much or even more for their skills in retention than in acquisition.

So say goodbye to the philosophy that says, ‘as long as your next mailing generates more money than it costs, you can mail more’. Not if the effect of yet another mailing is to irritate legions of merely resting supporters.

Fundamental principle 5. No more hunting in the dark.

Too many fundraisers still seem to imagine they can get by without being steeped in the foundations of their craft (for craft it is).  Too many still imagine they don’t need to do the homework that’s required to flourish as a fundraiser.

For far too long fundraising leaders have tolerated this, in effect allowing the wrong people to remain in post. Of course there are numerous honourable exceptions to this, at all levels. Yet still fundraisers commonly come into our profession knowing nothing, are given minimal induction and exposure and leave months, or even years, later still not knowing what they need to know to properly do their jobs as donor-led fundraising professionals.

No other industry would tolerate such ignorance. It’s time to change this so that fundraisers everywhere are no longer asked for the equivalent of hunting in the dark. A good place for all fundraisers to start is by familiarising themselves with the foundations of fundraising (see a list of them here on SOFII).

Of course specific sums can be mentioned and shopping-list items can be included. But they must have real integrity and should be handled with care and respect for how donors see them. Integrity is everything, so specific sums should all be readily justifiable and included only as indicators to guide donors and help make their experience appropriate. Devices designed merely to up gift levels or to prompt a convenient round sum should be avoided. Ringed higher amounts and descending gift suggestions designed to lead giving may upset more donors than they influence.

If a donor feels you see these techniques as steps towards your target he or she will run a mile. It makes sense to separate targets from inspiration and donors’ decisions, focusing their thoughts instead on what invariably matters most to them – the difference in this troubled world that you are helping them to make, through their gifts.

So the future of the fundraising target remains secure. But only as part of an exemplary donor experience. Then, and only then, fundraisers should be held accountable for it.

If this approach strikes chords with you please add your voice to the work of the Commission on the Donor Experience. Thanks.

CDE logo



“You should be aware that donor relationship development is not a soft option behind which you can hide a lack of fundraising success. Donor development doesn’t amount to a hill of beans unless it leads to more funds raised in the long term. 

 The truth is donor development is all about raising more money. It differs from the hard-sell school of fundraising in that it recognises that because giving is voluntary, raising the maximum funds calls for rare, complex and diverse skills and abilities…donor development is a precision tool that takes us right to the heart of our donors, not a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon them.”

From the introduction to The Zen of Fundraising, Ken Burnett 2006.


Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


ANNALISA GIANFERRARI · May 27, 2016 at 01:16

Thank you mr Burnett gor your contribute

If Italian fundraisers could only have the chance to benefit and learn from you and your experience!!!

Wouldn’t you take me as s scholar of yours?

Wouldn’t you accept an invitation to come to Italy for a seminar for example within ASSIF ( Italian Association Fundraising )?

Last but not least: can you post something about fundraising and freemasonery?

    Ken Burnett · May 27, 2016 at 13:31

    Dear Annalisa,

    Thank you for your nice comment.

    Of course i love Italy and have spoken several times at events for fundraisers in Italy, but I don’t travel now as much as I used to. However I’m always interested to hear, and you can contact me via my website http://www.kenburnett.com.

    Fundraising and freemasonry, I confess, has me stumped. After reading War and Peace I wish I did know more about freemasonry but sadly I know little about it. And a little knowledge can be dangerous.

    Good luck,

derlean · June 10, 2024 at 09:06

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