How we destroyed our most important asset – and how we’ll mend it

Preview for IFC session by Charlie Hulme and Ken Burnett ‘How to make relationship fundraising work for you and your donors’

One of the biggest mistakes many in our sector are making in response to the media crisis is to blame the enemy. They forget this whole mess is the result of ignoring their friends.

One of the very best of those friends is Ken Burnett. Back in 1992 Ken wrote the ground-breaking book ‘Relationship Fundraising’. In it he laid out a vision for “…a donor based approach to the business of raising money”.

There are very few fundraisers who haven’t read the book. There are very few fundraisers who have put it into practise.

Critics of the approach dismiss the concept of ‘relationship’ as being idealistic and impractical. While I’m sure their hearts are in the right place their brains clearly aren’t. In the image below you see a study, taken from the commercial world, looking at the value placed on various commodities during mergers and acquisitions.


The value placed on brand has plummeted whilst the value based on relationship has rocketed.

Relationship is the most important asset we have. It is the only sustainable pathway to growth. So why do we treat it with such contempt?

Of course few would agree with the premise of the question. I doubt there will be a fundraiser at IFC who wouldn’t claim to be ‘donor centric’, ‘emotional’, and an ‘innovative’ ‘storyteller’ focused on ‘engagement’ and ‘satisfaction’. I don’t doubt their sincerity. But let’s look at the facts.

Gurus have been trotting out these rhetorical catchphrases for God knows how long and nothing has changed. We’ve had years of stagnant growth, coupled with horrendous donor retention. To cap it all we’ve even managed to find ourselves on the wrong side of the trying to save the world argument!

It’s going to take more than a soundbite to get out of this mess!

So instead of blaming the enemy maybe it’s time to re-read, and apply, what our friend told us over two decades ago. Ken defined relationship fundraising like this:

“Relationship fundraising is an approach to the marketing of a cause that centers on the unique and special relationship between a nonprofit and each supporter. Its overriding consideration is to care for and develop that bond and to do nothing that might damage or jeopardize it. Every activity is therefore geared towards making sure donors know they are important, valued and considered, which has the effect of maximizing funds per donor in the long term.”

There’s nothing in there to disagree with. So why don’t we do it?

Because we can’t. Somewhere along the way spreadsheets were substituted for thinking. What gets measured is what gets managed. How can we ‘…centre on the unique and special relationship’, how can we ‘…care for and develop a bond’ if we don’t know what they’re based on?

Again some will feel defensive and not accept the premise of the question. But what do we know about donors?

Of course we know who gave, how much, when and by what channel. And of course we know demographic detail. But none of this data, no matter how much you slice and dice it, answers the question of why they gave. None of it tells you what the ‘relationship’ or ‘bond’ is based on.

We know we don’t know anything of depth about donors – which is why easy answer consultants consistently cash in on banal sound bites about ‘engaging’, ‘inspiring’, ‘connecting’ and so forth. This is the intellectual equivalent of saying ‘water is wet’ or ‘the sun is hot’. Their guidance is both well intentioned and bleeding obvious. It consistently fails because we don’t have what we need in order to deliver.

Data cannot give you answers to questions you don’t ask.

Success depends upon asking, and acting upon, the right questions. That’s what my session with Ken Burnett at this year’s IFC will focus on. In it (and subsequent 101 posts) we’ll clearly define:

  • How to measure and manage a relationship
  • How to maintain a relationship

The results we’ll share are nothing less than game changing. Charities who have adopted the right methodology and mind-set have:

  • Reduced attrition by 50%
  • Trebled re-donations
  • Increased net profitability by 216%
  • Seen ROI of 943%

None of the above are typos! They’re what happens when you are in relationship with (as opposed to marketing at) your donors. They’re what happens when you listen to your friends.

This post is part of the 2015 IFC Series. 101fundraising is proud to be the blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress for the 4th year!

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