The War For Fundraising Talent

And How Small Shops Can Win

–Jason Lewis–


Premise: Fundraising Needs Talented Professionals With Incentives Properly Aligned

Jason Lewis has built a platform on being a “contrarian voice” in the fundraising space. I haven’t seen too much of him, but after reading this short book I can definitely say that he brings a different perspective.


Most mission-driven organizations (MDOs) say “We don’t know why retention is so bad!” [It’s currently between 40% and 50%. That means that at most only 50% of donors who give this year to an MDO will also give again next year. That’s difficult to create consistency with such variation.] They’ll say, “We send out letters all the time! Why don’t they respond?”

Lewis would say, “Because all you do is send out letters all the time!” His point in this book is that the sector has become “addicted” (his words) to “arms-length fundraising”, which is the generic, give us whatever you can attitude that comes with sending out 10,000 letters and hoping for gifts.

This might work, for a time, as a few of those will be moved enough by the message or the special offer hit just what they wanted right then and there. The problem, Lewis says, is that fundraising after the first gift has to change, because once that gift has been made, there is a relationship begun that must be nurtured.

The War for Fundraising Talent promotes the idea that organizations must hold donors to higher standards, and donors must hold the organizations to higher standards as well, in order to deepen the relationship and ensure greater, more consistent funding.

This will take time and work, and, most importantly, it will take training the next generations of fundraisers to act in this relational manner, not in the arms-length manner of the past generations.

Lewis says that this method, of recruiting, training, and mentoring fundraisers in this different ideology, is how those small shops can turn their abysmal retention rate (I prefer a donor faithfulness measure) around and create a better, more consistent system for funding their missions.

What It Says: Talented Fundraisers Have Their Own Goals

Lewis has been working in fundraising, mostly major gifts, for over a decade. This has allowed him to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of fundraising.

One of the major challenges is turnover amongst fundraisers. Those who are viewed as “good” often move on to another organization without much loyalty, in search of a way to satisfy their own goals. The problem, though, is that beyond the churn of employees constantly learning new systems and constituencies, those donors are continually being shuffled between various major gift officers without any real opportunity to develop the relationship so critical to effective giving.

Lewis criticizes MDOs for an “addiction to arms-length fundraising”. This is the practice of soliciting donations via direct mail, e-mail, and other “distant” media. Instead of picking up the phone and calling, or taking time to schedule a visit, fundraisers send out thousands of letters to get dozens of responses.

His point is that this is not only wasteful of money, it’s not helping the donors to achieve their goals of giving to organizations they know, like, and trust. Instead, they feel pulled in many different directions, forced to split their limited donations, ultimately diluting their impact. He argues that everyone would be better off if all donors gave more substantial donations to fewer organizations.

“Yes,” you might reply, “but we can’t take the time to sit down and have coffee twice a year with Mildred who’s going to give us $50 in December. It’s not worth it.” Right, would be the response. So, instead of only asking Mildred for $50, why not ask her for $500? Why not ask her for $5,000?

This is another of Lewis’s points, that the arms-length method has led to increasing numbers of one-and-done names giving immaterial amounts, rather than taking time to figure out the best avenue for people like Mildred to give. Here’s a hint: it might not be your organization that she’s been giving to for the past 10 years out of mere loyalty to her dead aunt who volunteered with you weekly and left a legacy of giving small amounts that you now can’t get away from.

Lewis also stakes out a position that these new relationships can be maintained not by hiring the most successful major gifts officer from the organization down the street or across the country, but by developing those capacities in-house. The first step will need to be a change in attitude about how gifts are solicited, and, from there, the board, Executive Director, and fundraising staff can be in alignment about how to make that happen.

I agree with many of the conclusions in this volume. I do have my own differences of opinion, but I’ll save those for my own book.

Who It’s Appropriate For: Those With a Growth Mindset

Anyone in fundraising. While the subtitle is How Small Shops Can Win, the lessons here are applicable to organizations of any size. Small shops, with smaller staff, are obviously the ones who will have the lowest barriers to enacting new mindsets, and therefore they may be the first to adopt such principles.

However, even larger, more mature operations would do well to consider the perspectives inside and initiate a frank internal discussion whether their fundraising principles are mis-aligned with their staff’s personal goals and their donors’ hopes for effective use of their money.

A parallel audience would be any small consulting shop in virtually any business. These professionals can apply the same principles as Lewis advocates to their own industry, with a little critical thinking. For example, you could retitle this The War for Real Estate Talent, and your discussion would be around how you can attract quality agents, lenders, and administrators using appropriate training philosophies, aligned metrics, and proper relationship-building.

This book is also appropriate for anyone who is on a board of one of those MDOs that is constantly struggling with turnover among their fundraising staff. Insights here will allow them to create a better culture and benchmarks for everything involved with the fundraising process.

Who It’s Not Appropriate For: Anyone Looking for Secrets or Shortcuts or Saviors

Among fundraisers, it’s probably not going to be useful for those shops who have a tough time with change, who are currently so entrenched in their arms-length fundraising that they will never get out, or for those who are desperate for “a savior”. The principles herein are not a panacea or a band-aid for a flesh wound.

They are reformative, transformational principles that will require a major shift in thinking. If your organization struggles with wholesale changes, in any area, applying the ideas herein will be even more difficult.

Among non-fundraisers, it’s not really appropriate for those who think they know everything already. Or they think “that’s just the way it is” is an appropriate mindset. If they’re good with the status quo, however, others will be advancing and passing them by while they sit still.

How to Use It: Prepare for Change

  1. Read it.
  2. Evaluate your fundraising philosophy. Are you addicted to arms-length fundraising? Are you taking effective steps to reverse that trend? Are you willing to make changes that, in the interim, will likely cause a decrease in the “active donor” list of your organization?
  3. Evaluate your hiring and training philosophies. The people you hire (and, before that, maybe fire) must be aligned with your fundraising philosophy. If you’re going to be approaching fundraising in a whole new way, it probably doesn’t do much good to bring in people who are steeped in the old way, and expect them to change along with you. Better to train new fundraisers in the new way first. If you remember, there’s an old parable to that effect. [“And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”
  4. Move forward with confidence and communication. Tell your donors that you’re making changes. Ask them to come along with you. Treat them like the adults they are, and they will respond with heartfelt commitment and validation, in the form of continued support.

Stephan is the author of It’s Not About The Data, an insightful eBook explaining communication skills quantitative professionals (actuaries, engineers, and data scientists, to name a few) can apply for more effectivenss. Get your copy here.

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