BOOK REVIEW: You say you want a revolution

Philanthropy Revolution: How to inspire donors, build relationships and make a difference, by Lisa Greer and Larissa Kostoff.

Philanthropist Lisa Greer has said she wants to create a philanthropic revolution. But Ian MacQuillin says her ideas are anything but revolutionary, and ignore the responsibilities incumbent on donors in building ethical relationships with fundraisers.

A few years into the start of the 21st century, many British charities turned to the USA to fill their major gift roles. I don’t know why they bothered, because if you believe Lisa Greer’s new book, American major gift fundraisers are all totally !&*^ing useless (and some of those appointments did end with the fundraisers heading back across the Pond with their tails between their legs).

Greer’s recent book – Philanthropy Revolution: How to inspire donors, build relationships and make a difference (co-written with Larissa Kostoff) – has caused quite a stir in fundraising circles, and to an extent has polarised opinion. At one pole is the camp that thinks the Greer is the voice of oppressed donor, pointing out everything that is wrong with fundraising (by which I mean that everything in fundraising is wrong). And this camp trumpets this with no little glee and schadenfreude.

At the other pole resides the thought that here is just another powerful wealthy person sticking their nose into something they know very little about and throwing their weight around – because they can.

So where does the balance lie, and how much of a revolution is Lisa Greer actually preaching?

There is no denying that she has been subject to some pretty dire attempts at fundraising and relationship building, and she recounts any number of examples thereof in which she has been “lied to, manipulated and strong-armed” (p308). She also hints at the excellent examples of fundraising she’s experienced (some of which are performed by non-professionals, such as directors and CEOs, and who thus have more agency and authority to do these things), but as these are not the focus of her book, it’s hard to tell just how widespread or representative the bad stuff really is. The bad stuff however, is shockingly bad.

Yet her book-length solutions for building better relationships fall far short of anything revolutionary. Two of her main recommendations for fundraisers to engage in better practice are:

  • Do a Google search of a potential donor prior to meeting them, so you go into the meeting already prepared with details about who they are and what they do (p108)
  • Makes sure you have an elevator pitch (p110).
Article from Professional Fundraising in June 2004, about the influx of American fundraising to British major gift offices

If American fundraisers don’t even know how to use Google, we’re in an even more dire situation than any of us previously imagined. 

There are two key components to Greer’s hypothesis.

First, the way fundraisers try to initiate, build and steward relationships with donors are often inauthentic, because they aim for a fake friendliness that is not appropriate for dealing with people who are serious about their philanthropy. This ‘sucking up’ approach might have worked for Baby Boomers and members of the Golden Generation, but it won’t fly with Millennials, Gen Z and later Gen Xers. 

“Ethical, ‘professional’ philanthropists should be going to great lengths to avoid friendships with fundraisers, not encouraging them.”

Second, if the relationship does actually get going, fundraisers are only focused on “enhancing their ability to get money out of” her and other donors (p131), rather than helping donors “realise their philanthropic values” (pp88).

Her solution is to “put the humanity back into fundraising” (p47) because there is a “lack of humanity when fundraisers muscle in for the ask” (p278). 

In this review I’m going to explore three critiques of Greer’s hypothesis.

  1. She ignores the structural issues that lead to bad practice.
  2. The recommendations she makes for inspiring donors and building relationships are incredibly basic (which in itself is an indictment of the fundraising profession, as we shall see)
  3. She fails to acknowledge the responsibilities that donors have in building ethical relationships with fundraisers.

You (don’t) tell me it’s the institution ­– underlying structural issues

Greer wants to bring the humanity back into ‘fundraising’, but at no point in her book does she define what she means by ‘fundraising’, and she equivocates many times between ‘fundraising’ and ‘fundraisers’. When she talks about ‘fundraisers’, she appears to be using this as a catch-all term for anyone at a nonprofit who asks her for money, and is not necessarily talking about professional fundraisers and/or members of the fundraising profession.

And indeed, many of the examples of bad fundraising that she recounts in the book have been committed by board members and senior management – the first example in her book is by her rabbi and the second is by the board chair of an organisation she supported, both immediately after she acquired her massive wealth and became a philanthropist.

