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Stop ‘asking donors for money’ right now!


=mc Director Bernard Ross bucks against the latest fundraising trend… and with good reason.

Fundraisers: stuck in the 70s?

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been transported back into the arts and culture world of the 1970s. To be honest it’s not all bad. I mean I could live with the bad hair, the purple nylon velour loon pants, and even the cloying pink prawn cocktails. I’d even love to relive – that’s how old I am – the excitement about the launch of Sgt Pepper and 100 Years of Solitude. But what I would hate is the attitude to fundraising which existed then and seems to have resurfaced again in the last few months or so. What’s driving me bonkers? The plethora of training and publications that talk about “the right way to ask [private] donors for money…” Or the sudden growth of ‘donate now’ buttons on websites that seem to assume just because I bought a ticket and you seem short of money I’d like to move from customer to donor. It’s as though my dear friend Ken Burnett never wrote Relationship Fundraising.

I know some people, some major fundgiving agencies even, who might be puzzled. Isn’t the future of arts, culture and heritage fundraising about ‘securing private support?’ Well yes it is, especially if Mrs May and her team (?) manage to hold onto power. But built into the phrase ‘asking donors for money’ are some of the same logical flaws that led to arts organisations believing that ‘business support for the arts’ would save us all from cutbacks.

And I’m worried that many arts organisations who need to change their business model away from public subsidy are being sadly misguided by the ideas implicit in the phrase – ‘the right way to ask donors for money’. Let me tell you what the four big challenges are with that phrase:

    1. Donor! S/he’s not just a donor: I know virtually no one in the ‘serious’ fundraising world who talks about ‘donors’ in this way now. (We’ve moved on since the 70s. Just like no one really talks about ‘arts patronage.’ Or wears flares.) Thinking about someone as just a ‘Donor’ sets up a limited transactional situation where clever arts and cultural people seek money – and nothing else – from people whose only qualification is to have disposable income. Almost everyone raising serious funds in 2017 now talks about ‘supporters’ rather than ‘donors’. This is more than simply a linguistic nicety. The argument is that people who are supporters feel that they have a relationship with you – a relationship that allows them to recommend you to other people, to give you feedback on what they did and didn’t enjoy about your offering, and much more. Sure, one part of that relationship is that they can choose to invest in your work as a way of showing their engagement. But Donors can only give you money – it’s just a transaction. Sorry but that’s probably not enough for you. And you know what, it’s not enough for supporters/donors either.
    2. Asking can sound awfully like begging: lots of these trainings or books seem to suggest that the secret is to write a clever case for support, or design an impressive webpage, or to use NLP, MBTI or some other Derren Brown skulduggery to convince people that they should hand over cash. No matter how psychologically subtle these activities are they are essentially manipulative. They’re about asking people in a way designed to produce just one outcome – cash. Now I’m all in favour of training fundraisers in skills to do with rapport, or even shaping communications using subtle psychology, neuroscience or behavioural economics. (Find out more here if you’re interested.) But for me the skills should be used to create an authentic relationship with the supporter – trying to understand what they are interested in and seeing how you can help them achieve their goals. That’s not the same as asking them for money cleverly so you can simply achieve your immediate financial goal. Derren BrownPhoto from
    3. It’s not about the money: one of the beautiful things about a supporter is they want to help you in lots of ways. This includes money, but they also want to give you some of their time and talent too. (Think of it as Time, Treasure and Talent – a phrase we use in our work with many of the big UK charities.) They may want to give you financial advice, they may want to help you with marketing, they may want to help you connect to others with influence. That’s the great thing about a supporter – they are actively looking for ways to help you – not dreading the cold phone call from an agency on your behalf, or your email explaining the Arts Council has reduced your grant so you need them to make up the shortfall, or even the cheeky little add on of £5, say, at the end of an online ticket purchase. (This last one always seems to me like adding a service charge on to a self service buffet.) Volunteers
    4. The right way: let’s deal with the last bit – people are similar in that almost everyone has a potential to be charitable or philanthropic – richer people simply have more to give. But while we share the philanthropic gene, people are very different in their reasons for being philanthropic, they way they reach decisions, and the kind of thanks or recognition they want. The challenge is that many of the approaches being touted seem trapped in the1970s cookie cutter world of mechanistic ‘moves management’ – a single right way to approach any and every donor. Supporters need to be treated individually – and they will tell you how they want to be treated and communicated with if you just talk to them on and offline, and listen to their feedback. The key skill here is Emotionally Intelligent fundraising.

OK end of time shifting rant. Back to the present day. Back to the urgent need to change the old fashioned way arts fundraising in this country thinks about people. Time for some practical alternatives to ‘the right way to ask donors for money’.

If you’re keen to thrive in the 21st century and you’re interested in practical and tested approaches to engaging supporters that work, and are used by almost every major UK and international charity then you might like to try one or more of these:

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Bernard Ross

About Bernard Ross

Bernard is an internationally regarded expert in strategic thinking, organisational change and personal effectiveness. He works in Europe, USA, Africa and South America. His assignments have involved a wide range...