NEW IDEAS: Donorcentrism – all things to all fundraisers, part 1. What is it?

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‘Donorcentric’ fundraising could claim to be the dominant philosophy in fundraising. But, asks Ian MacQuillin, can anyone actually describe what it really is?

I’ve opened blogs with this story before and I’m going to do it again. The first time a fundraiser told me his job was not ‘just’ to raise money, but to build relationships with donors, I honestly thought he was pulling my leg. I mean, he was a FUND-RAISER – how could he not see his job as being to raise funds?

Of course, building successful, mutually-rewarding relationships with donors works as a way of generating large amounts of sustainable income – theory from social psychology predicts this and practice by the likes of Tom Ahern shows it does (even if we haven’t yet scientifically proven how and why it works in different situations so that we can make this practice truly replicable).

But here’s a question. Ought fundraisers make donors feel good about their giving because it raises more money? Or ought they make donors feel good about their giving because that’s a good thing to do in of itself? Are the good relationships built and maintained through donorcentric fundraising a means to an end (the end of lifetime value), or are they the end themselves?

That’s just one question about donorcentric fundraising that has never been adequately answered, probably because it’s never been adequately discussed. It leads to another interesting question:

  • Would you (should you) stop using donorcentric methods if they were proven to raise less money than more transactional types of fundraising? (This is a thought experiment, so providing ‘proof’ that donorcentrism works better than ‘transactional’ fundraising is not a refutation of the experiment.)

‘Donorcentrism’ lays a great claim to being the ‘orthodoxy’ in how fundraisers in English-speaking countries consider fundraising ought to be practised. And yet the questions I posed in the previous paragraphs aren’t the only ones that are unanswered in professional practice. In fact, here’s the most fundamental unanswered question of all:

What is donorcentric fundraising?

If you put 50 fundraisers in a room and asked them if they were donorcentric fundraisers, I reckon they’d all put their hands up. Then ask them to each write their definition of donorcentric fundraising, and you’d get 50 different answers. Not only that, donorcentric fundraising goes – or has gone – by many different names: donorcentric (in all its variations), relationship fundraising, donor love and stewardship (Gordon Michie‘s white paper on stewardship is often overlooked in current debates). Are these synonyms, or are they different concepts. If they are different, how are they different? What does ‘stewardship’ do that ‘relationship fundraising’ doesn’t’? What does ‘donor love’ offer that ‘donorcentrism’ can’t? But if they are essentially (or exactly) the same thing, why are we calling them by different names?

This has come to a head recently in blogs by Roger Craver on the Agitator in January, and this month by the American blogger and nonprofit leader Vu Le. In two separate blogs (here and here) Le has argued that, among other things, donorcentrism perpetuates inequality and ‘short changes’ donors, and should be supplanted by an idea of ‘community-centric’ fundraising (whether his thesis holds water is not the topic of this present blog). Craver claimed that there was a “missing ingredient” in donorcentricity (that missing ingredient being donor feedback) and went so far as to describe terms such as ‘donor love’ as “bullshit”.

In response to both sets of arguments, two different US consultants (one in an email to me, the other in this blog) pointed out that a problem in both blogs was that neither author had defined or used an accepted definition of donorcentrism. And for that, we can hardly blame them. Because no-one has defined it, not even the people who use it and advocate it.

What then, is ‘donorcentrism’?

What is donorcentrism?

Donorcentrism is a collection of ideas that all share the common theme of putting the donor at the ‘heart’ of something, usually a nonprofit’s communications (take a look at this blog by Giles Pegram from last year for a typical example that expounds this idea). One British participant to Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising explained (this is in Volume 3 of the review):

“Essentially, this is about placing the donor, or prospective supporter, at the heart of all your activities; planning and executing your fundraising according to what is most likely to strengthen your relationship with them, according to their preferences, rather than what you, the fundraiser, may simply assume will be most beneficial for your charity.”

A US consultant said was about recruiting and retaining donors “based on them and not you”.

So it seems like we well are on the way to a definition of donorcentrism or donorcentric fundraising, and one that isn’t to complex or hard to understand.

But there are some spanners in the works. The Etherington review of fundraising regulation in the UK said that donors ought to be at the centre “of fundraising strategies”; while a white paper published by the UK’s Direct Marketing Association last year said that in an “ideal” fundraising future, nonprofits would put supporters at the “heart of everything” they do (i.e. presumably not just fundraising). In fact, the DMA’s accompanying press release describes donors as the “most important people in the entire charity process” – what, not beneficiaries, then?

Definitions of donorcentrism started with fundraisers as a basic best practice idea that fundraisers should focus their fundraising activity on the donor by putting donors at its ‘heart’; but have evolved into something that informs organisation-wide strategies that go beyond fundraising.

