Introducing: The Authentic Fundraiser

Posted by on April 26, 2016 in Uncategorized | 23 comments

In a world where we talk A LOT about building relationships with and loving our donors, very few charities are actually putting donors above their own organizational needs. I believe that is because we are paying lip service to buzz words but still using traditional sales techniques in the trenches. Our sector needs more authentic fundraisers, more authentic fundraising and more authentic people.

Our sector needs more authentic fundraisers, more authentic fundraising and more authentic people.

Before we start throwing around yet another new buzzword, it is prudent to stop and ask ourselves: What does authenticity mean? What does it mean to be a truly authentic fundraiser? And what does authentic fundraising look like?

The problem with the traditional approach

When I first started raising money for charity sixteen years ago, there were a few books that formed the basis of my education. They were: “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie.. “The seven habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey and “The art of persuasion” by Robert Ciaidini. – far be it for me to go up against Covey, Carnegie and Ciaidini! These are still best selling business books. You should read them; I just encourage you to read them critically. Not all of their techniques apply to our sector.

Time for a new approach to “sales”

After considerable thought I now believe that how we are applying these principles in the espoused books is dead wrong. Let’s take a closer look at the language being used:

Influence: the power to change or affect someone or something : the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen[1]

Persuasion: the act of causing people to do or believe something: the act or activity of persuading people[2]

Reciprocity:  a mutual exchange of privileges; specifically:  a recognition by one of two countries or institutions of the validity of licenses or privileges granted by the other[3]

I would like to banish the words persuasion, reciprocity and influence from the fundraising lexicon. Donors are more cynical, educated and are expecting us to do better. They want to be more engaged, are thinking more critically and are giving differently than they were twenty years ago. The fact of the matter is our sector is falling behind and our profession is grossly misunderstood.


According to some work that I participated in as part of the advisory panel for Rogare, many fundraisers are paying lip service to the idea of building relationships and being donor centred. It is easy to stand up and cheer for our donors when we are at meet ups – but how do we operationalize that in the trenches? Many organizations in our sector simply are not doing it.

Sales is not fundraising

Another problem is that so many people who have a “sales” background transition into “fundraising” jobs. I think that is because they think if they can “sell a pen” they can “sell” a charity. This is doing a disservice to what I consider to be a vocation and perpetuates misconceptions about what it is that fundraisers actually do.

When hired there is an assumption that as fundraisers we will come into our new roles with truckloads of cash. All hopes are pinned on the new guy, without taking into account the health of existing programs, the strength of the governance structure, the culture and the appetite for and perception of fundraising in general.

Furthermore, I think that many charity staff tolerate the development department rather than embrace it. We are perceived as a necessary evil and until we stop using archaic sales techniques and start approaching our profession from a sense of service and authenticity rather than a sense of entitlement we will not be able to create the change necessary to stay relevant for next generations.

So what does an Authentic Fundraiser look like?

According to Miriam Webster, to be authentic is to be: real, genuine: not copied or false. So I see an an authentic fundraiser as:

Service oriented – 0ur job is not to sell and raise buckets of cash. Our job is to facilitate philanthropy. We are there to serve program staff and make their jobs easier. We are there to serve our board and help them have extraordinary experiences as board members and we are there to serve our donors and make sure that their passions and dreams come to life through their philanthropy – not our solicitation. The authentic fundraiser wakes up everyday and asks: How can I make the world better for the people around me?

Deeply curious – Of course we have all heard the saying “You have two ears and one mouth, listen twice as much as you talk.” With donor relationships that is never truer. Instead of trying to “persuade” people, we should be sincerely asking them what they care about, what they want to achieve and whether our organization doing a good job at keeping them happy? The authentic fundraiser is sincerely and deeply curious about people.

Rarely thinks about money – I know it is a little bit naïve to say that fundraisers NEVER think about money. We do have targets to meet so that programs can be delivered. BUT, money is just a means to an end. Money is not the goal. Creating change is the goal.

90% of donor relationships are about stewardship, impact reporting and relationship building. Only 10% of that relationship has to do with conversations about money. In fact, if you do your 90% well, experience has demonstrated to me that the donor will give without a solicitation and perhaps even start encouraging their friends to get involved.