She talks about how management and leadership always require ‘fundraisers’ to ask at every opportunity, and how they intervene in the relationships she has with nonprofit staff, for example, by telling those staff they cannot be her friends because they need to treat her as a potential donor and always be ready to ask. She recounts a couple of examples (pp115-116) where a nonprofit’s leadership has done this – though one of the staff members in question was not a professional fundraiser and it seems unlikely the other one was either.

“If anyone is best placed to bring the humanity back into the wider ideal of ‘fundraising’ – as it is currently badly espoused by boards, senior management and leadership – then it’s professional fundraisers.”

The lesson Greer draws from this is that, in a choice between money and authenticity, it’s money that is prioritised: “When push comes to shove, a fundraiser must choose money.” (p116, emphasis added.)

But this anecdote has not been about professional fundraisers. Greer has subtly shifted this story from one of interfering leadership, which is a problem of governance, and the lack of a culture of philanthropy, to something about the choices that individual fundraisers make.

Volume 3 of Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising described many of the impediments posed by a nonprofit’s leadership to implementing relationship fundraising that Lisa Greer also talks about.

Greer’s failure to differentiate anyone who asks her for money from professional fundraisers is unfortunate, because if anyone is best placed to bring the humanity back into the wider ideal of ‘fundraising’ – as it is currently badly espoused by boards, senior management and leadership – then it’s professional fundraisers. Fundraisers understand what motivates donors, how to build sustainable relationships with them, what investment is needed in which practices to achieve that, and where the deficiencies are in leadership that prevent this – things such as a short-termist approach to targets and the lack of an organisation-wide culture of philanthropy.

And yet Greer does seem to grasp that it is these organisational, cultural and structural issues that get in the way of good fundraising practice. At one point, I even wrote “she gets it” as I was annotating her book (on p139), especially in regard to the overhead myth (pp184-86), and she is aware of specific challenges, such as fundraisers being given their targets by leadership and not being engaged in strategic planning (p98). These are things that many fundraisers aspiring to practise relationship fundraising will be all too aware of and are the type of factors that emerged in Rogare’s review of relationship fundraising.

However, she doesn’t join the dots. Her book doesn’t contain a coherent argument that bad practice by fundraisers (both professional and non-professional) is in large part the result of a failure to establish a culture of philanthropy at nonprofits. Instead, it’s the fault of individual fundraisers, who “drivel on about my pretty hair colour when they are really just after money” (p121).

This brings us to the next critique – the advice on how to inspire donors and build relationships, and the disconnect between theory and practice in so doing.

You say you got a real solution – Fundraising practice 101

Chapter 7 is called ‘Good communication: the real work of relationships’, and contains practical tips for fundraisers in how to build relationship with donors. These include things such as: 

  • Focus on retention rather than acquisition
  • Saying thanks increases retention
  • Use the second person pronoun ‘you’ to speak to donors
  • Use social media to keep donors engaged
  • Use storytelling techniques and methods
  • Include pictures or videos in social media.

Chapter 7 is written like it’s a ‘Fundraising Communications 101’ module that contains the kinds of recommendations you’d make to a complete novice. And of course, because it is so basic, it cannot be revolutionary. It is certainly not new. Practitioners and thinkers such as Tom Ahern (referenced in Lisa Greer’s book), Lisa Sargent, Adrian Sargeant, Jen Shang, Jay Love (also quoted by Lisa Greer), Jen Love, Craig Linton, Mark Phillips, Simone Joyaux, Ken Burnett, Giles Pegram, Beth Breeze, Penelope Burk, Simon Scriver, Jason Lewis, Theresa Lloyd, Stephen Pidgeon, Jeff Brooks, Roger Craver, John Lepp (I could go on) have been exhorting and practising these things for years, through blogs, books, conferences and training courses, and of course actually doing it – and in far more nuanced and sophisticated ways than presented in Greer’s chapter 7. In one section (p247), Greer exhorts fundraise to use storytelling techniques – yet there is a massive annual three-day conference on nonprofit storytelling.

“If American fundraisers don’t even know how to use Google, we’re in an even more dire situation than any of us previously imagined.”

