Relationship Fundraising

Criticisms of relationship fundraising (and why they are wrong)

At 13.00 UK today, I’m going to be interviewed on Facebook Live by Ravinol Chambers of Be Inspired Films. This is the third edition of the Institute of Fundraising’s #FRED talks and I’ll be talking about why relationship fundraising is more important than ever.

Do tune in and ask any questions you might have!

To whet your appetite, here is a short edited extract from Donors for Life: A practitioner’s guide to relationship fundraising, that looks at some of the major criticisms of relationship fundraising.

Three major criticisms of relationship fundraising – and why they’re wrong…

  1. Not everyone wants a relationship/you can’t treat everyone the same

The argument that not everyone wants a relationship with a nonprofit would be a valid one if you take too literal a definition of ‘relationship’ and compare it to that of husband and wife, brother and sister, etc. Similarly, some people take relationship fundraising to mean that you treat all donors the same and give everyone the same levels of service and personalisation regardless of their level of giving.

Let us be clear. Nowhere in the literature is it suggested, or even implied, that this is the sort of relationship you should try to nurture with all your donors.

The definition of relationship we use is much looser. A relationship exists (whether you like it or not) from the moment a donor or potential donor interacts with your nonprofit. Your job is to make sure that the interaction leaves a good impression and makes the donor want to continue to support your cause or takes him or her a step closer to making a first donation.

Different donors deserve different levels and types of relationship depending on their own personal values, needs, wants and desires. The good relationship fundraiser will be aware of this, will act accordingly and do nothing that will harm the donor’s support for her or his cause.

I’ve written about this over at Rogare when they published their review of relationship fundraising, which is well worth a read.

2 Relationship fundraising is too soft and woolly

Another argument we often hear is that relationship fundraising is used as an excuse for not asking for donations, or it takes too long to see the results so is not worth the effort.

Again, let us be clear, relationship fundraising without asking is like a Formula 1 car without petrol. They both look the part, but fail as the key component of their success is missing.

It’s  crucial that you measure and record the impact of your relationship fundraising efforts. This means you can demonstrate the improvement on lifetime value and return on investment to your chief executive and board. If you don’t do this, then short-term decisions can be taken that damage the relationship but boost immediate returns.

Remember, relationship fundraising is only worth doing if it raises more money in the long term than pursuing alternative strategies.

  1. Relationship fundraising is great in theory, but hard in practice

There is no doubting that relationship fundraising is challenging to implement. It requires hard work, focus and a commitment to create a fundraising team culture where long-term results outweigh short-term priorities.

We also recognise that there are other ways to raise money. Some of these can undoubtedly be successful. For example, we know of many charities that have raised millions of pounds by pursuing a very transactional, incentive-led direct marketing programme.

When donor recruitment costs are low there is also little incentive to improve the lifetime value of supporters and build long-lasting relationships. You can simply treat donors like a commodity and get some new supporters in to replace those who stop giving. Although effective, it is, perhaps, not very satisfying.

It’s our steadfast belief that soon charities won’t have a choice about whether to improve the donor experience and service. As donors stop giving in larger numbers and the costs of donor recruitment become ever higher, then the only way to fundraise cost-effectively will be by retaining donors for longer periods and maximising their lifetime value.


Reflections on the Rogare review of relationship fundraising

I wanted to share this article I recently wrote for the Rogare Critical Fundraising blog. These are my reflections on the recent review undertaken by Rogare. The original post has some interesting comments and, if you have any thoughts, I suggest you add them to the Rogare blog. I'd also recommend reading Ken Burnett's recent blog on the subject. Thanks for reading.

Rogare’s recent review of Relationship Fundraising gives much food for thought for the sector. Importantly, it suggests topics for further exploration to help improve the standards of fundraising and raising more money for the causes we care about.
However, I think there a couple of important areas that the review overlooked. For that reason, I believe it should be seen as an interesting starting point to discuss relationship fundraising. Below are some of my thoughts and suggestions for further thinking, clarification and discussion. I hope you find them useful.

