What are the Two Most Dangerous Assumptions in Fundraising?

Published by Charlie Hulme on

  • Thinking the reasons why people give doesn’t matter       the thinker
  • Thinking we know why people give

Assumption #1 is beyond redemption (you can’t fix stupid!) Thankfully although it still pervades a few of the bigger, aggressive, fundraising departments, it’s largely on its way out.

But the second is even more presumptuous. Its heart’s in the right place, but its brain isn’t.

How can any fundraising strategy be labelled ‘donor-centric’ if it is oblivious to the identity, experience and preference of the people it targets? How can it be called ‘engaging’, or ‘loving’ if, like mindset #1, it treats all donors exactly the same?

Assuming these don’t matter, or assuming we already know them, has reduced fundraising to well-intentioned spamming.Spam

Because regardless of whether we believe assumption #1 or #2, both run on a broken economic engine; volume. If it worked we’d simply jump from, say, 20 communications a year to 40, 80, 160 etc. But we know the reality is massive diminishing returns. Costs continue to rise, yields to fall.

Clearly we need a better economic engine or our beneficiaries will be left stranded by the wayside. So what is it?

Identifying and building a ‘journey’ based on donor identity, experience and preference.


We all have multiple identities – we are parents, vegans, cancer survivors etc. At any given moment, the most prominent identity determines our behaviour.

Most communications make a superficial, oftentimes insensitive, attempt to trigger this. Donors are generically labelled ‘generous’ or ‘kind’ to elicit giving behaviour. But the single most important identity – the one that made someone donate to your specific charity – is unknown, and so inactive.

There is a science to uncovering, and activating, donor identity. And it goes way beyond the easy answers being peddled round our sector. Those of you attending Ask Directs summer school will hear Dr. Koutmeridou PhD talk about her revolutionary work in this area. Summer school logo


At its most simplistic let’s say you could segment based on an identity tied to either having, or not having, a connection to the cause, i.e. cancer survivor or not. Does the fact these two groups have the same life experience mean they are having the same experience of interacting with you? Of course not.

But, because we’re oblivious to both identity and experience, every day we have the farcical, wasteful and harmful situation where someone with strong identity but a poor experience is treated identically as the person with weak identity and a great experience.

 So your opportunity to fix a broken experience or scale a good one is forever lost. Along with your chance of ever building ‘relationship’.


Even if you knew with certainty the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of identity it still wouldn’t tell you the ‘what’; what do they want from us?

For example, do all donors who are parents of a child with learning disabilities also want to campaign? Do all dog lovers want to receive the magazine? Do all donors who’ve had, or know someone who’s had, cataracts want the annual report? Do donors who’ve worked in healthcare want to hear from you by post or email? And how often?

For all the talk of ‘loving’ and ‘engaging’ with donors, no one spouting this empty rhetoric has answers to these questions. Because they don’t ask them. empty rhetoric

Instead they presume to answer on behalf of their donors. Ostensibly in the name of delivering the ‘putting the donor at the center’. In reality because the limitations of their systems, process, resource etc. don’t allow them to (which, in almost all cases, is nothing more than limitation of imagination).

And even if they ever  did muster enough humility to actually ask donors what mattered to them, what drove value for them, they would be oblivious to the science of asking properly.

Better model = much better results

Charities whose strategy is grounded in understanding why people give and why they stop have created a new revenue engine; a new financial model for raising money. Not only are they all raising far more money without asking for more, in most cases they’re asking much less.

It’s not a dangerous assumption that these are the charities that will do what we will all exist to do; make a difference.

Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.

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