OPINION: “A beautiful sunset, mistaken for a dawn”? A ‘re-review’ of Ken Burnett’s ‘Relationship Fundraising’.

Adrian Salmon

Following the publication of Rogare’s relationship fundraising review, Adrian Salmon takes a fresh look at Ken Burnett’s original book. What if it had been published this year and this was the first time anyone had been exposed to the ideas within it?

Relationship Fundraising 2nd edition

The title of this review comes from a famous saying of Claude Debussy, describing the music of Richard Wagner. Debussy’s words turned out to be prescient. Wagner’s music, in which he pushed the structure of harmony almost to its limits, left European composers like Berg and Schoenberg feeling that there was nowhere else to go, except away from conventional harmonic structures into a serial system with no central tonality.

I now egregiously oversimplify one hundred years of musical history, but essentially in this process, contemporary composers lost the trust of their listeners, who above all wanted an emotional experience rooted in harmony and melody. Over the ensuing century, new Western classical music ceased to be an art form enjoying a mass audience, as composers increasingly focused on technique rather than the emotional content of their works.The judgement of whether a work was ‘good’ or not increasingly became the preserve of academic critics, rather than the general listener.

Richard Wagner
False dawn: Richard Wagner

In Debussy and Wagner’s day, new pieces were an essential part of a concert programme. Today, few of the core repertoire pieces of the world’s leading orchestras would have been unfamiliar to an audience of 100 years ago.

So, what’s the point of this detour into late 19th century musical history? Simply this – in Relationship Fundraising, Ken Burnett has written a beautiful and idealistic book that ought to herald a revolution in the way fundraisers communicate with donors. But it may be that his call to arms is too late; that the mass fundraising of which he has been such a leading practitioner is at risk of becoming a thing of the past, and that “the potential for true relationship fundraising with thousands of donors at the same time” which he describes may never be realised.

Because, as we can all see from the newspaper headlines of the last year, it would appear that contemporary fundraisers are losing the trust of their potential donors in the same way that 19th century composers lost the trust of audiences – failing to give them the emotional experience they want.

“Those fearing a dry, theoretical tome should have no trepidation – Burnett has not written a book of theory. Rather it is the setting forward of his own personal vision of how fundraisers should relate to donors, with many case studies and examples on the way.”

The latest comments from William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission – “It cannot be right for vulnerable people, older people, generous people, to be hounded on the telephone, through the letterbox or in the street” – strike directly at the principal and most effective tools of broad-based fundraising, from a body that in the past has concerned itself much more with how charities make use of their fundraised income, than with the means they use to raise it. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that the general public believe much of this ideological attack on fundraising to be justified. Over the next few years, with the proposed introduction of a Fundraising Preference Service by fiat despite opposition from the Information Commissioner and Parliament itself, and the growth in public discourse of the concept of a ‘right to be left alone’, it may well be that mass fundraising of the kind Burnett describes becomes less and less viable.

I hope this does not turn out to be the case. Burnett’s book is supremely important and supremely readable. Those fearing a dry, theoretical tome should have no trepidation – Burnett has not written a book of theory. Rather it is the setting forward of his own personal vision of how fundraisers should relate to donors, with many case studies and examples on the way.

Burnett, for one, cannot be accused of blindness to the public’s dislike of mass fundraising methods. In the Preface he says:

“Donors have become much more exposed to and more concerned about their role as targets for inappropriate, indistinguishable requests from fundraisers.”

Later in the book he wonders:

“…if we fundraisers, unwittingly or otherwise, are not sowing the seeds of our own destruction. If in our vim and vigour for the processes of fundraising we have not dislodged our sensitivity for the fundraised. And whether, through our obsession with techniques, targets, and volumes, we have not somehow lost our grip on our own sincerity, and our understanding of the need for credibility and trust among the people we expect to be our donors.”

Resonant words indeed. It is a shame that they have not been published before now, when fundraisers might have had time to reflect and act upon them.

And one might also wonder whether we have not lost our grip on our ethics. Burnett himself outlines a limited view of the ethical responsibilities of fundraisers in a brief paragraph early on in the book, and in a brief section at the end.

It is the fundraiser’s responsibility in his view to ask awkward questions in their charities on behalf of donors – to question senior management and colleagues on the effectiveness of programs and services, to ensure that donors’ money is well spent. He raises ethical questions such as ‘Is direct mail justified when all of a donor’s gift goes to pay mailing costs?’, or ‘How do we balance intrusion against effectiveness?’

But he does not mention much simpler core questions that fundraisers might reasonably ask as a matter of principle, such as

  • ‘Do we really need to ask this/these donor(s)?’
  • ‘Do we really need to ask them now?’
  • ‘Do we really need to ask this/these donor(s) in particular?’