1 Relationship fundraising is not a choice: all fundraising is relationship fundraising

Perhaps the most important line in the entire report does not feature in the final summary. This is disappointing. However, it goes to the heart of why relationship fundraising has been misunderstood over the years by so many practitioners. It also highlights an error (explained in point three) that I believe Ian MacQuillin and Adrian Sargeant have made in their recommendations.

In the introduction to volume two, the authors state:

    …(T)he process of fundraising is by definition the process of establishing new links or reinforcing existing ones. In this sense, all fundraising is relationship building. If one chooses to be a fundraiser, one chooses to build relationships.  Building relationships is not optional in fundraising; it is inherent in the definition of what fundraising is.

From this clear statement it seems hard to leap to the conclusion that relationship fundraising is a choice.

So what happened?

What was originally meant by Ken Burnett has been wrongly (though understandably) compared to relationship marketing.
In volume one it is acknowledged:

    In the non-profit context, Ken Burnett did not have the relationship marketing concept in mind when he wrote his inspirational text.

Burnett has been quite clear on the subject over the years, as far back as 1996 when he was discussing the publication of Friends for Life – the follow up to Relationship Fundraising he said:

    Relationship fundraising is, after all, just a currently fashionable piece of jargon … I wish I’d paid more attention to its     subtitle – “A donor-based approach to the business of raising money.” Those ten words, I believe, are ultimately much     more important than the two words that precede them.

Other books from Burnett, such as Zen of Fundraising and George Smith’s Asking Properly take a similar viewpoint. They talk about relationships in this high level sense and focus on how you build commitment, trust and satisfaction with donors, which we now know is so important.

In none of his writings did Burnett use an analogy with marriage or compare relationship fundraising to relationship marketing. Yet many still confuse the two concepts.

Before moving on, it is important to note that it would be wrong to say that relationship marketing does not have any application to fundraising. As the review states, there are clear times when it is a useful way to consider fundraising and there are snippets of advice from the theory that all fundraisers would do well to heed.

So how do we overcome this problem of confusion of what we mean by relationship fundraising?

I’d suggest that we think of relationship fundraising as operating on three levels, as represented by the diagram below:

  Levels of relationship fundraising

 Level one uses the word ‘relationship’ in its widest, dictionary definition. This, I believe, is what Burnett intended in his original Relationship Fundraising.

Level two relates to relationship theory in social psychology and the ideas outlined in volume two of the review.

Level three refers to relationship marketing theory. Volume one of the review.

Sitting outside the circle is poor fundraising practice that discourages commitment, trust and satisfaction from donors.

Considering relationship fundraising in this way allows a clear understanding of what we mean by relationships and what level any recommendations in the review refer to.

So, my firm belief is that fundraisers don’t need to make ‘a choice between relationship fundraising and ‘good old fashioned’ customer care’ but need to choose between applying level one, two or three relationship fundraising.

This model also explains the different North American and British ‘schools’ of relationship fundraising described in the review. The British school is firmly rooted in levels one and two and the North American school is more focused on level three.

2 Casting the net further – broadening the definition of relationship fundraising

If you accept the model above, then this opens up new areas for discussion and review of relationship fundraising. We do not need to confine ourselves to the realms of social psychology and relationship marketing.

I firmly believe relationship fundraising is an evolving concept that takes the best of business, marketing and behavioural theories and applies them to the fundraising world. Too much focus is on the word ‘relationship’ and not on the subtitle of the book ‘A donor-based approach to the business of raising money’.

A close look at theories behind customer experience, experiential marketing and contemporary marketing books could all prove fruitful areas for review to improve levels of trust, commitment and satisfaction in the fundraising world.

One of the few fundraisers who has documented such an approach is Richard Turner of Solar Aid. Turner’s proposed model of fundraising urges fundraisers to use the social capital in our own, and donors’, networks. The model applies 21st century marketing theory to how we build strong relationships with our donors and, ultimately, raise more money.

A robust testing of Turner’s proposals in a similar vein to volumes two and three could be a fruitful area for future study.

