Why are charities failing at relationship fundraising?


Ian MacQuillin examines what relationship fundraising is and why boards and senior managers simply don't get it

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7th August 2017 by TFN Guest 3 Comments

Get 100 fundraisers together and I reckon 98 would tell you they were relationship fundraisers. However, ask them what relationship fundraising actually is, or what it means to them and you’ll probably get 98 different answers.

Since the concept of relationship fundraising was first mooted by Ken Burnett in his seminal, eponymous book in 1992 (borrowing the name from relationship marketing), it’s become probably the dominant best practice paradigm in English-speaking fundraising.

Yet the ubiquity of relationship fundraising seems more in aspiration than practice. One of RF’s great champions, Giles Pegram, wrote in a blog last year that although the book had been read by “almost every fundraiser” (though many fundraisers have never heard of it), RF’s ideas have “rarely been effectively implemented”.

Ian MacQuillan

Ian MacQuillan

So here’s an interesting question: why hasn’t relationship fundraising been effectively implemented? What are the barriers standing in its way?

This is something that the Intentional Advisory Panel of the fundraising think tank Rogare has been considering.

One possible answer is that relationship/donor-centred fundraising simply doesn’t work. But that’s highly unlikely as the work of practitioners such as Bluefrog, Lisa Sargeant and Tom Ahern demonstrates.

So if it works, are there organisational and structural barriers blocking its part? The advisory panel’s deliberations – recently published in a new report – suggest there are.

Fundamentally this is the problem.

Boards and senior management don’t get relationship fundraising. Relationship fundraising means trying to increase lifetime value by meeting donors’ needs through building relationships with them. This takes time, money and pushes the breakeven point further into the future.

Boards/SMTs however, want short-term results. They set annual targets (often with a reduced budget) that fundraisers can only meet through more transactional methods of fundraising, which some see as the very antithesis of donor-centred fundraising (though this is really a false dichotomy).

Many fundraisers seem surprised that boards just won’t accept their word that relationship fundraising is the way to go. This lack of trust leads us to another fundamental barrier: despite received practitioner wisdom speaking to the success of RF, there is very little hard evidence that it works, and not enough to convince sceptics. The reason we only have anecdotal evidence comes back to how I started this blog – because no-one knows how to define relationship fundraising, they don’t know how to measure it in a way that will secure this evidence, even assuming they think this is necessary (which I suggest some do not).

Yet while fundraisers look for ways to do relationship fundraising better (or at all) through initiatives such as the Commission on the Donor Experience, barriers to implementation persist at a very fundamental level. And if these are not addressed, relationship fundraising stands little chance of being effectively implement for some time to come.

You can tinker with the delivery of the donor experience all you want. But if you never actually get to deliver it, donors won’t get those great relationships fundraisers want for them. To do that fundraisers need to put more effort into turning relationship fundraising into the science it really ought to be, rather than persisting with the idea that it is an art that doesn’t require evidence to back it up.

Ian MacQuillin is the director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.


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8th August 2017 by Simone Joyaux

Good fundraisers try to implement the right stuff but boards and senior management often don't get it and fight their fundraisers.Read all the Rogare research. Also check out the 2013 UnderDeveloped Report from CompassPoint.Money money money. Like your NGO is the center of the universe. NO!!!! The donor is the hero. The donor fulfills her/his own aspirations by giving through your NGO. And donors stop giving when they're treated like money - a means to an end - instead of like the heroes that they are.Such a mess we keep making. Push your board and staff colleagues! It's past time. Cite the research. Collect the stories of your own loyal donors and show your colleagues the true way.

9th August 2017 by Alan Clayton

Hi Ian,Relationship Fundraising can be defined simply as: meeting donors' needs as well as beneficiaries' needs.However, donors to different organisations have different needs. Within organisations, there are cohorts of donors with different motives for giving and therefore different needs within different needs. So, there can be no standard definition of donor needs. This is the problem with seeking a 'standard model' for Relationship Fundraising: there isn't one.For each organisation, the skilled fundraiser must research and hypothesise what their donors' needs may be (part art, part science) and then test and refine both those needs and how to meet them (part art, part science). The learning and improvement never ends.In striving to be a Relationship Fundraiser, one cannot know 'how to do it' but one can and must know 'how to learn how to do it.'Once boards and executive teams across the organisation understand this, our experience is that permission, long-term investment and good results all tend to follow. In time.As aye, very best wishes to you and all at Rogare/Plymouth,Alan

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