Relationship Fundraising needs a brand re-fresh. How about Engagement Fundraising?

“An organiser’s job is to help ordinary people do extraordinary things” – Cesar Chavez, US Farm workers’ Leader

The first time I met my fundraising guru Ken Burnett (and I mean, the first time he actually spoke to me), was in Heathrow baggage hall after an International Fundraising Convention, many years ago (my days of being a young up-start are over). Star-struck I introduced myself. “So you’re the one doing great things at Oxfam”, he said to me. Well, as part of a great team of others, yes, I suppose I was. Because we were.  What a moment. I didn’t wash my shaken-hand for a week.

Relationship Fundraising wasn’t a toolkit, it was a mindset. Putting the supporter first? Not necessarily. But thinking about them, all the time. Who they are. What they’re interested in. What makes them tick. What they’ll respond to. How they behave. And how to make them love me (as in, my charity, obviously).

So I’ve been rather perplexed over the last couple of months to realise that some took it all a bit too literally over the years, leaving the fundraising sector with something of an identity crisis, and perhaps even a crisis of confidence. Isn’t it all about the money? Aren’t we fundraisers, which means raising funds? Well, yes. And no. Margaux Smith and Rory Green kicked off right here at 101fundraising, teasing out what turned out to be violent agreement. “Relationship vs. Results” vs. “Relationship for Results”?

And then another fundraising guru, Jeff Brooks, takes just a few lines to explain what fundraising is really about (it’s not money). Holey Moley! Then UK Institute of Fundraising launches a big Proud to be a Fundraiser campaign, with Ian MacQuillin leading the charge complaining of fundraisers who can’t be “just fundraisers”. (I’m one of those, though I’m still a proud one).

Of course fundraising is about the money. And of course it’s not just about the money. We’re in the business of inspiring people to make a difference in the world, and most will choose to do that by giving money. What’s the big deal? And of course it’s about the supporter but not just about the relationship and donor choice, because we know people don’t behave how they say they will. Why reduce it all to a dull extractive transaction anyway? There are certainly stupid extremes of charities letting supporters choose not to hear from you ever again, as though getting fundraising pack through the door was worse than dog-mess.

If you hide behind the relationship question and dismiss fundraising under the guise of donor care (OMG, we’ve had some complaints, stop what you’re doing), you’re not going to get very far. And nor is your cause.

But then the truth is all this talk of donor relationships is a bit deluded, isn’t it? Have you ever met anyone who talks of being in a relationship with a charity? Do you talk that way? No. There’s not one organisation I give to – and there are a couple I’ve been doing that for over 25 years – where I’d say I had a relationship with them. They might wish for that, but they can dream on. Because they still mess up my data, irritate me from time to time, decide that as a monthly donor giving no cash I might as well be stripped out of the newsletter cycle (why waste the money, right?).  Sometimes I feel I support in spite of them. Because it’s not them I support, it’s the cause.

What we’re talking about here is our desperate puppy-love. Which in the true experience of a teenage crush is unrequited! Of course supporters don’t love you back. Hold on to the mind-set, but get over it.

In the end, that is a problem with the Relationship thing. It’s about YOU. It’s what you want. Not what the supporter wants.

And so to Engagement Fundraising. We know that for people to give, to do anything, frankly, they need to be interested, concerned, willing and, well, engaged. And the more engaged they feel – emotional reward, feedback, recognition, satisfaction – the more they’ll stay engaged. Not with you, but with the cause.

So engage on their terms. It carries all the strength of what Relationship Fundraising always meant. Without the misunderstood baggage. People don’t want a relationship, but they do like to feel involved, they want to do stuff that’s interesting and engaging. Engage them to take action. Keep people engaged to take action. Give them something to do besides money, but on the whole, let that action be giving money.

I give you Engagement Fundraising.

P.S. If you’re still looking for a relationship with your supporter and I haven’t persuaded you it’s a lost cause, here’s the truest Fundraiser’s Love Song. Ever.

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