Lives a wholehearted life – The authentic fundraiser has nothing to prove. We know that we are good enough. We are comfortable with ourselves and are deeply passionate about our cause. Living our own personal truth is essential to our success.

When we start to have more real, genuine and honest approaches to this profession we will have stronger relationships with our staff, our peers, our boss’s, our donors and even our own families. This is a cry to stop paying lip service to the ideas of being donor centred, building relationships and advancing a culture of philanthropy while we continue to study traditional sales techniques.

In future articles I will share real world examples of authentic fundraising. Together we will explore how to advance your donor relationships along what I think of as an engagement continuum – rather than “managing moves”. And I will share with you real examples of how to apply this approach to every revenue channel of your development program.

What do you think? Will you consider joining me in this movement for more authenticity in our profession?




This article was originally published in Hilborn Charity eNEWS

Share the love:)



  1. Thank you for this brave, honest post. I am a strong advocate, as you well know, for open-hearted and emotional approaches to our work. This post truly speaks to me. Thank you, KM!

  2. Another great article Kimberley. Thanks for these wise words.

  3. Thank you Kimberly, looking forward to reading the rest of the articles

    • Wonderful! Thank you. I’m looking forward to writing them. They will trickle out slowly via eNEWS so stay tuned! 🙂

  4. Thank you Kimberley. I really enjoyed the article and I am looking forward to embarking on this journey with you. I am curious to learn more about the “engagement continuum”.

    • Thanks Warren – I will certainly cover that in future articles. Thank you for your comment and interest.

  5. Well said Kimberley. An excellent article.

    • Thank Catherine – looking forward to seeing you again! Soon I hope!

  6. Once again a very well thought out thought provoking article We need to totally ban the word sales from any and all fundraising conversations. In my mind a real fundraiser embarks on a journey with a donor based on the donor’s self proclaimed interests. And at the end of a successful journey, as you have pointed out the donor will make the financial decision for you.

    • Thank Jim! You are so right! We don’t have to “sell” anything. The donor decides.

      (On another note I’ve been meaning to call you for a few weeks now. Are you in the office today?

  7. Thank you Kimberly for this well thought, well written article. Many people look to those of us in Gift Planning as a avenue to the donor ATM. It is about relationships and understanding. People give because they believe in a cause not because they have been talked into giving.

    • You are so right Don – we have a lot of work to do to help internal and external audiences understand what Authentic Fundraising is. Thanks for your comment.

  8. The President of a private foundation sent the following to me privately and has given me permission to share it anonymously here:

    Good column (Hilborn e-news)! I have been lucky enough to be both a grant-maker (a private foundation) and a fundraiser, having been on several hands-on engaged charity boards making asks of donors. From that vantage point of seeing both sides of the coin.

    I believe, I would observe that fundraisers pretty much do what is in their self-interests. They are only human after all. By this I mean that if board-set performance and compensation are based on annual fundraising targets (the majority of charities?), then the staff thinking, planning, and execution is short term and aimed at how to meet a simple dollar goal. Intellectually many FR staff understand and may try to practice good stewardship and relationship building, but when a looming target needs to be met (which is almost always), then day-to-day activity becomes about sales and closing the gift. In short, an hour spent relationship-building is an hour not spent calling/meeting donors to close gifts. I would propose that this reality (as I see it!?) is not well addressed by most boards and senior staff. Everyone involved wants to think they are professional and practice the best and latest FR techniques, but too often the ‘carrot’ is not appropriate to reward the behaviour that builds the authenticity and relationship building you describe.

    Thoughts welcome…

    • Yes! Exactly this…. there is a perpetual cycle of need and targets and revenue goals that have to be met. Relationships take time to develop, and relationship ROI is difficult to quantify on a spreadsheet.

      As you know, in my field of digital communications, the same pressures are there. Social media doesn’t directly produce income. What it DOES is help build relationships and reputation. Leadership has a tough challenge to choose investing in long term relationships over short term needs. It will be interesting to see how (and if) this ever changes.

  9. This is excellent! My heart and soul resonates with this. Thank you, Kimberley. I agree that most fundraisers are limited and driven only by those “looming target needs” that must be met otherwise the fundraisers performance is in question. I’m curious to know how a charitable organization could change from this ingrained culture of “an hour spent relationship-building is an hour not spent calling/meeting donors to close gifts”? I absolutely love how you put it – “Money is not the goal. Creating change is the goal”. I can’t wait to read your next few articles with real world examples. Blessings.

