To Sell is Human; To Give, Divine – Why We’re All in Fundraising Now

Both human and divine

Both human and divine

Philanthropy; Not Fundraising

I recently attended an inspiring talk by Daniel Pink, author of To Sell Is Human, and found myself furiously taking notes.  Next thing you know I was impulsively buying the book (autographed, of course)! Do I have buyer’s remorse? Absolutely not. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Everything he has to say is so directly applicable to fundraising and the nonprofit sector that [IMHO] it’s a ‘must read’ for those of us in the philanthropy business. Here’s why:

We erroneously think “selling” is bad.   In fact, it’s probably even more of a taboo word in nonprofits than the word “fundraising.” People just don’t like it. Pink did an experiment where he asked people to give him the first word that came to their minds when they thought of “sales/selling.”  They answered with such words as:

  • Yuk
  • Pushy
  • Difficult
  • Hard
  • Necessary
  • Annoying
  • Manipulative
  • Ugh
  • Sleazy

I was blown away!  Because, remarkably, when I did a similar experiment in October 2012 with a number of nonprofit boards of directors I uncovered almost identical answers! [See How to Overcome the Money Taboo and Succeed with Fundraising]. When I used the word “philanthropy” however, the responses turned from universally negative to universally positive.  The former was perceived as organization-centric and taking away; the latter as constituent-centric and giving.

Our view of sales and fundraising as sleazy and manipulative is a relic. It comes from an outdated mindset of caveat emptor, where the buyer – and prospective donor – must beware of those who might trick them to part with their hard-earned money.  How could such trickery occur?  From an information imbalance that no longer exists.  Remember the old adage that “information is power?”  Well, now information is readily available to everyone.  That’s why the digital revolution has so fundamentally changed business. As Brian Solis tells us in The End of Business As Usual, the game has changed and the playing field has been leveled.

It’s now a buyer’s market. A new breed of consumer is emerging, and they’re changing the very foundation of business. In the world where the seller had the information advantage, the salesperson’s mantra was ABC – Always Be Closing.  Pink tells us that today ABC stands for Attunement (perspective taking), Buoyancy (staying afloat in an ocean of rejection) and Clarity (synthesizing and curating information that helps folks identify and resolve their problems).

Attunement, buoyancy and clarity are requisite skills for today’s world.  And, as Pink describes, we all require these skills because we’re all in the business of ‘sales’ – aka, endeavoring to persuade folks (whether prospective donors, buyers, employees, bosses, children, parents or friends) to part with something of value (e.g., time, attention, point of view or resources). We spend a majority of our time trying to move others. So we may as well embrace this, and begin to understand the key principles of persuasion [as brilliantly outlined in Influence, by Robert Cialdini; also see Psychology of Giving: Influence Your Affluence by Using the Science of Persuasion].

Elasticity is the other requisite skill Pink suggests that especially resonates with me. Our skills today need to spread across boundaries.  I’ve been preaching the end of silos for some time in nonprofits, particularly when it comes to the separation of fundraising and marketing. Pink urges a similar shift, noting that many businesses are coming around to the view that it makes sense to do away with designated “salespersons” because the new world order requires that everyone be a salesperson.  It’s no different in the social benefit sector. In fact, that’s what building a culture of philanthropy is about.  Making fundraising the business of one person, one department or one committee just doesn’t work very well.  Everyone in the organization should be a fundraiser.

Fundraising (nonprofit) and sales (for profit) truly are similar processes. Yet it turns out, if done right, neither is about the business of pushing useless, unwanted stuff on others. Those who will be most successful will understand that their real business is serving their customers’ needs. Effective selling — fundamentally human selling — understands the need to provide something of authentic value. If we’re not providing something of value then we’re going to go out of business.

NOTE:  I’ll be back to my nonprofit blogging series soon, but I was so excited by this book that I just had to share! This is the second in an upcoming series about “Philanthropy; Not Fundraising” — exploring the ways in which the former is transformational, donor-centric and fundamentally human while the latter is merely transactional. Whatever we call it, we’ve all got to be in it.  All in. Let me know your thoughts, and I’ll incorporate them into upcoming posts.

