Ian MacQuillin: It’s time we decoupled donor-centricity from relationship fundraising

There's more to relationship fundraising than how you interact with with donors

It’s almost 30 years since Ken Burnett’s book Relationship Fundraising was published. It’s nearly 20 years since Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered appeared.

They’re the same thing, right – basing your fundraising on building relationships that meet donors’ needs by making donors the centre of your fundraising comms and processes?

You’d be forgiven for thinking so, and over the past couple of decades the two ideas have become so intermeshed and entwinned that they do look like two sides of the same coin.

But they aren’t. Or rather, they don’t have to be.

If we look at this as a syllogism:

All donor-centred fundraising is (probably) relationship fundraising.

Not all relationship fundraising is (necessarily) donor-centred.

The roots of the conflation of donor-centricity and relationship fundraising go right back to the publication of Burnett’s book in 1992.

It’s assumed that Relationship Fundraising was an application of relationship marketing principles to fundraising, relationship marketing being a discipline that had gathered momentum throughout the 1980s.

But it wasn’t. Relationship fundraising simply borrowed the name from relationship marketing but was not derived from it, and there hasn’t been much cross-fertilisation since.

Relationship fundraising was (and still is) about building relationships with donors. Being donor-centred is one way – but by no means the only way – to build such relationships.

One school of thought in relationship marketing sees this as far wider than building relationships with just customers (the analog of donors).

So-called "total relationship marketing" argues that to sell more products or services to customers, marketers need to build relationships with many stakeholders, such suppliers, other departments, legislators, regulators, media, and complainants.

Relationship fundraising could have been more ambitious by adopting a similar approach, something like total relationship fundraising.

But the idea, formulated in Ken Burnett’s book, that relationship fundraising was only about building relationships with donors became set in stone with the publication of Penelope Burk’s; and the concept has changed little, philosophically speaking, since then.

This has resulted in a couple of unforeseen consequences.

The first is that this narrow view of relationship-fundraising-as-donor-centricity has put the problems caused by dysfunctional relationships with boards and media, for example, beyond the remit of ‘relationship fundraising’.

The second problem is relationship fundraising’s vulnerability to criticism, particularly from community-centric fundraising (CCF).

This recent blog on the Community-Centric Fundraising website decries the inauthenticity of donor relationships, arguing they are just a series of transactional asks that together do not constitute genuine relationships.

It’s certainly not an approach that most practitioners who call themselves ‘relationship fundraisers’ would aspire to. (But even if most don’t aspire to it, there is still the question of whether this is how it is actually practised by a good many.)

The CCF article continues that fundraisers should stop seeing donors as means to a financial end and instead build different relationships that create change, while encouraging donors to work with charities because donors need charities (not the other way round) – to which many self-styled relationship fundraisers will say: “Well, duh, obviously.”

So if there isn’t necessarily such a philosophical gap between CCF and relationship fundraising, why this perception that they are mutually exclusive?

I think it’s because relationship fundraising has been conflated with donor-centricity, which is just one type of relationship you could build with donors.

There are many stakeholders – not just donors – with whom fundraisers need to build relationships. And they need to have different types of relationships with donors than they have had previously.

Relationship fundraising can do all this by going beyond what it has previously been and incorporating and adapting ideas from public relations (which, after all, is the entire academic discipline founded upon relationship-building) and marketing.

To do this, we first need to decouple the concept of donor-centricity from that of relationship fundraising.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the fundraising think tank Rogare

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