I write a LOT about the role of the fundraiser as “philanthropy facilitator.” This individual guides people along the pathway to passionate philanthropy. Philanthropy facilitators don’t do the work for donors, but with them — standing by their side along the journey.
Dr. Russell James recently wrote one of the best articles I’ve read on the role of the fundraiser vis a vis the donor. ‘Fundraiser turnover solutions: Transforming the story character’ is a tour de force for what is often termed “donor-centered fundraising.” Except it’s not “fundraising” so much as what I like to call “philanthropy facilitation.”
What Dr. Russell brings to the discussion table is the notion that the way many organizations treat folks in the fundraising role makes it impossible for them to do their work effectively. Fundraisers are treated as “money grubbers,” and no one likes people in this role. Accordingly, they are treated with disdain and siloed. Other staff interact with them, but reluctantly. The fundraiser is put in a corner, told to go raise money, and punished if they don’t. It’s all their fault, because it was their job – not anyone else’s.
In these organizations, even when money is raised it’s not particularly celebrated. Because… money. No one likes to talk about it. So, the fundraiser is looked upon as someone who did their distasteful job (no big deal), and now is asked to do even more next time. Again, pretty much on their own.
These organizations have no culture of philanthropy. And, absent such a culture, fundraisers don’t thrive. It’s arguably the reason there’s so much turnover in fundraiser positions. The average new fundraiser leaves their job in only 16 months. No one wants to feel like a pariah on a regular basis.
What I like about Dr. James’ perspective is he heads away from the culture of philanthropy paradigm (something that’s hard for many organizations to understand and fully embrace), and talks instead about the STORY. There’s an organizational story, a fundraiser story, and a donor story. And we need to make them all heroic.
Sometimes people chafe at the idea of making donors heroes. But I say why not make everyone heroes? Not based upon how wealthy they are or how much money they give, but based upon the positive impact they make?
- The donor story is one where they do something that makes them like who they see in the mirror. It’s not a story about giving money. It’s a story about self-identity and purpose as a change-maker.
- The fundraiser story is one where they help someone, and some organization, make a mission-focused impact. It’s not a story about begging or coercing people for money. It’s a story about self-identity as a collaborator, coach, and guide.
- The organization story is one where vision, mission, and values are enacted to make the world a better, richer, more caring place. It’s not a story about money collection, whether “for” or “non” profit. It’s a story about organizational identity focused on solving a pressing problem.
When the fundraiser helps the donor tell their hero’s story, they accomplish something monumental – for themselves, for the donor, and for the organization that employs them. As Dr. Russell so eloquently states:
“In the donor’s hero story, the fundraiser fills a critical role. The fundraiser is the wise sage who guides the donor through the hero’s journey.”
“The fundraiser is the sage who challenges with a choice. This challenge moves the donor’s hero journey forward.”
“But this challenge isn’t the end. The fundraiser continues in this mono-myth role beyond the initial challenge. She introduces the donor-hero to helpful friends and allies. She presents the donor-hero with powerful instruments. These magnify the hero’s impact. The fundraiser serves as mentor, sage, advisor, and guide.”
The Donor is Not the Only Character in the Hero’s Story
As powerful a role as the donor’s is the role of the person who facilitates their journey. Dr. Russell points out the pivotal role of this facilitator as it appears in fairy tales and myths. The “Wiseman.” The “Helper.” Yoda, Gandalf, and so many more, without whom the hero could not reach their potential.
Keeping fundraisers in their jobs, maximizing donor lifetime giving potential, and fulfilling the organization’s mission all require a paradigm shift. You can call it culture of philanthropy. Or you can call it a reframing of the stories you tell, internally and externally.
“Changing the story changes the role. The fundraiser’s role transforms from stigmatized to epic. Along with this change in role comes a change in goal. The goal is now to help the donor.”
How to Reframe the Narrative
Fundraising never exists in a vacuum. The goal is not “to raise $X amount.” Rather, the goal derives from the why of the organization’s existence and the why of the donor’s search for meaning and purpose.
The best philanthropy facilitation comes from a place of love. When the fundraiser is focused on bringing out that love, rather than extracting money as if from an ATM, good things ensue all around.
- The donor feels good. MRI studies show even contemplating giving brings a “warm glow” dopamine rush. No one says “They twisted my arm to give a million-dollar gift.” Rather, the donor feels “I got so much more out of this than I give.”
- The fundraiser feels good. Fundraising work moves away from just “money getting” to making a meaningful match between donor and organizational values. No one says “I’m successful because I brought in 50 major donors.” Rather, the point is the fundraiser made it possible for donors and the organization to do good.
- The organization does good. The act of raising money is not the good thing. Rather, what is accomplished with that philanthropy becomes the focus. No one says: “We’re a great organization because we raise $15 million annually.” The point is something else entirely.
You can’t have a fundraising goal absent an organizational goal that requires philanthropy. If someone interviews for a fundraising job, and doesn’t ask questions about the strategic plan (aka, rationale for fundraising), this is a red flag. The same holds true for board members who agree to join the board without first asking to see the plan and the finances. If the organization’s goals require philanthropy, then there’s a case for fundraising to meet these goals. If not, fundraising will never get off the ground.
The Best Practitioners Guide Towards a Goal
Beyond knowing the organization’s impact goals, the fundraiser must consider the donor’s goals. Why? Because the best fundraisers are matchmakers.
You can’t make a good match without positioning the gift as one that matches the donor’s values, life story, hopes, and dreams. Do you know what these are? If not, this is your first step: Find out! Talk to your donors and get to know them better. Learn what floats their boat. Find out what keeps them up at night right now; these things shift over time. Otherwise, you can’t make a match that delivers an identity-enhancing victory.
Engagement really is at the heart of the matter; all of philanthropy is based in values. Within the values universe, it’s our job to convey where we sit, what we do, why what we do is necessary, and that we’re effective doing it. Our next job is to uncover folks who share the values our organization enacts. Finally, once common ground is found, we ask for the investment that will ensure the values are enacted and the donor’s passions are fulfilled.
Once you know where you’re going with any particular donor, your job is to advance their journey towards that goal. The money will come, but it won’t be about the money. It will be about the love.
Fundraising is servant to philanthropy. It helps us fulfill the values we seek to enact in the world. It doesn’t stand on its own. That’s why we need to do some reframing. People love philanthropy. It’s fundraising they don’t like. Let’s help folks do what they love to do.
“Advancing the donor’s hero story is not just about delivering money to the organization. It’s about delivering meaning to the donor.”
— Dr. Russell James
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