But here is the problem though. Why does a donor such as Lisa Greer, who is on the receiving end of poor fundraising, feel that she needs to include in a self-styled revolutionary approach to fundraising such basic and fundamental techniques? Why has the teaching of all these practitioners and thinkers not reached or impacted upon the practices of the fundraisers Greer encounters?

After Rogare published my paper on the philosophical/ideological clash between donor-centred fundraising and community-centric fundraising, both Jeff Brooks and Tom Ahern upbraided me for saying that donor-centred fundraising is the dominant mode of thought and practice in fundraising. They said that most fundraisers still practised organisation-centred fundraising but few actually do donor-centred fundraising.

So that was sloppy language on my part. What I meant was that it was the dominant mode of praxis in fundraising – praxis being the process of translating theory into practice. Which it is. There is theory, scholarship, a philosophy, and a growing body of evidence holding up donor-centred fundraising.

Organisation-centred fundraising has none of this. No-one gives a conference plenary on organisation-centred fundraising, exhorting delegates to add a photo of their chief executive to the direct mail letter, and reminding them to include lots of statistics about all the great things their organisation has done. There are no books with titles such as: ‘Organisation-centred fundraising: it’s all about us.’

Organisation-centred fundraising is something fundraisers fall back on or into because they don’t know any better. It’s the default position for fundraisers who have yet to acquire better knowledge about their chosen profession.

The poor fundraising Greer recounts is possibly the result of a similar phenomenon. Instead of using donor-centred methods, fundraisers fall back on an inauthentic, fake relationship that asks for money at every possible opportunity – because they don’t know any better. 

But why don’t they know better? Why is what Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks have been preaching all these years not impacting on widespread professional practice? Why is there a massive annual conference on storytelling, yet few fundraisers tell stories? Why are so many fundraisers being let loose on donors without having acquired the requisite knowledge about how to initiate, build and steward relationships with them? (This is notwithstanding that some fundraisers may actually know this stuff, but are impeded from implementing it by structural barriers such as a lack of an organisational culture of philanthropy.)

“Why are so many fundraisers being let loose on donors without have acquired the requisite knowledge about how to initiate, build and steward relationships with them?”

If the fundraisers who read chapter 7 of Lisa Greer’s book are genuinely amazed at the things she’s recommending, then this is an indication that there is something wrong with process of inducting people into the fundraising profession so that they are competent to practise. 

But then we already know this. We know that most fundraisers fall into the job ‘by accident’ and never get much or any training. We know no fundraiser is required to learn a body of knowledge in the same way that members of every other profession are so required. For any fundraiser, studying basic professional knowledge is entirely optional.

Highlighting the dearth of donor-centred practice is not revolutionary, and neither is recommending things designed to increase donorcentricity. What would have been revolutionary would have been to try to understand why there is a lack of donorcentricity. Greer skims the surface of the structural explanations for this, but never dives below the waves.

You ask me for a contribution – Ethics of donor-fundraiser relationships

My final critique of Lisa Greer’s book looks at the authenticity and ethicality of donor-fundraiser relationships, and who has greater responsibility for ensuring they are authentic and ethical.

We need to understand a little bit about Greer. As she describes early on in her book, she became one of the super-rich overnight (having previously had a career in management in Hollywood) when her husband’s tech company was floated on the stock exchange. Since then, she has devoted herself to managing her family’s philanthropy and giving full time. Philanthropy is her day job: she is a full-time philanthropist, whose working day is spent giving away her family’s money in a way that is a “direct expression of her values” (p22)

In the relationships and meetings she has in her role as a full-time philanthropist, Greer complains that ‘fundraisers’ (and remember, we can’t be sure whether these are members of the fundraising profession only, or anyone tasked with asking her for money) try to build fake friendships with her that lead her to believe that the ‘fundraiser’ is interested in her at a personal level, only to have that friendly relationship (which Greer now realises was just a ruse) soured when the fundraiser asks for money, a turn of events that she can’t help but feel hurt by (p86). “I’ve learned the hard way that what used to signify friendship often, now, means someone wants money,” she laments (p86).

Greer seems to be in a state of perpetual surprise and shock that, having set her self up as a full-time philanthropist, people keep asking her for donations. It strikes me that if a full-time philanthropist doesn’t want to be asked for money by a fundraiser over lunch, then perhaps they should stop accepting lunch invitations from or issuing lunch invitations to fundraisers.

