Ian MacQuillin: Fundraising isn't sales or marketing, so why act like it is?

If donors aren't the same as customers and charities aren't big businesses, ready-made commercial marketing models may not be the best strategy

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

A couple of years ago, I was at a small conference in the US, at which Dan Pallotta had virtually delivered his regular presentation – the one based on his famous TED talk. He received, as he usually does, a rapturous ovation.

The previous day, Adrian Sargeant had presented on philanthropic psychology, including experiments done with National Public Radio in the States that demonstrated how using adjectives such as ‘compassionate’ and ‘caring’ to describe donors can both increase their sense of moral identity and inspire them to give more.

I was up shortly after Dan Pallotta to talk about fundraising ethics. During the Q&A, someone asked me if Adrian’s ideas were in fact manipulation and whether they were unethical. My response to this was twofold. Yes, it was ethical. Donors felt good about themselves and gave more, so it was a win-win, while wasn’t untrue to call donors compassionate and caring.

Second, I said that commercial marketers regularly use similar methods to sell products and services and, just a couple of hours previously, delegates had been banging the tables when Dan Pallotta said charities need to be more like companies. 

We in the fundraising profession have a love-hate relationship with our commercial marketing cousins.

One the one hand, we often tell ourselves that we have (or ought to have) higher ethical standards. 

The obverse of this is that it’s OK for commercial marketers to have lower ethical standards than fundraisers, which isn’t so intuitively appealing. If it is ethical for a marketer to sell products and services in a particular way, why would it be unethical for a fundraiser to use the same techniques and methods to ‘sell’ a cause? But if it would be unethical for a charity to do that, perhaps it’s unethical for a company to do it as well. The ethical standards of fundraisers and commercial marketers should be exactly the same.

And we regularly tell ourselves that fundraising is neither marketing nor sales, and fundraisers are not marketers or salespeople. While you can teach people how to be marketers, there’s a kind of exceptionalism to fundraising whereby only certain types of people who are truly passionate about the cause will ever be good fundraisers.

And yet, despite fundraising being soooo different to sales and marketing, we do love copying what our commercial cousins do. 

When fundraisers first started to take notice of behavioural science and economics, they learned from conference presentations stuffed with case studies from the commercial sector, sourced from some popular science book on the subject (this isn’t meant sound disparaging – I’m big believer in behavioural science).

Relationship fundraising is an idea taken from relationship marketing. And many of our ideas about donor-centricity are directly borrowed from commercial models of customer-centricity. If companies put customers at the centre of what they do, it stands to reason that charities should do the same with donors.

But concepts developed for selling widgets to customers are not necessarily transferable to inspiring donors to give money, for no tangible return, so the widgets can be used by someone else entirely – the beneficiary.

It’s arguable that donors are not actually ‘customers’ of charities – they are ‘donors’, an entirely different class of stakeholder – and if they are not ‘customers’, then the idea of customer-centricity cannot be transferred to fundraising just by changing the name to donor-centricity. 

The love side of our relationship with commercial marketing often leads us to simply copy what marketers do and apply it to fundraising.

Dan Pallotta’s answer to criticisms that charities are too much like big business is for them to be more like big business. Practically, he may well be right, in that this is the best way to effect transformational change.

Philosophically, that assertion needs to be challenged. Since we are not businesses, business models may not actually be appropriate for us. Instead of looking to commercial marketing for ready-made solutions, we should take more care to adapt those ideas to the very specific context of fundraising.

After all, as we are repeatedly told, fundraising is neither sales nor marketing.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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