9 Hard Truths Every Fundraiser Needs to Face in the 21st Century

In the Oscar-nominated film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s character famously shouts, “You  can’t handle the truth!”

Well, if you want to be a successful fundraising professional, you better know the truth and be prepared to handle it.

If you want to be successful at anything, you need to face the core truths involved no matter how challenging. Ignoring reality is a certain pathway to failure.

One nonprofit development truth is that authentic, donor-centered fundraising results in more donors giving more money than would otherwise be the case. Penelope Burk wrote about this years ago in her landmark book Donor Centered Fundraising, available October 15 in a new second edition. I wrote about the subject in my own book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing.

Recently, Greg Warner, CEO of MarketSmart, released his powerful new book that reveals a straightforward, meaningful way fundraisers can embrace the concept of donor-centered fundraising.

In Engagement Fundraising, Greg passionately reveals the 21st century donor-centric strategy practiced by MarketSmart. Some people might be angered by or afraid of the core message of this book while others will find it to be simple common sense. However, one thing everyone can agree on is that Greg is a disrupter, and that’s a good thing. If it wasn’t for society’s disrupters, we’d still be riding around in horse-drawn carriages, and you’d be reading his book by candlelight. His fresh, technology-driven approach is a powerful way forward for those interested in engaging people to inspire more philanthropic support.

At the end of this post, I reveal how you can download, for free, the introduction and first chapter to Engagement Fundraising. But now, I want to share Greg’s additional insights with you as he outlines nine hard truths every fundraiser needs to face in the 21st century:


1.  Competition is fierce and everywhere. Nonprofits don’t only compete with other nonprofits. They also compete with private sector businesses and Uncle Sam (the tax collector) for every donor’s “share of wallet and attention.” Plus they want non-exclusive, polyamorous relationships with organizations. In other words, they will decide when they’ll cozy up to other charities. Of course, you can influence their decisions but you can never control them. You are at a disadvantage. Private sector companies and the government have deeper pockets. In order to win, you better be smart!

2.  Most of the time donors spend involving themselves with your organization happens without a fundraiser present. More than 99 percent of every donor’s time and energy spent involving themselves with your organization’s mission is done without you. You must accept this new reality and enable your supporters’ self-education and self-navigation of the decision-making process.

3.  The consideration continuum is open-ended. Donors are fickle. Their needs, passions, and interests will change. As they do, they might decide to give more, less, or stop giving altogether. They might involve themselves deeper in your cause or end their involvement (perhaps even by removing your organization from their estate plan). As a result, customer service (stewardship) is more essential now than ever.

4.  Your job is to make them feel good, not ask for money. In order to generate major gifts (including legacy gifts) and inspire high-capacity mid-level donors to give more, you must make your donors feel good by engaging them politely and persistently with offers that deliver value over time. If you do that, your donors self-solicit. They’ll step up to make a difference so they can find meaning in their lives. Then they’ll ask you, “What can I do to help?” Yes! Seriously! If you make them feel good, they will give, give more, refer friends, get more involved, become more committed, and make legacy gifts.

5.  All donors are not equal. It is inefficient and costly to attempt to deliver first-class, red-velvet-rope, VIP treatment to every donor. That’s why you should appropriate your budget properly. Leverage technology to provide stewardship to all of your donors but focus your time, money, and effort most profoundly on the people who are most likely to make the most impact.

6.  Major donors, legacy supporters and prospects expect (and deserve) first-class treatment. Everyone expects to be treated fairly. But your most valuable supporters expect and deserve even more. Giving them that first-class seat along with a red-velvet-rope experience that makes them feel like a VIP is essential nowadays. After all, these are major gifts! And besides, if you won’t do it, another highly competitive organization probably will!

7.  Donors deserve to decide whether or not they want to be in a portfolio (on a caseload). Just because a donor was put in your portfolio doesn’t mean they want to be there. Donors should be asked to opt-in for a deeper relationship. They should have a choice in the matter. They should be invited to gain value from a deeper relationship with an organization, its mission, and its staff. If your value proposition is clear and found to be acceptable to the donor, they will opt-in. Then, you’ll become more focused only on those super-highly qualified supporters and that will lead to deeper engagements and more revenues at low costs.

8.  Portfolios will churn. Although some supporters might have opted-in to a deeper relationship with you, it is inevitable that some will want to opt-out completely or will pull away temporarily. For this reason, nonprofits must embrace a system that refreshes portfolios thanks to a constant stream of fresh opportunities, thereby reducing ‘hoarding’ by gift officers.

9.  Fundraisers desperately need support. Too many organizations force fundraisers to do too many things when, instead, they should support them with a two-pronged major and legacy gift fundraising approach that includes (1) Marketing ‘air support’ for major and legacy gift fundraisers – one-to-many digital or traditional communications support that may or may not be automated; and (2) ‘Boots on the ground’ marketing support for major and legacy gift fundraisers – one-to-one communications support that seemingly come from staff (usually gift officers or organizational leaders) or volunteers (such as board members) that may or may not be automated.


I thank Greg for sharing his insights with us. I also thank him for giving me the opportunity to read an early version of Engagement Fundraising. To deepen your understanding of the truths Greg has outlined and to learn how to put that knowledge to use, I encourage you to read his book. Charities need to do a much better job of engaging donors on the donors’ terms. When nonprofits do, donor retention rates will go up, average gifts will increase, more major donors will be identified, and more legacy gifts will be secured.

You can find Engagement Fundraising at Amazon, where it is a bestseller, in paperback or Kindle by clicking here. You can learn more about the book, read reviews, and find other sellers by clicking here. Or, if you want to sample the book first, you can download a free PDF of the introduction and first chapter by clicking the image below:

If you’ve read Engagement Fundraising, let me know what you thought of it. Whether you’ve already read the book or not, I’d be interested in learning what engagement tactics you’ve found particularly effective. I look forward to your comment below.

That’s what Greg Warner and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

7 Responses to “9 Hard Truths Every Fundraiser Needs to Face in the 21st Century”

  1. I would add that the donor population is becoming more diverse while fundraisers are not yet similarly diverse. As of 2050 the U.S. will be majority minority, CA is already there.

    • Sophie, thank you for making a good point about the changing demographics in America. Diversity will continue to grow in importance as the population continues to change. Interestingly, while I am still looking, I have yet to find any research that examines the effect of a diverse development staff on fundraising results. Diversity seems like a good idea, but the nonprofit sector appears to lack concrete evidence, beyond the anecdotal, that diversity is valuable. Perhaps if we had such research, nonprofit organizations would place greater importance on building a diverse workforces.

  2. Add to this changes in the new tax laws, which will affect not only individual, but also corporate giving

    • Sophie, thanks again for your insight. You’re right. The new tax law presents some fresh challenges as well as opportunities. Fundraising professionals need to be prepared for both. I address this a bit in my recent article in Advancing Philanthropy, the magazine of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.


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