Opinion

Why raising funds should not be the primary goal of fundraising

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone. Happy November. Quick reminder to vote in your local elections. And to get your flu shot if you can and haven’t. 

Last week, I talked with a fundraising colleague from a large, well-established organization that has grown significantly over the past several years. He had some questions and concerns about the Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) movement. “I’m afraid that if we do CCF, we’ll have less revenues and people may lose their jobs.” As the movement grows, this is a dilemma that’s on a lot of people’s minds. And this is a constant argument against CCF, that it doesn’t “work” to bring in funding the way traditional fundraising practices have been proven to. Although I can point to evidence that CCF-aligned practices do bring in funding, I think it is crucial that all of us in this sector, but especially fundraisers, reexamine our fundamental belief that fundraising is primarily about raising money. 

Some of you are probably shaking your head in bewilderment, as perplexed as this cat above. After all, the point of fundraising seems so obvious. The objective is right there in the word itself: raise funds. We determine if a fundraising campaign is successful by whether it meets its target amount. And we assess fundraisers’ performances on how much they can bring in each year. Sure, we can have other indicators, like how many new donors we gain, how many existing donors we retain, etc., but ultimately, it comes down to how much money we can raise. What is there to talk about? I mean, do we argue that basket-weaving is really not about weaving baskets, or soap-making is not really about making soap?

For a long time, this philosophy has governed fundraising. It has been ingrained in fundraisers, and by osmosis in everyone else. It allows us to do a lot of good. However, it has also led to a lot of harm to our sector. In the pursuit of this primary goal of raising funds, we put up with really terrible donor behaviors. We charity-wash wealthy people’s tax avoidance. We conscience-launder for corporations. We use practices that appeal to donors but hurt the entire sector, like minimizing the importance of operating expenses. We train mostly white people and white institutions with money to believe that because they have money, they automatically have a say in which societal issues should get addressed and in what manner.

But there’s another problem that we don’t talk much about: This belief that the primary goal of fundraising is to raise funds, over decades, has weakened our collective imagination and made us forget the primary purpose of our sector. Take a minute to imagine the perfect world, the kind of society you would like to see and exist in. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How would we fundraise in that world? Does it look like what we’re doing now? Would fundraising even be necessary?

Many of us got into this work because we want to do what we can to realize a just and equitable community. Our organizations all have vision statements. But over time, we forget these visions. We get caught up in missions and short-term goals. We become entrenched in survivalism and self-preservation. We no longer remember that the purpose of fundraising, like the purpose of everything else in our sector, is to actualize this bold and ambitious dream of what the world could be.

Raising funds, and running programs, doing evaluation, conducting research, implementing operations, etc. are important, but they are tasks and tools that we use to advance equity and justice. If we value a tool more than what we’re using the tool to build together, then we’ve lost our way. The ultimate goal of our work is to protect the environment, not make donors happy; to further civil rights, not grow our organizations; to end poverty, not maintain our jobs.

With time and pervasive conditioning, we’ve disconnected fundraising from its original purpose. If we are to achieve our missions in a way that aligns with our values and visions, then the primary goal of fundraising can’t be to just raise money.

Imagine a university that raises millions of dollars every year. One year, it raised 500M. The following year, it raised 400M. But here’s some context: the university did some painful analysis and realized it was not living up to its values. It was raising a lot of money, but its professors were mostly white; wealthy parents were bribing to get their legacy kids admitted; students of color were unhappy with the curriculum and their experiences; donors were saying racist things and still getting buildings named after them because they gave a ton of money. In the second year, the university decided to focus more on equity, including prioritizing recruiting more faculty of color and supporting students of color, having more public conversations about systemic racism, and ending legacy admissions. Because of these and other equity-aligned changes, several major donors stopped giving, but students and faculty are happier. Which fundraising year do you think was more successful?

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve seen remarkable examples of fundraising being done in ways that would be considered blasphemous to how we’ve been trained to fundraise. Larger nonprofits declining funding so that other organizations, especially small grassroots organizations, can receive those funds instead. Orgs inviting donors to difficult discussions about race, wealth, and other uncomfortable subjects. Organizations pushing back on donors when they are out of line. Development colleagues openly pondering the ethics of their orgs accepting more donations when they’ve experienced a significant increase in funding beyond what they could use in the next year or two, when other orgs with equally vital (but maybe less heart-string-tugging) missions are on the verge of closing.

Going back to the conversation with my colleague at the beginning of this post. The organization he worked at had grown in size and had hired several new staff. It does good work. But what is the point of raising tons of money and growing as an organization if through our fundraising practices we are perpetuating the very inequities and injustices we are raising money to fight?

I know it is not as simple as I make it out to be. We have to think about many complexities in our work. But we need to have some different conversations, and that’s only possible if we challenge the fundamental and widely-accepted notion that’s been beaten into all of us that fundraising is primarily about raising money. That is a limiting, imagination-less perspective, and rather insulting to development professionals.

Let’s free ourselves of the idea that fundraising and fundraisers’ most important contribution is to bring in as much money as possible so that other people in our sector can help advance a better world. It’s time to reorient ourselves and embrace a more expansive role for fundraising and fundraisers, one where fundraising is a vehicle for change, and thus fundraisers too are agents of equity and justice

About the author

Vu Le