NEW IDEAS: Ask and you shall receive…a sense that you are a more moral person

Jessica SilyeThe idea that donors get a ‘warm glow from giving is well established. But do fundraisers get a similar warm glow and an enhanced sense of moral identity from asking? Jessica Silye wonders if such an insight might affect how long fundraisers stay in their jobs

Like many others, I would say I ‘fell’ into the field of fundraising. After receiving a Master’s degree in clinical psychology, I decided to volunteer for two years with a national charity. It was during this time that I learned the ins and outs of charity work, including how programmes and services were funded. For the most part, I was more interested in working in programmes that served youth by supporting education, but I became more and more involved with the fundraising department and ended up with a position in the field after my volunteer contract was complete.

Since my career in fundraising began, almost six years ago, I’ve read articles and attended numerous workshops and conferences around the world that teach professionals how to be better at their jobs. The emphasis for most of the workshops, I’ve found, is donor-focused: how to relate to your donors; how donors connect to charities; how to make donors feel good; how to retain donors; how to make donors want to give more; how to keep donors engaged…

“The emphasis at most conferences I’ve attended is donor-focused. It wasn’t until recently that I heard anyone begin the discussion about fundraiser retention” 

It wasn’t until about two years ago that I heard anyone begin the discussion about fundraiser retention. Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising, has written a second book, Donor-Centered Leadership, which examines the problem of staff attrition in fundraising. Through her interest in closing the gap between donors who would like to make a planned gift (35 per cent) and those who actually do (10 per cent), Penelope happened upon a more significant discrepancy in the field of fundraising – staff staying in their jobs for an average of 16 months.

We all know that staff turnover costs our organisations a lot – in finances, training time and relationships to say the least. But why do fundraisers leave? According to Penelope’s survey respondents, the top three reasons for fundraisers leaving are:

  1. Money
  2. Lack of opportunity
  3. Clash of culture

Though I could go into more detail on all three subjects, the number one reason fundraisers quit their jobs is most applicable to my research topic: money. Often, charities cannot offer the competitive salaries they would like simply because of overhead costs and funding limitations. Penelope suggests that charities attempt to offer other benefits that are meaningful to employees such as flexible hours, company mobile phones, laptops, etc. These are all great examples of things employers can do to try to keep staff happy and content with their work.

Currently, we may find a sparked reply to this dilemma through the focused momentum growing to help develop and nurture the next generation of fundraising leaders. Tony Elischer’s Grow It, Be It, Value It campaign is calling upon professionals to commit to the future success of the fundraising field, no matter if they are a new entrant or a veteran. On his website, Tony asks professionals to:

“Join the movement to value talent, invest in the next generation, be open to change, look for and nurture new fundraisers coming up in the ranks!”

This plea clearly demonstrates that it is critical we begin to look for answers to the question of why fundraisers leave, and why others stay?

This question, I believe, may be answered by asking other questions:

What is the impact of the acts of fundraising on staff?

Are there programmes and activities that are inherently rewarding?

Are there aspects of the job that turn people away?

In terms of psychology, I’m curious to know more about how performing fundraising activities impacts professionals’ thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Is it possible that there is something else, something about providing giving opportunities, that contributes to attrition or retention of fundraisers? And alternatively, what can be said about completing a campaign or activity that will keep fundraisers satisfied in their positions?

Exploring the moral relationship between major gift officers and donors

It is this curiosity that has led me to pursue a research PhD in philanthropic psychology. I’d like to see more information about how fundraising affects the people providing the giving opportunity. To begin, I am planning to examine major gift ‘asks’ and how the meeting, results, and follow-up impacts fundraisers. Do any pieces of the major gift cultivation cycle impact a fundraiser’s job satisfaction, self-worth, confidence, morality, etc? What are the implications of major gift officers being told ‘no’ once a year? Twice a year? Or more? What are the factors in place that are more likely to lead to a positive interaction between major gift officers and donors?

“If donors feel more moral for giving money, could it also be true of the person asking for money?”

There have been extensive studies on donor behaviour. Researchers have looked at almost every angle of how to produce better fundraising results from word choice in direct mail letters to mapping out a major donor journey cycle. Books and articles have been published describing donor motivations and the seven ‘typologies’ of donors.  A study by Jen Shang, Adrian Sargeant and Americus Reed (not yet published but presented at a conference in 2012) shows that if you “make donors feel good about themselves” they are more likely to make a bigger donation to your charity. How do you go about this? You call the donor “friendly”, “helpful”, or other particular words that have been identified to define a moral person, before making an ask. This study has also shown that making a donation makes people feel like a more moral person. Giving to mankind increases our self-perception when it comes to morality.

If this is true of the people giving the money, could it also be true of the person providing the giving opportunity? How does the role of an intermediary make a person feel? My research will look at the possibility of increasing one’s morality by simply asking others to contribute to a cause. If we can show that not just donors are changed through philanthropy, then we can begin to delve into what the warm glow of giving is for fundraisers. We can begin to identify other factors that play a part in major gift asks (successful and unsuccessful), and fundraising activities in general.

This unpacking of the fundraiser’s experience while completing their job tasks could help draw more professionals into the field and persuade those already here to stay a bit longer.

  • Jessica Silye is fundraising manager at Royal Cornwall Hospitals Charity and a part-time research student at the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

4 thoughts on “NEW IDEAS: Ask and you shall receive…a sense that you are a more moral person”

  1. Great thoughts – and questions – Jessica. Take a look at the following research: The UnderDeveloped Report from January 2013. Easily accessible on the Internet. All about the mess in fundraising in the U.S. Talks about fundraiser retention/attrition. I also wrote a series of blog responses (posted in the Free Download Library on my website,

    Take a look at the research and writings about professional renewal for NGO leaders, from Patricia Thompson. Patricia did this work for the Metcalf Foundation in Canada.

    And finally, take a look at the Masters Thesis by Sharilyn Hale (Masters in Philanthropy and Development from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, USA). Sharilyn researched the sense of vocation in fundraisers.

    I think that – for the best fundraisers – fundraising is more than a profession and more than a career. For the best – the great – fundraisers… this is a vocation. These individuals are philanthropists themselves…and not just to the organization that they work for.


  2. I’m a little concerned by the slide here from giving making people *feel* more moral to possibility raised in penultimate paragraph of “increasing one’s morality by simply asking others to contribute”. Increasing morality and increasing sense of morality are not the same.

    The emphasis on the psychology of giving risks diverting attention from the deeper morality of doing do. This matters even if how people feel is critical. For instance, retention of fundraisers could be higher, if they feel good about their work. But rather than focusing on making them feel good about it, why not focus on drawing their attention to what is good about it? My hunch is the more fundraisers see the good the work they are supporting does, the more motivated they are. And I also suspect they don’t see enough of this and spend more time instead thinking about strategies and donor psychology.


  3. I like what Julian states regarding the fundraiser being close enough to any NPO’s mission to fully understand and appreciate it. I have only fulfilled the fundraiser role as a volunteer, and in many cases, also a board member. My best personal fulfillment in that role came after numerous sessions as a volunteer smack in the heart of delivering the day to day mission work.

    Perhaps that should be a weekly or at least a monthly requirement for all professional fundraisers?


  4. I think it’s important for organizational leadership to recognize that a fundraiser is really a facilitator. Using that word puts less emphasis on get money out of the bank accounts of their supporters and more on what they really should be doing— thereby making the process more enjoyable for everyone involved.


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