Greer says that donor-fundraiser meetings need to me more professional and straightforward, and that fundraisers need to cut out the fake friendliness. This may work and be appropriate for ‘professional’ philanthropists such as her. But would it be a fruitful approach for many other ‘amateur’ or ‘occasional’ philanthropists, many of whom will have a variety of motives for wanting to give, and often have a lot of power to wield? It’s very possible that the reason fundraisers build fake friendships with donors is because this is either what those donors want, or that massaging their egos has proven to be an effective way of getting them to give.

Greer acknowledges that donors hold enormous power and that there is an imbalance of power in relationships with fundraisers. She acknowledges that donors often abuse that power, make completely unreasonable demands, are abusive to staff, and often want to shape the narrative and mission – all the things that Heather Hill has uncovered in her work with Rogare on donor dominance. One section of her book carries the sub-head ‘rich people are crazy’ (p150).

When contemplating why fundraisers don’t feel comfortable talking to donors about overhead costs, she muses (p138): “I worry that we are to blame. The donors. That we must have made it clear at some point that we won’t fork out for operational expenses.” (SPOILER: You are and you have.)

And yet while laying out all the abuses committed by the people with the most power in the relationship, she has plenty of criticisms for the fundraisers – the less powerful partners – who allow donors to get away with these abuses.

Nonprofits who pander to powerful donors are “dangerous” and lack “integrity of [their] organisational mission” (p154). Which I don’t for a moment disagree with, but I think it is more helpful to ask why they feel they need to pander to rich and powerful donors – early on in the book, Greer says fundraisers have told her that even an unwitting sleight perceived by a donor can jeopardise the relationship and the donor’s support (p23) – rather than simply criticising them for doing so.

Regarding overhead/operational costs, fundraisers should simply be more honest and “matter of fact” with donors about those costs, as this would convey to donors a greater sense of professionalism (p139). And when donors do start throwing their weight around, fundraisers should simply say no to their unreasonable demands, and it “isn’t then end of the world” if they do (p163). If only it were that easy, eh? The main example in the book about someone who says no to donors is a CEO, who has more agency and autonomy to do so (pp168-9).

“Wanting or requiring ‘friendship’ from your less powerful professional partners blurs the line between the professional domain and the personal domain and introduces all kinds of ethical issues, dilemmas and potential conflicts of interest that would not arise if the relationship were purely professional.”

If donors want fundraisers to be more honest, upfront, straightforward and ‘professional’ in their dealing with them, then fundraisers have to be able to trust donors to be receptive to that heightened professionalism. Let’s not forget that a perennial complaint about fundraising is that it is too professional, and one of the main factors that concerns major donors (according to the Bank of American study on high net worth donors) are ‘inappropriate’ (i.e. high) operational costs.

A graph from the 2008 Bank of America report, showing just how much store US major donors put on ‘appropriate’ (i.e. low) overhead costs when deciding whether to make a gift.

The onus is not just on fundraisers to change their behaviour towards donors and act more ethically towards them; there is also a responsibility on donors to behave more ethical and ‘professionally’ towards fundraisers than many of them currently do, particularly if it is their full-time role to give away money.

Greer says (p48) that it would be great to “get to a place where organisations trust donors to be transparent, and donors trust organisation enough to let them lead”.

This sort of hits the nail on the head. Donors don’t trust charities to ‘let’ them lead, and so want to lead themselves – perhaps leading is an expression of their philanthropic values (and Greer is a “self-confessed ‘fixer’”). But if they are going to get involved in shaping the narrative and delivering services – in leading – in ways that help them express their philanthropic values, then they need to be accountable for those actions. And the way we usually hold people accountable is through a code of standards and a system of ethics – neither of which we currently have for the practice of philanthropy.

One of the main calls to action in Greer’s book is for more ‘authentic’ relationships that allow for authentic friendships between donors and fundraisers, rather than fake friendships whose only aim is to get money out of the donor.

Greer says how a fundraiser’s loyalty and accountability to the organisations they work for (but not to their beneficiaries – the word is used just once, as far as I could see, in the entire book, on p102) makes friendships with donors difficult. “Philanthropy has its system, and these make authentic relationships hard,” she says (p121).

