The Rules of Fundraising

surprisingly, without a subtitle

–Douglas Shaw–


Premise: Fundraising Has Rules That Can Be Learned

Douglas Shaw started his own fundraising consulting firm in 1994, after decades of fundraising within Christian ministries directly. Over the past 25 years, Mr. Shaw has accumulated a body of knowledge about fundraising, and marketing, that he is sharing as the “Rules”.


Like most “rules”, these are general guidelines, and should be taken as not so much Gospel but guidebook. Everyone will eventually learn the various rules, such as Rule #7: The only thing that matters is does it work. Shaw gives examples of how he learned the various rules, and some suggestions on when they will, or will not, apply to others attempting to replicate his success.

The book is short(ish) and well-written in a conversational, rather than academic, tone. That means it’s easy enough to read in a few hours. There aren’t a lot of make-work sections (fill-in-the-blanks or questions for further discussion) like other books, and, refreshingly, this doesn’t seem to be a lead generation piece either. Shaw has given of his wisdom freely (I got this book for no charge at the Chicago Nonprofit Conference in 2018) as a service to the community, and for that we can be grateful.

There isn’t much that is groundbreaking or new here (most are ideas I’ve seen before), but if one hadn’t seen anything of fundraising (or direct response, for that matter), this would be a great introduction.

What It Says: 35 Essential Lessons About Fundraising

The Rules of Fundraising is Douglas Shaw’s distillation of knowledge gleaned from 40 years of service to the mission-driven world. Most of that time has been with Christian ministries, but his firm has not worked exclusively with such charities. Shaw has provided 35 different “Rules” about fundraising that, if applied, would give a fundraiser a good grasp of the essentials to a successful organization.

Some of the rules are well-known, like Rule #20: Test, test, test! This one works in conjunction with Rule #19: You don’t have to guess. These two are the bread and butter of direct response – don’t guess, know, and the only way to actually know is to test.

Some are less “rule” and more “guideline”, like Rule #32: Sometimes the rules change, and Rule #34: There are new rules being discovered every day. Not to say that it’s not worthwhile to consider these topics, but those two rules are not limited to fundraising (or even marketing). Similar concepts could apply to engineering, law, medicine, even social media marketing.

Spoiler alert: Shaw has written another volume, called More Rules of Fundraising, which, presumably, continues the theme. I’m certain I’ll read it, just not sure when.

The most innovative idea that I saw in this volume was Rule #8: The 5 commandments of offer development must be followed. I appreciated this one, more than all the others, because it gets to the essence of how one would go about putting into practice the rules listed elsewhere. The 5 commandments are, in short:

  1. State the problem
  2. State how the organization will solve it
  3. Know and state how much money is needed
  4. Tell the donor how the gift will help
  5. Tell why it’s important to give today.

Not following this practical checklist leads to major problems I’ve seen in fundraising campaigns. Namely, those campaigns are vague, presumptive, and providing no clear picture of how the donor actually impacts the problem.

For that outline alone, this book would be worth the read. In conjunction with the rest, it should be a part of every fundraiser’s library.

Who It’s Appropriate For: Those New To Fundraising Or New To An Advisory Board

First, this book is right for fundraising professionals who work in organizations that may be struggling to raise money. They may have attempted a few different methods in the past, but without the success they expected. Unfortunately, just reading this volume won’t make all the difference. This is not a textbook or a how-to, or a set of detailed instructions or plans.

By ingesting the ideas herein and allowing them to percolate within your subconscious, you will demonstrate a commitment to betterment of your craft, and that will lead you through the process of expanding your skill sets, applying some of what’s written here, and seeking out other wise instruction.

This book is also for marketers and for-profit professionals who wish to engage various constituencies with a deeper resonance than just “selling discount”. For corporate giving managers, who are seeking to engage their employees in the program of the year, this would be a good read to help them understand that it’s not as simple as “tell them this is what’s happening, and let it go.”

We’re not Ron Popeil over here.

Who It’s Not Appropriate For: Those Trying To Crush It

Probably not useful for business owners who are seeking to win the day, to crush the competition, or to become the most powerful in their industry or region. This book is for the professional who wishes to do good, and do it better, regardless of the ego trip that comes along with such achievement.

There are many other books, and consultants, out there who will help you to become the #1 bestselling house flipper or the most-upvoted software engineer in seven counties. Fundraising is not about ego, so those who are seeking fame as such (maybe even as fundraisers) should look elsewhere.

How to Use It: Don’t Expect Miracles

  1. Read it.
  2. For mission-driven fundraisers, evaluate your own fundraising culture. Do you have a testing program in place? (Rules #19 & #20) If not, what do you need to do to get there? If so, what else can you test to optimize your effectiveness? Are you currently breaking some of the rules? If so, do you have a good reason for that? (There can be excellent reasons for breaking rules!) If you don’t have a good reason, how might you test whether changing your practice is appropriate?
  3. For other marketers, evaluate your perspective on your customer. Generally, fundraisers have been a bit better at speaking about how they seek to satisfy the donor’s needs (customer’s needs) before the company’s own. Is this true for your own company? Do you actually have a “customer mindset” or do you, instead, have a “customer mindset veneer”? (This is when all the language is about the customer, but only superficially, because the actions the company takes are for its own benefit, not theirs.) If the latter, consider how fundraisers must speak to their donors (i.e. your customers) in order to create trust and encourage specific action. Consider applying some of these techniques to your own practices and see how the results change.

Stephan is the author of It’s Not About The Data, an insightful eBook about how quantitative professionals (actuaries, engineers, and data scientists, to name a few) can learn to tell better stories. Get your copy here.

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