As Burnett says, “I think this subject [ethics] is important because it is essential for the future of fundraising and the non-profit sector generally that our publics should view fundraisers as members of a supremely ethical profession.”

It is a shame therefore that there is less space given to the discussion of fundraising ethics in the book. Like the wider fundraising sector, Relationship Fundraising lacks a normative framework of fundraising ethics.

An extraordinary omission

And there is a further, rather extraordinary omission in Relationship Fundraising – namely, the entire field of major gifts fundraising.

There are eight references to the term ‘major gifts’ in the whole book. Burnett does include a brief section on major gifts fundraising in Chapter 11 of Relationship Fundraising, ‘Creative Approaches to Relationship Building’. And although in this he does touch on important points – such as the critical importance of trustees and board members to the process – a mere one or two pages is remarkably little to devote to an area of fundraising that could be said to exemplify the whole relationship approach.

“There is a rather extraordinary omission in Relationship Fundraising – namely, the entire field of major gifts fundraising.”

It is arguable that for many charities a much greater commitment of resource and focus into raising major gifts, rather than such a reliance on mass appeals to raise income, might have gone a long way to prevent much of the negative press around public fundraising that has been so prevalent in the last year.

I have focused on a couple of key omissions, but none of this should detract from the importance of Burnett’s book for fundraisers. It is a must-read, and his ideas are put forward in the plainest and simplest way possible. In particular his message that fundraisers should resist the temptation to be overwhelmingly concerned with technique, at the expense of the emotional experience of donors, is centrally important.

I can only hope that in this instance, Debussy’s assessment does not cross over from music to our profession, and that we are not seeing the twilight of public fundraising.

  • Adrian Salmon is vice-president of Grenzebach Glier and Associates and a member of Rogare’s Advisory Panel.

NB Relationship Fundraising by Ken Burnett was originally published in 1992. The second edition, which is ‘re-reviewed’ here, was published in 2002.

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5 thoughts on “OPINION: “A beautiful sunset, mistaken for a dawn”? A ‘re-review’ of Ken Burnett’s ‘Relationship Fundraising’.”

  1. Fundraisers are myopically obsessed with profits and not at all interested in prophets. Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing.

    What I singularly failed to address 24 years ago was the twin needs for fundraising leaders to be given sufficient time and investment to do their job properly. Instead of putting their houses in order boards, CEOs and fundraisers themselves demanded ever more money now from their shaky, ill-constructed fundraising machines. So for the relationship fundraiser – and there were and are many – the job was a bit like changing the tyres on a car while careering along at 70 miles an hour. As ever more money was demanded, as fundraising costs spiralled and raising money became increasingly competitive and difficult, instead of working to do things right fundraisers were simply obliged to stoop ever lower to raise all that was expected of them.

    Of course after the inevitable car crash everyone wants to rush in now with their two-pennies-worth, hoping to appear clever, wringing their hands about the iniquities of the media and pouring over the entrails of gutted public trust and confidence. But what’s needed now is less talk and more action, less hindsight, more foresight and a commitment even now to get this right and do the right thing by donors.

    So Adrian yours is an interesting, if not very practical, exercise. The simple fact is I didn’t write Relationship Fundraising today. I wrote it 24 years ago. I take little pleasure from saying, ‘I told you so’. But if, after what’s happened, after all that’s been said, fundraisers don’t now see clearly the way they should go then really, there is no hope for this sector. You can intellectualise over it till the cows come home but what should come next is really very, very simple. Fundraisers have to dramatically change and improve the donor experience. Easier said than done, but very far from impossible. Now is the time for all good folk to come to the aid of the party.


    1. Absolutely, Ken. What struck me, re-reading your book for the purpose of this (admittedly slightly artificial) exercise, was how clearly you had foreseen the danger of neglecting the emotional experience of donors at the expense of technique. We are good at technique and comfortable with it, but much less good at asking our donors how our fundraising makes them feel. And thus the musical analogy came to mind. Because fundraisers, like musicians, are in the business of communicating emotion. I would always argue that intellectual examination of what we do as fundraisers is crucially necessary. It seems to me that UK fundraising in particular has a heart and head conflict. But I’ve always felt that fundraisers need to have a cool head and a warm heart – in other words they need to be learned in the theory of fundraising and how it translates into technique, while never forgetting that there are living, breathing, thinking and feeling people on the receiving end….


    2. It’s a great time to refocus on Ken’s book – it was recommended to me by my first fundraising boss and has stayed with me ever since!

