Occupy Philanthropy: How to Raise Money in 2013

October 15th marks the one-year anniversary of the community based Occupy movement. Since philanthropy is about creating a caring community, I’m taking a quick break from my current series of posts about boards and fundraising to remind us what we need to do to fully occupy philanthropy and connect with our best donor prospects as we move towards 2013.

If we view the entire world as one big neighborhood then it is incumbent on us, as Mr. Rogers used to tell us, to be a good neighbor. To everyone. This means paying attention to all our ‘would-be’ helpers. And not just at the top of the pyramid, but deep within our own database.  Here’s where we find smaller donors plus many who contribute to our earned income – the parents, patients, event attendees, subscribers and purchasers of services.  These are the folks who are ‘linked’ to us.

Not everyone who can give is immediately apparent. While many nonprofits operate on a major donor model of fundraising (which makes sense when 80 – 90% of the donations are coming from 10-20% of the people), I’ve long held that we’re missing a huge opportunity by not paying more attention to the 99% of folks who are already in our database making smaller gifts.  Sometimes these folks make multiple gifts, or have been giving for many, many years. When we don’t fully occupy our supporter base, we leave money on the table.

Is it okay to partially occupy your potential constituent universe and leave money on the table?  Personally, I don’t think so.  While many organizations are content to simply balance their current budgets, shouldn’t we strive to do more if our mission is vital?  And what about all the people who could become inspired and fulfilled as active supporters of our mission?  Don’t we deny them this opportunity when we ignore them? People want to be part of the solution; not part of the problem.

Part of philanthropy’s role in the web 2.0 and 3.0 world is to shape how newly connected groups grow and change the world around them. Technology is empowering people to come together like never before, and we must not ignore social media. We can learn a lot from the 99% about what is valued about our work, and how we could do what we do better.

It’s not enough to pay attention to the top of our donor pyramids; especially as  many nonprofits have donor pyramids that are in danger of toppling over. Let’s take a page from Aristotle, who emphasized the middle class as the core strength of a viable democracy. Let’s desist in focusing only on the select few and strengthen our cores.  The people at the heart of our constituency will always hold far greater sway in their spheres of influence than will we.

The digital revolution has handed us an opportunity to occupy the entire landscape.  The truth is that most organizations have not had true donor pyramids in a long time.  Yet many nonprofits still cater to the 1% (or 10-20%) to the detriment of much of their base.  I confess that I too was a proponent off this strategy for many years. But that was when our fundraising stool had three legs; it now has four (the new leg being peer-to-peer digital engagement). Donor neglect of all but a handful of our supporters creates a disaffected and disenfranchised base.

Our job is to equip folks to recruit those they know to participate in a cause we all value, and to assist them in coaching others into greater engagement and investment. Not only do we have the technological tools to make this happen, we also are in a zeitgeist (witness the Occupy and Tea Party movements) where people desperately want to be able to exert some control over the society within which they live.  The public benefit sector can give people the control for which they urgently yearn.

If we occupy anything, let’s occupy a philanthropy that truly is of the people, by the people and for the people. 
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  1. I like your idea of serving the smaller donors. It will take more volume to equal the donations of a major donor but I think it is much more sustainable as the organization is not dependent on a small group of donors. We all hear stories of organizations who go under when a major donor takes their money elsewhere.

  2. Thanks Natasha. Research shows that if we can find the resources to treat every donor like a major donor we'll do much, much better with retention. And retention is a lot less expensive than acquisition. Of course, there are limits to the resources we can bring to the party. That's why technology offers us a real opportunity.

  3. Creating, implementing, and maintaining a comprehensive strategic fundraising plan is the key. You can't afford to ignore any of your donor segments for very long. And if you don't have the resources (staff, skills, or money), you have to either prioritize and let some things go, or get creative and figure out other solutions.

  4. Thanks Clay. And you're right. Ignoring one's existing resources is, at best, stupid. At worst it can be catastrophic to your organization's long term health.


  1. […] “Business as usual” no longer makes sense. Not when everyone has the ability to communicate with anybody, through multiple channels, right at their fingertips. Information no longer is “power.” You can’t squirrel it away and dole it out at your will, because everyone has access to it. It’s why, some years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Occupy Philanthropy.” […]

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