3 Language is important: transactional fundraising shouldn’t be encouraged in mass marketing terms

MacQuillin and Sargeant appear to inter-change relationship fundraising and relationship marketing techniques in their conclusions. This results in the following summary:

    Rogare suggests that a more ‘transactional’ form of fundraising might be more effective and relevant in fundraising from     individuals, with relationship fundraising tenets being applied to donors who have a much higher level of involvement     with the charity, such as corporate and high net worth individuals.

    Not that the majority of individual donors need be downgraded in any way. It is just that ‘good old fashioned’ excellent     customer care might be a more effective approach for mass marketing fundraising.

As I argued above, this seems to confuse level three relationship fundraising (based on relationship marketing) with level one relationship fundraising as defined by Burnett.

I believe classifying fundraising as ‘transactional’ is a dangerous view to propose. It strips fundraising of its emotional soul. It is transactional, mass marketing fundraising techniques that led to 2015 being such a tough year for fundraising in the UK. We need to move away from transactional fundraising in mature markets as it is responsible for the current threat of regulation in the UK and it is why charities lose more donors than they recruit in the US.

We need to encourage emerging markets to learn the lessons from the UK and USA and not go down the low cost, transactional route which appears, on current trends, to be unsustainable (though more research needs to be conducted to prove this point).

Proposing that transactional fundraising could be an effective way to fundraising sends the wrong message to the sector. If a distinction is to be made between major donor fundraising and mass marketing fundraising, then perhaps wider adaptation of Stephen Pidgeon’s term ‘minor donor’ would be useful. Pidgeon defines this as ‘raising smaller gifts from lots of people, often through a regular monthly donation paid through their bank.’

‘Minor donor’ fundraising has none of the negative implications of a transactional approach and makes the distinction I believe the authors are trying to make.

Finally, what is the purpose of “‘good old fashioned’ excellent customer care”? To build trust, commitment and satisfaction? If it is, then I’d argue it is hard to have trust, commitment and satisfaction with something or someone if no relationship exists.

Even for donors who give only once (for example, to an emergency appeal) we should, as fundraisers, still try to give a satisfying experience that builds trust in donating. The donor may not want to commit to future support now, but it would seem intuitive that a good experience would increase the likelihood of further donations. This could be in the event of a future emergency the donor cared about or the next time the donor feels an emotional connection to a cause and is asked to give.

4 Is ‘relationship fundraising’ even the correct phrase?

Of course, it might be that the term ‘relationship fundraising’ has become too tainted and confusing. It is possible that my proposals above wouldn’t resolve the conflicts that exist around the subject.

So perhaps we should abandon the term ‘relationship fundraising’ all together?

In the introduction of Friends for Life Burnett writes:

    Relationship fundraising is at best an attitude of mind. Whether you call it donor care, or supporter loyalty, or donor     development, or just common sense it all comes down to the same thing – a donor-based approach to the business of     raising money.

Would using a different term for British ‘school’ relationship fundraising be useful for fundraisers?

My personal view is we can repair the damage and provide clarity on the subject. However, discussing the definitions and agreeing what we mean when we say ‘relationship fundraising’ is crucial for the future development of the concept.

Last year I proposed a model of what relationship fundraising looks like at an operational level.

  DFL Craig's chart.

I believe relationship fundraising is centred on the emotional reason for why a person would want to give to your cause. From that point you can build your fundraising structure around telling this story, building relationships, making relevant asks, offering outstanding donor care and using data intelligently to strengthen relationships.

Sitting above this operational model is the leadership, strategy and culture you need to embed relationship fundraising in your organisation.

I offer this model in support of point four. If we can’t agree what we mean by relationship fundraising and how we can apply it in our organisations then we will continue to tie ourselves in knots. We spend too much time arguing over the word ‘relationship’ and need to get on with the urgent requirement to do better fundraising. Hopefully the two models in this article would provide clarity so we can all be certain what we are talking about when we discuss relationship fundraising.


