Some Say Fundraising Is Just Sales: They’re Wrong!

Blue Avocado - Tori O’Neal-McElrath

Early in my 30-plus year career in the philanthropic arena, I was looking for a major gifts officer for a reproductive health clinic in Los Angeles. Of the many résumés I received, one was from a candidate with ten years of solid experience—but for eight of those ten years, he worked for religious charities that opposed the values held by my organization.

Within the first ten minutes of his interview, he taught me a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career. With no prompting from me, he said he was sure I had questions around why he was applying for a position at a health clinic that was also a key player in the reproductive rights arena, when he was clearly not supportive of our stance on key issues (his words, not mine).

He went on to say, “I don’t believe in any form of birth control, but I am a darn good fundraiser and can sell ice cubes in a snowstorm. Your major gifts position sounds great, and your salary is more than decent—so I’m here! You should give me a chance to show you how much money I can raise!” To this day, I remain baffled as to why this candidate would even apply for a position with an organization so misaligned with—in truth, diametrically opposed to—his purported values.

In sales, you don’t actually have to believe in the product or service you’re hawking. That is not true with fundraising—at least not if you’re doing it right!

Why The “Sales” Approach Doesn’t Work

I’ve had the privilege of working on both sides of the desk in philanthropy: serving in fundraising and communications positions with nonprofits, and in staff and consulting capacities for grantmaking institutions. A few things I’ve heard repeatedly from program officers and major donors are:

  1. They feel like development staff are always trying to sell them something. The conversations have a “used car salesperson” feel to them, rather than an authentic engagement.
  2. There are times when donors have been left with the sense that the development staffer doesn’t really—REALLY—know or understand the organization’s work. No, they do not expect development staff to be subject matter experts or be conversant in every detail of the program for which they seek funding. However, donors expect fundraisers to be able to answer basic questions about the program or service. When development staff are not deeply connected to the programs and services—when their passion for the work does not come through in an authentic way—once again it feels like sales.
  3. Donors only hear from development staff when they want something, or when it’s required, such as when they’re actively fundraising or a progress report is due. Hearing from fundraisers only when you’re making an ask reduces what could be an authentic partnership into a transactional relationship—one that is ultimately easier to walk away from.

Development Is About Belief

I submit that the science, art, and “magic” of fundraising should be built on a foundation of true belief:

  • Belief in your organization’s ability to make an impact;
  • Belief in those your organization serves; and
  • Belief in the funder and their desire to create change in partnership with your organization.

The calling for all of us who raise money should be to evangelize… not to sell.

I define these terms related to fundraising as follows:

Evangelize: to talk about how good you think something is. To transfer your authentic enthusiasm for your organization and the impact it makes to another who seeks aligned impact.

Sell: to give or hand over (something) in exchange for money. To convince or persuade.

You might think this is a “potato/potato” situation, but what I am highlighting here is that two things matter: intention and altruism. Your intention to sell a funder commoditizes your work. In so doing, you completely ignore the altruistic nature of philanthropy to which we should all aspire, and which motivates donors large and small. To evangelize is to transfer your enthusiasm and belief in your organization, its work, and its effectiveness in a way that connects to the potential funder’s theory of change—their understanding of what actions and outcomes are required to create change.

What Does This Look Like?

A couple of years after my encounter with the “good-on-paper-but-completely-values-misaligned” candidate, I met with one of our major donors for lunch. This was one of those donor stewardship meetings to which I was referring—not time for a renewal gift or teeing up any sort of ask. I simply reached out to her and asked if she wanted to hear a bit about how we’re putting her contributions to work. She said yes, which is how I found myself at age 28 seated at a table at one of the most exclusive country clubs in Beverly Hills, where the only other people of color were the wait staff. An odd pairing we were, in many regards: age, socioeconomic status, race, and political ideology. Yet even with all these factors, she and I had an authentic connection because I recognized that we both believed in the mission of the organization.

As we waited for our main course, she asked me casually, “So what do you think of the Million Man March?” This was an upcoming massive rally of black men organized by the Nation of Islam, which was led by the charismatic Louis Farrakhan, a religious and black nationalist leader who was also publicly anti-Semitic. So many questions flew through my mind as I grasped for an answer. The donor was white and Jewish. How candid should I be? Was this a trap? Why was she asking me about something so unrelated to what aligns us? Just as I opened my mouth to respond, she leaned towards me, placed her hand over mine, and said, “I don’t like that Farrakhan fellow because I think he’s an anti-Semite. But I really believe in what he is trying to do through the Million Man March. I believe in empowerment and speaking with your own voice. So, I sent $100,000 anonymously to support the March!”

In her statement, she provided me with a valuable glimpse into what motivates her and how she approaches her philanthropy. She was relating to me authentically, which I took as a sign that my engagement with her had created the conditions for this level of honest interaction. To her, I was not a salesperson for the organization that employed me; I was a thought leader and philanthropic advisor of sorts, clearly transferring my enthusiasm and knowledge of our impact in such a way that garnered her respect.

That lunch together and a couple of additional conversations resulted in me closing my very first seven-figure major gift. In the handwritten note accompanying her check, she said, “You are a true believer. We have that in common. I have every faith that you will make sure this gift is spent wisely. Let us fight on!”

Putting It Into Practice

So, what does all of this add up to? Foundation staff and individual philanthropists are people first. They want to be seen and approached as human beings, not cash machines.

Some real world, hands-on advice in this regard:

  1. Approach your conversations with funders and donors with enthusiasm for your organization and its work that is grounded in realness. Know your organization’s work—and deeply understand the impact of your work on those you say you serve. Donors will feel the authenticity.
  2. Ask them what they think and be genuinely interested in what they have to share. Listen and learn their theory of change, since that serves as the underpinning of their giving.
  3. Treat your funders and donors as partners in the work. Keep them looped in on your progress, as well as your challenges, and do not wait until you are contractually obligated to communicate with supporters. They may not take you up on your offer of a phone call or a meeting, but do not think for a second that they don’t appreciate being asked.
  4. Know your stuff! Be able to speak beyond the talking points about your organization’s work.Have relatable stories in your memory bank about your fellow staff members who run the programs or directly provide services. Be willing and able to articulate why you work for your organization—what motivates you to do what you do there. Be able to tell your own story.

The science, art, and “magic” of fundraising reaches across a large spectrum for many professionals in the field. But in large measure people ultimately give to the people who work at organizations; not to the organizations themselves. This is true not because a staff person sold them something, but because they connected passion to action for the donor. Sales people create customers; evangelists create believers. As a fundraiser, your job is to convert potential donors into true believers and advance the mission and vision of your organization.


Tori O’Neal-McElrath is Vice President of External Affairs at Demos, a national public policy organization, where she oversees the communications and development teams to strategically expand reach and impact. Before Demos, she was Director of Institutional Advancement at the Center for Community Change (CCC). She oversaw fundraising for the 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations, institutional branding and marketing, and special projects. Founder of O’Neal Consulting from 2000 -2008; a consulting firm that specialized in multi-funder collaborations, board development, strategic planning, and interim executive leadership. Other career highlights include: The San Diego Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and United Negro College Fund/UNCF. Author of Winning Grants: Step by Step, Fourth Edition (a Wiley Publication, 2013), and currently working on the Fifth Edition for release in 2019.

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