Flikr Photo by Frank Taillandier

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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. I love Michael Pink. He has grown and matured amazingly over the last ten years and has continued to provide great insight into the technologically changing world we live in.
    When people tell me how much they hate fundraising, while at the same time working in and for a non-profit, I ask them:” If you believed you were saving peoples’ lives every day, then, would you consider what you do valuable enough to tell others about what you are doing, and ask them if they would like to partner with you in saving lives?”
    Most then answer:”Well, yes, of course.”
    So then I ask them: “What would it take for you to become as passionate about what you are doing every day that your job would become the moral equivalent of saving lives?”
    Something to think about.

    • Agree. It all begins with leading from passion. That’s good sales and it’s good fundraising. And what’s fundamentally important is that fundraising is a mere servant to philanthropy. We wouldn’t do it otherwise. It serves a noble end.

  2. Claire,
    I have just begun to teach a class in how to have the effective conversations that lead to sales…I mean fundraising. I agree that it is a similar process and that process is relationship building. I have been in sales for over 25 years successfully and after participating in a workshop to benefit a non-profit that I worked with doing business development (for them it meant membership building and finding sponsors for various projects/events) I realized that the skill set was the same!
    And you are so right that it is everyone’s responsibility in an organization to “sell”–yet so many people are afraid to just ask. At Wisdom Exchange we teach about establishing a “Generous Space” to create a sense of ease about the process. From inside that generous space you invite others to share and explore your experience/your organization/your products & services along with your passion while exploring theirs. Through this process common ground is established as a basis for continued relationship. This is the way I have worked in the non-profit sector as well as the for-profit sector. If you are working honestly from the center of your generous space, “sales” take place!
    I fully agree with you that the non-profit sector can benefit from this model of interaction!
    Holly Rotman-Zaid

    • I love this concept of “generous space” Holly. Thanks so much for sharing! You’re right, it should just be a natural outcome of folks with similar values interacting. Your organization enacts values; you find people who share those values; and you serve as a conduit through which they can be philanthropic. Everyone is happy.

  3. I remember when I started in my sales career I heard some advice that changed my whole perspective on selling “if you’re coming across as sleazy, you’re doing it wrong.” I learned that real sales is always a win-win process and if anyone loses then the transaction shouldn’t have happened at all. Another great post!
    Natasha recently posted…Save yourself an hour/day – use a contact relationship management toolMy Profile

    • Thanks Natasha. Similarly in fundraising, it’s really not a “win” if we treat the donor as a cash machine, dump them into our database and then forget about them until the next fundraising appeal. That’s just a transaction. Nobody wins. The donor doesn’t end up feeling as good as they should (because we don’t report back to them enough to allow them to embrace their decision and enjoy the impact/end result of their giving). The charity doesn’t end up with a long-term supporter. Just an (old-fashioned) “sale”.
      Claire recently posted…To Sell is Human; To Give, Divine – Why We’re All in Fundraising NowMy Profile

  4. I will definitely check out Pink’s book. Thank you for sharing! Claire, I especially like that you talked about ending silos–they just don’t work. We are all communicators, fundraisers, etc. when we work in the nonprofit world. At one of the universities where I worked, the enrollment division and development division were very separate. When they started working together, they were so much more successful, i.e. donors knew of great prospective students and parents of new students were often willing to give….it was a win-win situation for all.
    Ericka Kurtz recently posted…Yes, You Can Become A Pre-Selected OrganizationMy Profile

  5. I agree with making everyone a salesperson. For the last seven years, we have all administrative staff participate in our annual banquet program. We divide our staff into teams and divide all our business contacts between these teams. Between July and and November, all our staff are approaching on a weekly basis dozens of businesses. We enter each business and ask to share about our upcoming banquet. We ask them if they would like to participate in our annual banquet by attending, sponsoring or donating an auction item.

    This year we are extending this model to a year long process that will include all our key staff talking with our business partners. It has challenged us to make sure all our messaging is simplistic and a mix between marketing who we are with how they can make an impact by partnering. I love the post and will look for the book.
    David Sena recently posted…Smart Leadership begins with SMART CommunicationsMy Profile


  1. […] In “To Sell is Human,” Daniel Pink writes about how we’re all in sales now.  We’re all constantly in persuasion mode – whether to get our kids to get up in the morning or to motivate our employees or bosses to do something we deem important. When I had the good fortune to hear Pink speak, in my mind I kept substituting the word “fundraising” for sales.  In the nonprofit world, we’re all in fundraising now. […]

  2. […] then hiring a manager to coordinate your efforts. Remember that everyone is in sales now, and everyone is in communications and fundraising. Have periodic trainings for all staff so they can learn the basics of customer service, engage […]

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