We’re beginning to see that ‘donorcentrism’ isn’t just a single idea or a single concept, which makes it difficult to give a single, comprehensive definition of ‘donorcentrism’. We in fact need to define it based on which concept of ‘donorcentrism’ is in play. I think there are at least four different conceptions of donorcentrism in play at different times in different contexts, which are often conflated. Donorcentrism can be viewed as:

  • Communications best practice
  • A communications process
  • A theory of donor choice
  • An ethical theory.

Donorcentrism as communications best practice

The most fundamental formulation of donorcentrism is to ensure that a charity’s communications to their donors are ‘about’ the donor and what the donor can do, rather than about the charity and what the charity does.

Donorcentric communications focus on how donors can make a difference and praises them and makes them feel good for having done so. Non-donorcentric communications generally focus on the organisation and its achievements, telling the donor how great the charity is and asking the donor to support this greatness. There are particular techniques and methods are that are considered to be part of a donorcentric toolkit. Penelope Burk – who coined the phrase ‘donor-centred fundraising’ in her 2003 book – says the three fundamental tenets of this approach are:

  • Prompt and personalised acknowledgement of a gift
  • Use gift as intended
  • Convey impact of gift.

And, as Tom Ahern drills into fundraisers at every opportunity, donorcentric comms are predicated on the second person pronoun:

“Does it say, over and over, in different ways: ‘With your help, we can do amazing things. And without your help, we can’t. It all depends on you.’ ‘Your staggering generosity helps thousands of Rhode Island women…’.”

Donorcentrism is therefore a best practice doctrine about how to communicate with donors and is a corrective to an organisation-focused communications ethos. Anecdotal evidence through case studies suggests that donorcentric communications raise more money than non-donorcentric comms.

This best practice doctrine is also testable. These methods can be split tested to see if they actually do raise more money.

Donorcentrism as a communications process

Building on the first conception of donorcentric best practice, donorcentrism can be elaborated into a best practice process or theory of how to communicate with donors.

Rogare’s four-volume review of relationship fundraising – which aimed to build the theory behind donorcentrist fundraising principles – asked fundraisers (who had identified themselves as ‘relationship fundraisers’) about their discipline’s strengths and weakness. What emerged from their responses (detailed in Volume 3) was that there are five components to a donorcentrist approach to fundraising that together describe an integrated theory of donorcentric communications:

  1. Fundraisers need to understand donors…
  2. …so they can connect them to a cause…
  3. …by focusing on the cause not the organisation…
  4. …and build deeper relationships with them…
  5. …by using two-way communications.

Stages 2-3 of this process describe the best practice doctrine of donorcentrism as the corrective to organisation focused communications (one of the research participants said fundraisers should be an “invisible conduit” linking donors to the cause) for which it is taken for granted that they would use all the best practice tools and techniques as described by the likes of Penelope Burk and Tom Ahern. Stage 1 is the recognition that to do this, fundraisers need to understand what their donors want and need.

But in stage 4, we’re seeing that fundraisers also recognise that ‘deepening’ the relationships they have built with donors is an integral part of the process, which is where an understanding of social psychology – ideas such as identify theory and self-enhancement theory – can inform practice. So by deepening the relationship and meeting donors’ needs, the donor will be more loyal and give more. This is also testable. Any of these ideas can be split tested to see if they raise more money and improve the quality of the donor relationship, which is exactly what Jen Shang, Adrian Sargeant and Kathryn Carpenter are currently doing at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. It means we’ll also know if they don’t work.

In stage 5, there’s an understanding that the best way to deepen the relationship is to use ‘two-way’ communications, which I’ve written about before and won’t revisit here. However, it’s worth pointing out that any fundraisers who had been practising genuinely two-way communications with their donors would not be short of the feedback that Roger Craver claimed was missing from donorcentric fundraising (though see further discussion of this in Part 2).

Donorcentrism as a theory of donor choice and donor primacy

Taking donorcentrism further, it becomes not just about how to communicate with donors in order to build sustainable philanthropy, but why and when charities ought to communicate with donors, based on their wishes, needs and desires, and not those of the nonprofit. It becomes about donor choice, providing donors with choice options, and acting on and honouring those choices.

While this can be seen simply as best practice, it’s also possible to almost reify the donor, and when it does so, this formulation of donorcentrism moves beyond mere communications practice and assumes the clothes of the commercial marketing concepts of ‘consumer sovereignty’ and the ‘consumer is king’: fundraisers should do whatever donors want them to do, whenever they want it, and however they want it.