    • Thanks so much Shamim. It sounds like your love of philanthropy runs deep. You asked how an organization could develop a more philanthropic culture. I’d be happy to talk to you about that more if you like on the phone? Let me know if you would like to chat. k

  10. Yes! Wow does this resonate with me Kimberly. As a creative partner to my nonprofit clients (and branding expert) when I started my business 6 years ago authenticity (my own, as well as my client organization’s) was so important to me that I made it central (literally) of my 3-stage work process: “insight ( ie research, and listening with ‘both ears’ as you say) “Authenticity and Inspiration. This middle step refers to my strong recommendation that fundraising campaigns, donor communications or organizational branding be rigorously authentic. As I like to put it: ” substance over salesmanship. Truth over trendiness. Honest. Real. Your mandate will be clear, your brand, campaign, publication or website will resonate. Your stakeholders will love you for it”. Notice I say stakeholders and not just supporters there, meaning internal stakeholders as well. Like you said in your article, most of us don’t get into this do-gooder business to obsess about money to the detriment of the good we wanted t do ( or enable) in the first place. I used to work in the corporate graphic design and advertising world, where lofty ideals are routinely ascribed to the most banal consumer products. I always tel my nonprofit clients that what they are doing is so much more important, and useful, than selling more stuff. And authenticity in branding, messaging and fundraising is easily one of the best ways to build support and yes, raise the funds needed.

    • Thanks Sherri – I’d love to see some examples if you have them.

  11. Wonderful post, Kimberley. Needed to be said. I think the challenge with the words ‘sales’ and ‘fundraising’ is that people have had numerous bad experiences with them, and so they associate those words accordingly. People think ‘sales’, they think of all the times when they were pushed, coerced, hounded, and just felt icky. Same for ‘fundraising’.

    Once, a VP of Sales at a major organization did a Sales Training workshop for our team. When questions were brought up like “What about getting the person used to saying yes by asking a series of questions geared that way?”, which would fall into some approaches of traditional sales, he said “If what you are doing is not genuinely in the interest of your customer or donor, and that is not the place you start from, you have already failed.” He was right.

    The best salespeople and the best fundraisers are the ones who really do believe in what they are putting out to the world, not the ones schmoozing pretentiously, firing off business cards without building rapport, manipulating instead of building connections, and who believe they can sell anything to anyone. So I challenge that the issue is not with the use of the word sales as much as the fact that there is good sales and bad sales, as there is good fundraising and bad fundraising. At their best, they are both about a deep seeded belief that you have value to add to the person at the other end, and you are excited to help facilitate them receiving that value and feeling good about it.

    What is DEFINITELY broken are the systems of measurement, metrics and incentives which do not always reward activities that are in the best interests of the long-term of the donor or the organization. These are based on old models founded in traditional sales concepts, have a short-term lens, primarily measuring dollars and working against relationship-based fundraising. If that doesn’t change, then neither will the behaviours and singular focus on dollars over relationships.

    You can’t be authentic if you’re too busy thinking about how you’re going to ‘persuade’ someone to do something they don’t want to do, or before they’re ready so you can check off a box.

    I look forward to the rest of the articles! Keep them coming.

  12. Dear Rickesh,

    Thank you so much for thinking critically, sharing your comments and adding value to the conversation. Of course you are absolutely right. There is good sales and bad sales, good fundraising and bad fundraising.

    I’m also fascinated by the thoughts that are coming out – here and on linked in – that what I think of as an engagement continuum, especially with respect to major gifts, s misaligned with the budget process. To put it another way; if it takes a great Authentic Fundraiser 18-24 months for the relationship to mature into a financial transaction – how do we put that up against a 12 month budget cycle? I can see how it can be done in mature, larger organizations. But a mid level organization that is building a major gift problem is going to need a longer timeline to realize financial results.

    Does that make sense?

    • Nicely done, Kimberley. I very much appreciate this.

      • Thank you so much Simone. That means a lot. You are a huge inspiration for being brave enough to ask the “cage rattling” questions and start challenging conversations.

  13. Music to my eyes, Kimberley!!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *