3 Insights that will Change the Way You Do #Nonprofit Work

[Publisher’s Note: This is the first of a number of posts kindly contributed by guest authors who attended the 2016 AFP International Fundraising Conference. These posts share valuable insights from the Conference. This week, I thank Nancy Racette, CFRE, Principal and Chief Operating Officer at DRi, for highlighting the “Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers” education track.]


What if you could hear from some of the nonprofit world’s leading provocateurs, innovators, and big thinkers about the glories, the failures, and the future of the charity sector?

If you had attended the recent Association of Fundraising Professionals International Fundraising Conference, you could have. If you were unable to attend the program, don’t worry. I’m about to share some highlights with you.

Rebels logoDevelopment Resources Inc. (DRi) sponsored the new education track called “Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers. The track was designed to engage attendees in thought-provoking conversations about the nature and ultimate purpose of the nonprofit sector, in addition to providing tactical guidance. Business leaders, fundraisers, researchers, and activists who have spent their lives fostering these conversations shared their thoughts at the Conference.

Nancy Racette, CFRE, DRi Principal and Chief Operating Officer, attended the program. DRi is an executive search and consulting firm that builds nonprofit capacity through Board and leadership recruitment, strategic planning, and resource development both across the country and around the world. Here are some of the important insights Racette found:


What if social justice were a form of donor cultivation?

What if fundraisers used studies testing such propositions when they designed philanthropic programs?

How would the lessons of this research change participation in the nonprofit world?

The experts gathered for the “Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers” education track addressed these and other provocative questions. Here are three of the most significant ideas we heard:

1.  You’re not a fundraiser. You’re a catalyst for change.

The Rebels track opened with an inspiring call for fundraisers of all stripes to see themselves as agents of large-scale social change.

The fundraising vision of Roger CraverJennie Thompson,  and Daryl Upsall created a new model of social movement in the 20th century, one in which membership-based nonprofits made themselves central actors in some of the world’s greatest social transformations, from AIDS to apartheid, from voting rights to human rights.

Today, though, the challenge is to recognize that you don’t have to be a c(4) organization with a national membership to be an agent of social change. Fundraising is an inevitably activist enterprise, one that calls on people to remake the world — and that’s as true of art museums and homeless shelters as it is of Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club.

Art isn’t a luxury for the leisured; it’s a revolutionary prism through which humans re-imagine themselves and bring their new visions to life. That’s why the Urban Institute released a 2008 report on making the case for the arts as a space of collective community action. What’s more activist than that?

And we know that engaging people in social action ultimately creates new donors. People who see themselves as actors in a movement want to invest in that movement.

We got a live demonstration at AFP, when a woman who identified herself as a South American refugee stood up to say that the help she had received from Planned Parenthood had brought her to the Conference to learn how to raise money for the causes she believes in. If we see all the fundraising we do as a movement for social change, how would it help us engage people like that?

2.  Neuroscientists should be on your fundraising reading list.

To answer such tough questions, we need to start looking much more seriously at academic research on the human psychology that shapes fundraising. Nonprofits that consult academic research are more likely to improve their fundraising results, and yet half of nonprofits don’t include research in their program design.

Researchers such as Dr. Adrian Sargeant and Dr. Gene Tempel shared some of the insights fundraisers should know. There is a lot more out there. Cognitive scientists have revealed specific areas of the human brain that are activated when people make donations, as well as the broader functions those areas perform. For example, scientists know that, for many donors, giving activates some of the same areas of the brain that are involved in pleasurable cravings. For others, that doesn’t happen; giving remains an abstract decision.

Fundraisers should know these things, too, so we can use the knowledge to improve basic practices of donor cultivation and stewardship. For more on this, read: “Breaking News: Brain Scan Study Gives Fresh Insight into Charitable Giving Behavior.”

3.  We know diversity is good for business — but we still don’t always act as if we know it.

Some of the biggest experiments happen outside the lab. In 2003, Norway passed a law requiring 40 percent of the board members of publicly traded companies to be women. We learned from Laura Liswood, one of our AFP pioneers, that the law achieved more than that 40 percent; research suggests the new board composition has strengthened companies’ economic positions, too. (The percentage of women on US boards is 19 percent.)

Yet, old habits die hard. As the number of women on boards has risen, the seniority within boards has remained divided by gender. And on the day that the AFP Conference began, research was announced documenting that as women enter a previously male field, the field’s pay drops.

Nonprofits don’t just address such inequalities; they can be one site of them, or they can model an alternative. Fundraising must be part of the conversation to make that difference. Fundraisers need to reflect on how gender — and race, and religion, and so many other factors — shapes the ways they and others react to each other in the face of social change, whether as leaders, as managers, or as donors.

Fundraisers also to engage a wide spectrum of people, because as Simone Joyaux, ACFRE pointed out, systemic problems can’t be fixed only by engaging a small group of donors with a lot of resources.

The “Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers” experiment was a success because it fostered challenging conversations — about change, knowledge, and power. I hope you will be part of these conversations in the years to come!


So, what are you and your organization doing to promote meaningful change, leverage cutting-edge scientific research, and embrace the power of diversity?

That’s what Nancy Racette and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

4 Comments to “3 Insights that will Change the Way You Do #Nonprofit Work”

  1. A marvelous special track indeed. Fundraisers as change agents and provocateurs and agitators.

    The unearned privilege that white people, men, well-educated people, heterosexuals too often don’t acknowledge. Challenging the status quo. Willing and able (unearned privilege) to risk.

    Publicly declared social justice activists can’t be the only people doing the work this way. Main stream people must speak out for justice.

    And this isn’t just about social justice. How about challenging the status quo in the way we do fundraising and leadership and management and governance. Ask the essential questions. Ask the cage-rattling questions. Encourage candid conversation to produce learning — and that’s what produces change.

    Thanks, Nancy for sponsoring this track. Thanks for your leadership in making the track happen. Thanks to AFP for stepping up and going for it. It was a pleasure designing this track together. (And I stole the track name from a direct mail piece I received at home.)

    • Simone, thank you for sharing your thoughts here and for your leadership role in putting together and presenting the program. Regardless of how one feels about the notions of “social justice” and “privilege,” the fact remains that we will enjoy better relationships, better organizations, and a better society if we’re willing to ask challenging questions and engage in meaningful conversations. Unfortunately, there are two great obstacles that make such conversations difficult in the broader society.

      First, the lack of civility in public discourse is a major obstacle to meaningful conversations and the quest for solutions to society’s problems. We can’t just respect those who agree with us. We need to respect and seek to understand all points of view just as we want others to respect us and attempt to understand our point of view. When we do disagree, we must do so in a way that encourages more dialogue, not less. A brilliant illustration of what I’m saying can be seen in the documentary film Out in the Silence. Sadly, our public discourse has largely become little more than a polarizing shouting-match. We need greater civility. I applaud AFP for demonstrating that meaningful conversations can still take place in a civil and respectful fashion.

      The second obstacle to meaningful dialogue is a lack of creativity. Sadly, as one education expert once told me, public education in America is designed to wring-out virtually all creativity. Without creativity, it is more difficult to engage with others and work with others to develop innovative solutions to society’s challenges. We need to embrace creativity and help people develop their creative skills. I applaud AFP for thinking creatively when designing the “Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers” education track. Creativity requires a bit of risk taking. But, where would we be without some risk taking?

      Simone, I thank you and your fellow presenters for demonstrating that provocative is not necessarily a dirty word.

  2. I’ve long been a proponent of borrowing from the sciences — psychology and neuroscience — to better understand what motivates giving. And what triggers folks to hesitate. And what causes folks to stay engaged, or to disengage. So I’m delighted to see it made it into the AFP program.

    So much has been studied; fundraisers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Yet we often are very much ivory-towered, thinking that what applies to “business” doesn’t apply to us. Wrong. This is what has led to so much siloed thinking — where fundraising is separated from marketing is separated from volunteer programming is separated from programs is separated from… you name it.

    The more we can get everyone on board with an organization-wide culture of philanthropy, the better. In other words, we’re in a very human business. It’s the “love of humankind” business. So why aren’t we learning more from folks who’ve studied human psychology and neuroscience? It’s just common sense!

    Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

    • Claire, thank you for commenting. I, too, am glad to see AFP doing more science-based programming. Another session this year involved behavioral economics and its application for fundraising. Bernard Ross and Alan Hutson presented on this topic both last year and this year. I highlighted that seminar in a post a year ago: “Bernard Ross Reveals the Next Big Thing in Fundraising!” The nonprofit sector doesn’t have to rely exclusively on gut feeling or tradition. There’s much we can learn from science. Thanks for underscoring that.

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