Albert Anderson, who wrote one of the few books on fundraising ethics in 1996, says the interests of the donor should override all other interests. And American fundraising consultant Jane C. Geever wrote in 1994 of “an ethical belief in the importance of the donor” that “recognis[es] that the donor comes first…always putting the donor first in regard to when to ask, how to ask and what to ask for”.

This is leading us into the realm of donorcentricity as fundraising ethics.

Donorcentrism as an ethical theory

And finally, we come to donorcentrism as an ethical theory, which was outlined in Rogare’s white paper on fundraising ethics published last year. Donorcentrism is an ethical theory because it says the ‘right’ – i.e. ethical – course of action is the one that develops and strengthens the relationship with the donor.

But it would appear that it comes in two variants: deontological (conforms to a moral norm or principle) and consequentialist (has good outcomes):

Donorcentrism – consequentialist

Fundraising is ethical when it gives priority to the donor’s wants, needs, desires and wishes provided that this maximises sustainable income for the nonprofit.

Donorcentrism – deontological

Fundraising is ethical when it gives priority to the donor’s wants, needs, desires and wishes.

In the consequentialist formulation, donorcentrism is a means to an – the end of raising more money. In the deontological formulation, what is seen as ethical – i.e. the right thing to do – is to use donorcentrist practices and principles because the right thing to do is what the donor wants you to do. Logically, then, since doing the right thing in this case is not dependent on good outcomes, fundraisers ought to use donorcentrist principles even if doing so would raise less money than more transactional techniques, because donorcentrism is ‘right’ (i.e. ethical) and transactional fundraising would not be, if it were contrary to what the donor might want.

To complicate matters, fundraisers will often switch between deontological and consequentialist formulations of donorcentrism – initially arguing for donorcentrism by saying it’s the right thing for donors and then justifying this by saying this approach would raise more money it the long term – often within the same blog or conversation.

The RNLI has done this in its justification of its move to opt-in fundraising (seemingly depending on which audience it is talking to). Sometimes – often in media focused on the general public – RNLI has said moving to opt-in was the right thing to do for donors (deontological). Other times, usually in the charity sector press, it has said it moved to opt-in because it allowed it to build a smaller, more engaged donorbase (consequentialist).

There’s also another distinction in what we mean by donorcentrism. This isn’t a different concept, since all four concepts outlined above could be applied at either end of this distinction, which is, to which type of donors is donorcentrism appropriate/applicable?

Donorcentrism – who is it for?

Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising suggests that British and American fundraisers approach relationship fundraising differently, with the North American school being more deontological and the British school more consequentialist.

These findings come with some caveats – mainly that this was a small, non-random sample. But it was qual research, which is designed to develop hypotheses, not necessarily to provide definitive answers.

The British ‘school’ of relationship fundraising is:

  • firmly focused on maximising lifetime value (relationship building is therefore a means to the end of sustainable income)
  • accepts that ‘transactional’ fundraising (methods of fundraising that focus on obtaining the gift, usually in the short term) are permissible
  • considers that relationship fundraising applies to both direct marketing and more one-to-one type fundraising, particularly major gifts.

The North American ‘school’ (this included comments from Canadian as well as US fundraisers) considers relationship fundraising to be:

  • mainly applicable to major gifts, with much less relevance to DM (though this could have been because few direct marketing relationship fundraisers put themselves forward for this research)
  • focused much more on the relationship as an end for the donor its own right
  • is the antithesis of transactional fundraising: transactional fundraising is viewed as poor practice, verging on unethical (although this was implied and not explicitly stated).

These two different schools highlight some of the different conceptions of relationship fundraising fundraising outlined in this blog, particularly as an ethical theory: many fundraisers – in both the US and UK – spoke about donorcentric fundraising, or relationship fundraising, in the language of normative ethics. They said this is how fundraising ought to be done.

But it also suggests that fundraisers may not consider donorcentric approaches to fundraising are applicable to all types of donors.

Why does it matter if there are different concepts of donorcentrism?

What can be seen from this is that there is not a single thing that can be called donorcentrism, and yet people not only talk about donorcentrism (or donorcentric fundraising, or donorcentricity) as if there were, but also as if it is obvious what they mean by it and that everyone else understand that too.

But are they talking about best practice, a comms process, donor choice, or the ‘right’ way to do fundraising? And are they talking about applying this one-to-one or one-to-many fundraising?

This is problematic enough when people are advocating and supporting donorcentric fundraising. But it becomes seriously unhelpful when they criticise it. Because which concept of donorcentrism are you supposed to defend in the face of this criticism?

In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll look in more detail at some of the problems that a lack of a fundamental conception of donorcentric fundraising leads to.

  • Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the independent fundraising think tank.

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