Donors and the Books we Read to Reach Them

Our AFP Golden Gate chapter has a monthly book club and given how busy we all are, it’s nice to have an excuse like this to read. What feels even more intellectually stimulating is to discuss what we've read with our peers - who deal with the same wins, trials and tribulations that most fundraisers go through. 

One of the goals of this blog is to share useful resources as and when we come across them. The last book club focused on a book that you might want to take a closer look at: Donor Centered Fundraising by Penelope Burke. Here's a short excerpt, to get you thinking about something critical in our line of work. You can buy the book directly from the publisher, Cygnus Applied Research, here.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

"In the first place, I advise you to apply to all those who you know will give something; next to those of whom you are uncertain whether they will give anything or not, and show them the list of those who have given; and lastly, do not neglect those who you are sure will give nothing; for in some of them you may be mistaken."
— Benjamin Franklin

Most professional fundraisers can recite this famous eighteenth century quotation by Benjamin Franklin in which the widely acknowledged father of American fundraising describes his winning strategy for raising money. These few words illuminate Franklin's approach and reflect his innate understanding of the connection between influence and fundraising success. Franklin's perfunctory description still captures the essence of fundraising practice today-or at least the part of fundraising practice that raises most of the money. 

"Most of the money” does not mean most of the contributions, though. In fact, in 2000, 89% of American households gave over $160 billion in cash, real property or other in-kind donations to charitable organizations. This is a laudably high rate of participation in philanthropy. But, an earlier study by HNW and Harris Interactive, Inc. (1995) found that 20% of American households make 71% of the charitable contributions. As wealth has become concentrated in even fewer hands since then, it is likely that philanthropy has followed the same pattern. Is it just a fact of life that the few must shoulder most of the load or could the imbalance be attributable, in part, to fundraising methodology?

If a rising tide floats all ships, then a buoyant economy carries along with it a prosperous fundraising industry. But the fundraising industry's real test comes when the economic engine slows down ... or when a national crisis drains support from charities in favor of a single issue ... or when some of the big players in business and philanthropy fall from grace.

Philanthropy is not simply a factor of the economy. Every fundraising practitioner can recount stories about the reclusive senior, who after working as a secretary and living a thrifty life, leaves a million dollars to the local university ... which she never attended.

Philanthropy is a funny thing. It can grab hold of people and make them do joyful, wonderful things, often well beyond what appears to be their financial capability. Yet for all the strides that the fundraising business has made, it is too often on the sidelines marvelling at these happy surprises when it should be on the front lines making them happen.

Though the fundraising industry has grown in the last forty years from a largely volunteer force to an industry of hundreds of thousands of professionals, charitable giving as a percentage of GDP has remained the same. When looking at the relationship between philanthropy and income, giving actually fell from 2.1% of personal income in 1967 to 1.8% in 2001.But fundraising is capable of establishing a much higher standard of performance, first because philanthropic potential is nowhere near capacity and second because fundraising methodology can be significantly improved. Transforming untapped giving potential into real dollars, however, will require examining long held beliefs about who is a philanthropist and how money should be raised. The things that are not working for donors need to be put on the table for discussion; then they need to be dealt with.

The prophetic Ben Franklin knew all about barriers to success in fundraising. Though this paragraph doesn't tend to get quoted by people in the fundraising business, here's what else he said when he was asked to assist in raising money for a new venture:

"It was about this time that ... the Reverend Gilbert Tennent came to me with a request that I would assist him in procuring a subscription for erecting a new meeting-house.... Unwilling to make myself disagreeable to my fellow-citizens by too frequently soliciting their contributions, I absolutely refused. He then desired I would furnish him with a list of the names of persons I knew by experience to be generous and public-spirited. I thought it would be unbecoming in me, after their kind compliance with my solicitations, to mark them out to be worried by other beggars, and therefore refused to give such a list."

Instead, Franklin gave the Reverend the advice that introduces this chapter, after which Tennent ... 

"... laughed and thanked me, and said he would take my advice. He did so, for he asked of everybody; and he obtained a much larger sum than he expected, with which he erected the capacious and elegant meeting-house that stands in Arch Street."

The genius of Franklin's fundraising philosophy is that it focused not on the money but on the people behind the money.

We hope you found this excerpt interesting and useful. If you enjoyed reading it, you can read what follows by buying the book directly from the publisher, Cygnus Applied Research, here.

Do join us at our next book club meeting on Friday, April 2,  11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. to read Evicted. More on that on the AFP site.