The review has the subheading ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’ I believe there are four things that warrant further investigation. We need:

  • To propose, and agree, a clear definition of what we mean by relationship fundraising that can be used by the entire sector.
  • To broaden the literature review to look at what fundraising can learn from all contemporary marketing theories.
  • To evaluate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, whether relationship fundraising (as per our agreed definition) works and raises more money in the long term than transactional techniques.
  • To decide how we share our findings and encourage chief executives and boards to nurture a culture that rewards long term success over short term gain.

By doing this we will be able to definitively prove if relationship fundraising works and in what context.

Find your purpose and 'why' – lessons from the saddest donor letter I’ve ever read

Hugh Macleod Market to Believe In

I believe understanding the ‘why’ and purpose about your cause is fundamental to fundraising success. It’s the reason I put it in the centre of my chart on relationship fundraising.

This was brought home to me recently by a letter I received from a donor. It’s fair to say it brought a tear to my eye and illustrated why people give and the joy that donating can bring*.

“I have been a supporter for several years now and thank you greatly for all the excellent work you do amongst the children in the nursery. Lives are altered and valued with all your efforts.

“I am in the sad position of experiencing pancreatic cancer and must therefore try to clear all my affairs whilst I am able to make decisions sensibly. This will be my last donation.

 “My funding is very limited now and I wanted to send this cheque to you before costs take it all!

 “Your work in every way and every area is so wonderful but if it is possible to add this cheque towards something in the nursery area I would be delighted.

 “I was involved with nursery work in my working life and my heart goes out to all your children. Keep them happy in your hard work.

“My thoughts and prayers are with you all.”

It was very humbling to think that someone with a terminal illness wanted to take the time to make a final donation and help others. The work of RLSB meant something to her. Donating gave her purpose and a sense of control at a difficult time of her life.

Finding your ‘why’

For most charities the ‘why’ should be apparent. Yet often our fundraising does not allow it to shine through in our work. So how do you make your ‘why’ and purpose integral to your fundraising plans?

I’d highly recommend Bernadette Jiwa’s book Difference.

Creating value, in the fundraising sense, is where your fundraising meets your donor’s worldview and you create an offer that the donor wants to ‘buy’. The letter from the donor is the perfect example of where our beliefs and worldview’s collide and the donor wants to make a difference.

Value Creation Jiwa

So how do you define your ‘why’? Jiwa suggests answering the following questions to create your own ‘difference map’^

  • Principles: truth about charity, the market, the donors/people we want to serve

  • Purpose: why do we exist?

  • People: who is this for? What do they care about?

  • Personal: How can we change how people feel? How can we help them live better lives?

  • Perception: What do they believe? What would we like them to believe about us?

  • Product: What do we really want or need? How do we create value for our customers?

Once you’ve found your ‘why’ and decided how to share it with the world, you can begin building the other factors that make a successful relationship fundraising programme.


*You can join the lady and support the RLSB nursery by donating to their Easter appeal.

^You can download a Difference Map template here:

This post has been submitted to March’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival. The theme is ‘Breaking through the noise’. It is hosted by the RAD Campaign

2015: the year relationship fundraising comes of age?

I've been thinking a lot about the principles of relationship fundraising in recent months and trying to digest some great content from the likes of Donor Voice, the Agitator, the Revolutionise annual lectures and Richard Turner.

I'm convinced 2015 will be the year when fundraisers will be forced to implement the principles of relationship fundraising rather than just say the right things about them. The reason? The ever rising cost of donor acquisition and increasing attrition.

So what does relationship fundraising look like in 2015? I'd propose something like this:

Relationship Fundraising Model


Great relationship fundraising is a combination of the five things with your charities purpose underpinning everything you do.

Over the coming weeks and months I'll be taking a closer look at each element and how they all interlink.

At a recent talk I did on relationship fundraising at the Institute of Fundraising's First Thursday event I received some great examples of organisations who make it work and others who said it was great in theory but hard to implement in practice. I'd love to hear your stories of relationship fundraising - the good, the bad and the indifferent!