Fundraising experts: Enough with the donor sycophancy!

Written by Vu Le

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Today, please grab your favorite beverages and snacks and get ready for a rant. Recently, a fundraising expert posted a post on LinkedIn, written in the the perspective of a jaded, exasperated donor, chastising nonprofits for how they treat donors. Excerpt from this post:

Why are you so incurious about me, about where I came from, what forces shaped me and what differences I seek to make? Why, when you do respond, is in with forms and templates. Why do I feel you’re just checking boxes? Gift receipt: check. Thank you (now AI generated): check. Annual report: check. Why do you assume that is all I want? […] I am philanthropy. I am weary of knocking on non-responsive, hollow or narrowly creaked open doors. I have resolved to knock on fewer, to be more careful where I lay my tokens, to put more stipulations on my giving and to be more explicit about your accountabilities to me.”

He did end with a poetic flourish: “I have become what you taught me to be.”

Other colleagues in the thread tended to agree. One, for example, wrote: “The best advice I have received as a new ED of a young nonprofit is to never take funders for granted. Put in the time to follow up with a call or write a personal note of gratitude, sharing the stories that were made possible through their generosity. If you truly believe in the mission, you have gratitude for those that make the work possible.”

All right, let’s dive into this. For decades now, the fundraising experts of our sector have rallied around this philosophy of appeasing to donors, ensuring they feel seen and valued and even “loved.” Despite the progress of movements like Community-Centric Fundraising, it is still a very persistent philosophy. It manifests itself in various ways, from workshops on how to “engage” donors better, to donors feeling upset because they ONLY received a form letter instead of a handwritten note, to the various development pundits wagging their fingers at the inept, thoughtless nonprofit leaders who fail to put their donors on pedestals and wash their feet.

Yes, I know there are tons of nonprofits and nonprofit leaders who suck. Those who fail to follow-through on acknowledgements, who aren’t transparent in their information, who aren’t very communicative, who even have disdain for donors. There was even one nonprofit leader who punched a donor in the face and screamed “Pay more taxes!” (But I apologized, and now we’re friends.)

But amidst all this, we haven’t taken time to acknowledge that traditional fundraising philosophies and practices have started warping people’s perspective of nonprofit work and turned it basically into retail. Instead of us as a community trying to work together to solve entrenched issues like homelessness, poverty, racism, child abuse, climate change, etc., we’ve all become like retail shops. Like we’re all a bunch of gyms competing for members, and those of us with the best customer service get more clients and money, and customers who are disgruntled can leave angry reviews warning others to stay away.

Decades of this pervasive “nonprofit as retail shops competing for customers” philosophy have caused significant damage to our work. It’s dulled our sense of urgency. It’s shifted our priorities from solving challenges and sunsetting, into self-preservation and a continuation of the inequities we’re proclaiming to fight. We need to recenter our perspective because we’ve strayed way too far.

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.