      Picking up on your point about major gifts – I’m not sure that greater focus on major gifts would have prevented the crisis we now face. Rather, it might have intensified the pressure on the relatively small group of people able to give significant gifts in much the same way it has on the demographic of people who are most likely to give to public appeals. I suppose the big advantage is that in major gifts, board level engagement is a necessity and Trustees / CEOs might not have fostered the target-at-the-expense-of-relationship approach which been instrumental in creating ill will towards fundraising.

      There may be good reasons why investment has not gone into major gifts in the voluntary sector to the same level as it has into other forms of fundraising, despite being a stalwart of the higher education and cultural sectors for years. Not only does it require very proactive and hands on engagement from CEOs and Trustees, it also requires an organisation to be in a financial position to take a very long term view, to plan strategically and to have excellent governance at a Board and project management level (and to think of its ongoing programmes of work in terms of projects/outcomes). For some organisations, there can also be a cultural and political issue in concentrating so much reliance on a relatively small group of people and it carries it’s own risks to public opinion, as demonstrated by the Gadaffi/LSE case a few years back.

      For many organisations, particularly those which have been heavily dependent on local authority funding or public fundraising, the demands of a major gifts programme represent not just a major change but a 180% shift in working practice – not an evolution, but a revolution. It’s not uncommon for charity leaders to talk about strategy, but in practice not to think/plan more than 12 months in advance (second guessing government / local authority programmes). That doesn’t work for major gifts. It takes years and years for major gifts programmes to become predictable and sustainable. It’s therefore no accident that the most successful programmes are at organisations with decades – and often centuries – of philanthropy behind them.

      Major Gifts IS a great choice for an organisation in a position of financial strength and with a strong vision for the future, but too many organisations start to consider major gifts fundraising when they’re in a financial black hole and don’t have the time to build the relationships and the networks needed to make it work (though as you indicate, the same could be said about ANY fundraising practice that priorities quick cash over authentic relationship).

      I think there are challenges ahead for major gifts fundraising too. Presumably the Fundraising Preference Service will not exempt major gifts fundraising, but there has been little recognition or consideration of what this might mean in practice (will Development Boards have to seek permissions from their personal contacts? Can you invite someone to a cultivation dinner without pre-screening against FPS?).

      Interestingly, when I have mentioned the seismic changes in fundraising in the UK to major donors they have either been unaware or have not paid much heed to it. I suspect this is because it simply doesn’t reflect their experience of fundraisers or fundraising. They don’t have a transactional relationship with the organisations they support. They are never “sold to”. It really is about partnership, relationships and connections and when a gift is made, it’s because it’s because that donor feels part of the project and wants to make it happen (with a cautionary note: even in these circumstances it’s NOT just about inspiring donors as some have suggested, even in this field of fundraising people don’t give unless they are asked to help).

      It will therefore be very easy for people in the major gifts field to wake up and find out that FPS has suddenly made their lives very difficult indeed, and there isn’t a thing they can do about it despite their excellent relationship-focused approach.


  2. It makes sense to me that Ken, a Direct Marketing practitioner, should have had particular concern with the fundraising done to the many, rather than the few. I consider myself very fortunate to have joined the fundraising world 20 years ago working for a fundraising manager (Marcus Pugh), with a fundraising agency (Burnett Associates) and with a fundraising charity (WaterAid) who believed deeply in the principles and ethos outlined in Ken’s book and in the writings of George Smith: in fact, all new fundraisers entering the job were issued with a copy of ‘Asking Properly’ and ‘Relationship Fundraising’ at the agency induction meeting.

    The ultimate case study and example of doing relationship fundraising properly at scale was always Camphill Trust / Botton Village who, as many will know, asked for support to a schedule agreed with donors, with stunning results. At WaterAid we took a similar approach to choice and control with regular givers and we paid particular attention to our post bag, doing everything we could to create individuated relationships at scale.

    Major Donor fundraising done well is necessarily relationship fundraising as Adrian suggests. You can’t grow income over time by asking too soon, too often, or before you know the donor properly. It just won’t work.

    What is interesting now is that we may well not have the luxury of trying to create respectful and mutually profitable relationships at volume, and the Major Donor framework may soon be the only game in town.

    Of course, not all supporters can give at Major Donor level, but we’re going to have to build genuine relationships with much larger constituencies than before and find ways to do that as effectively as we can. Overall income will suffer in the short-medium term, but donor retention (indeed loyalty!) will improve significantly if we get this right.

    Everything has changed. I honestly believe fundraisers want to develop lifelong relationships with supporters for the good of their organisations. I don’t believe that it’s fundraisers who are the problem though, and I think the really important conversations have to be at Board and SMT level. That’s where I would focus the challenge. As fundraisers our key advocacy is still internal.


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