Wanting or requiring ‘friendship’ from your less powerful professional partners blurs the line between the professional domain and the personal domain and introduces all kinds of ethical issues, dilemmas and potential conflicts of interest that would not arise if the relationship were purely professional.

It opens the door to precisely the kind of donor dominance abuses Greer describes in her book. It makes it harder to say no to a donor when that donor is a close personal friend, and leads to divided loyalties where the fundraiser may choose the interest of their friend over the interest of their organisation and the beneficiaries it serves. And as we have already seen, Greer wants fundraisers to sometimes choose the ‘authenticity’ of the relationship ahead of the organisational/beneficiary need to ask for money.

But why would a donor even or ever want to be friends with a fundraiser – the far less powerful partner in the relationship, who is also fundamentally a service provider? It seems a disingenuous move that is more likely to increase the power gap in the relationship and lead to a co-dependent relationship in which the donor craves the friendship of fundraisers (but again I ask – why?) and the fundraiser gives this because they want the money. Nothing has changed. Of if it has changed, there is now a minefield of ethical dilemmas related to personal-professional friendships we never had before through which we have to pick a path.

Ethical, ‘professional’ philanthropists should be going to great lengths to avoid friendships with fundraisers, not encouraging them.

Conclusion – You’d better free your mind instead

This book is a missed opportunity to kick start a philanthropy revolution.

Greer’s target for blame in why philanthropy is failing is fundraisers. She talks about the need to change ‘fundraising’, but then puts all the blame for its inadequacies on the agency, decisions and actions of individual ‘fundraisers’ (who may or may not be part of the fundraising profession).

Yet while she acknowledges that are structural issues such as short-termism by NPO leadership, lack of organisational cultures of philanthropy, and donor dominance, she ignores any causal roles these might have in leading to the bad fundraising she experiences; and fails to acknowledge that many fundraisers do not have the agency, influence or authority to change these things.

With her gaze firmly fixed on one side of the donor-fundraiser partnership, she completely misses all the problems that emanate from the other side – from donors.

As donors want more and more to directly express their philanthropic values through their giving – especially if this means leading or getting involved in service delivery – they are going to need to be accountable for how they act and behave.

They need a code of ethics. They need ‘professional’ standards. They need accountability to the people towards whom their philanthropic values are expressed – in other words, beneficiaries, or ‘the community’. They need to stop, in Vu Le’s words, ‘crappy funding practices’; one of which could well be blurring the ethical lines between the professional and personal by encouraging co-dependent relationships built on ‘authentic’ relationships, which will probably be anything but authentic.

Greer has used her platform as a member of the ‘1 per cent’ – the wealthy élite – to criticise a segment of the charity sector who are, from the élite’s perspective, effectively, service providers to them. Sure, she’s advising fundraisers how to better engage with them (though with extremely basic recommendations). But she is also telling her fellows in the philanthropic élite just how bad fundraisers currently are.

“Philanthropists need a code of ethics. They need ‘professional’ standards. They need accountability to the people towards whom their philanthropic values are expressed – in other words, beneficiaries, or ‘the community’.”

Instead, Greer could have used this platform to talk to her peers, to educate them about their responsibilities about how they give their money away, and their ethical responsibility in relationships in which they are the strongest, most powerful stakeholder.

But she doesn’t, and that is why her book is ultimately not revolutionary. Revolutions overturn existing power structures; they don’t reinforce them. A revolutionary book would have identified the structural causes of bad fundraising practice (which include a failure of praxis on the part of the fundraising profession), introspected on the role that donors play in these, and called on philanthropists and nonprofit leaders to change their attitudes and behaviours to facilitate better fundraising.

But her conclusion is that the responsibility for ‘saving giving’ lies pretty much solely on the shoulders of individual fundraisers. And then blames fundraisers themselves for not exercising agency in contexts where they often have little agency, which is incredibly unfair.

And if any fundraiser really does want to know how to “inspire donors, build relationships and make a difference”, I recommend they subscribe to Tom Ahern’s blog. Or Jeff Brooks’s. Or read Ken Burnett’s book. Or follow Lisa Sargent on Twitter. Or study the work of Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang. I could go on.

Ian MacQuillin is the director of Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.

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