Philanthropy; Not Fundraising: Why Online Marketing Revolution Demands Nonprofits End Business as Usual

Bob Dylan Album Cover The Times They Are A-Changin

No more transactional fundraising folks. Transformational philanthropy is today’s game.

Once upon a time I knew what I was doing. I attended The Fundraising School, discovered a host of tried-and-true techniques, mastered the art and science of fundraising transactions and went forth to apply the tools at my disposal. Money was raised.

Fast forward several decades, to sometime about five years ago.  I had a dawning realization. I no longer knew what I was doing. I had somehow entered “wing and a prayer” territory. The culprit?  Revolutionary and disruptive technology that, simply put, has ended “business as usual.”

What can you think of that has been done the same way for 50 years? For too many nonprofits the answer is fundraising and marketing (aka “development”).  And it’s beyond time for a change.  In fact, a sea change. It turns out Bob Dylan got it right.

Come gather ‘round people wherever your roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown…

Before the digital revolution, an information imbalance existed.  This facilitated a one-way ‘push’ model of marketing/fundraising. We could define our own brand and sell it.  Guess what?  That imbalance is gone.  Everyone has access to information now and chances are good that folks are already two-thirds down the path towards engagement with you before you even know they exist! So you’ve got to think not only about them helping you but about you helping them.

We’re social businesses now. We must move beyond defining ourselves by what we’re not (nonprofit) and begin defining ourselves by what we are (social benefit). We must move beyond outbound telling marketing to inbound sharing marketing. We must source the wisdom of the crowd, and shift our focus from outcomes to value. Merely “transacting” no longer cuts it. Uh oh.

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’…

Fundraising is transactional. It’s about money. When viewed as being about money fundraising, at best, is seen as an onerous chore; a necessary evil. We’ll put it off for as long as possible – sometimes forever. When fundraising is servant to philanthropy – existing only to make possible the types of social change that people value – it rises about the transaction and becomes a catalyst for something people truly want. The Secret of Donor-Centered Fundraising: No Money Involved.

Philanthropy is fundamentally social.  It’s about love. What could be more transformational? When you move from an attitude of taking and hitting people up (aka “fundraising”) to a mindset of giving and lifting people up (aka “philanthropy”). you become a philanthropy facilitator. You move from enacting transactions to enabling transformation.

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again…

Seasoned development professionals must be prophets and remind the social benefit sector that successful fundraising, first and foremost, is about building relationships.  To the extent that new social tools help you to do this, wonderful.  To the extent the adoption of shiny new objects takes away from your ability to be up close and personal with supporters, not so terrific. That said, screaming that “fundraising is about people; not technology” is just a defensive reaction by those who have no real clue how to smartly embrace our brave new digital world. These are the folks who, like me five years ago, are completely at sea. Sure, there are many “adopters” who have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. But adopting is a far cry from adapting. Only adapting will keep you from drowning.

Keep your eyes open to both the opportunities and the threats presented by new technologies. If you spend time tweeting that could be better spent meeting, eating and greeting, then you’ve lost sight of the big picture. If you link folks back to your email list through your tweets, and thereby build a larger potential supporter pool, now you’re on to something. If you get those folks sharing your stories with their friends and colleagues, engaging in meaningful dialogue about your work and your values, and spreading their joy of giving — now you’re really onto something.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you don’t understand…

I’ve heard too many E.D.s, and even development directors, pan social media.  They say it’s “a fad” or just something “fun and frothy” that can be added onto more core disciplines like direct mail, major gifts, annual campaign, special events, corporate sponsorships, grants, public/media relations, advertising and marketing communications. They think it can be farmed out to unpaid interns, or relegated to low-level staff.

Even the fundraising profession has not really embraced the digital revolution.  I recently taught the CFRE course.  One teaches to the test, so I carefully reviewed the materials to optimally prepare my students.  I was amazed! Apparently the “powers that be” had determined that social media was not an expertise that Certified Fund Raising Executives should master.  Say what?!

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast, the slow one now will later be fast…

Like it or not, new technologies are being thrust upon us. We ignore them at our peril. And before you say this has happened before – that the telephone, radio and television gave fundraisers new tools but didn’t fundamentally alter the landscape – think again. Those technologies were not disruptive.  They were enhancing.  Today’s technologies have, in ways previously unimaginable, deeply changed the way people communicate and do business.

Please ponder: What’s the number one way you think nonprofit marketing and/or fundraising has changed in the past five years?  Or do you think it’s still fundamentally the same?

And one more thing to consider: If you wish to position yourself as a social, transformational business –becoming a philanthropy enabler — the SPECIAL GUIDE:  7 CLAIRIFICATION KEYS TO UNLOCK YOUR NONPROFIT’S FUNDRAISING POTENTIAL may be just the thing. It’s super affordable, chock-full of worksheets and exercises, and comes with a money-back guarantee if you don’t find it helpful.

This post is part of the 2013 Philanthropy, Not Fundraising series.

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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 am not convinced that fundraising has changed that much. Social media provide great resources for fundraising. Great resources precisely because they are social – about relationships. And what is fundraising about…?

    • Absolutely. Fundraising is about relationships. Always has been. No doubt always will be. It’s just that the way we build them is changing quite a bit. We really do have to think in terms of the benefits we offer to potential constituents. It’s time to retire old notions that folks “should” support us because “We do good work.” In our digitally revolutionized world, folks will find out about us before we ever know they exist. And they’ll learn about our outcomes (or lack thereof) online. So, it’s not so easy to carefully craft a cultivation and stewardship program where we control all the information they’ll receive.

      On top of that, there’s a LOT of noise out there. We’re competing for attention. If we think of social media merely as a “nice tool” rather than an essential means for getting to know people and earning their trust and loyalty, then we’re going to get further and further behind our competition. So we have to become expert in using social technologies… and that’s on top of everything else we’ve always done. It’s a lot to do.

      So, my question for folks is: How are you going to manage it without driving yourself nuts?

      I’ll have more thoughts on this in tomorrow’s post, and in the months ahead. One thing is clear to me: Development and marketing can no longer be separated. Silos, be gone!

      Thanks for your thoughts John. Would love to hear from others as well.

  2. Cheryl Nickerson says:

    I do believe seasoned development professionals need a new vocabulary. I like using the phrase social benefit instead of non-profit. Each of us needs to ask the question, “What does our organization provide?” I always use the word philanthropy (Love of humanity) rather than fundraising. Through the acceptance of contributions, we facilitate the necessary actions that makes the world a better place for all!

    • Thanks for jumping in to the discussion Cheryl. I’m glad you see this as a case of “how do we benefit people/the community/world?” rather than a case of “we need from you.” And, yes, I’ve always been perplexed that we define ourselves by what we’re NOT rather than by the social benefit we provide. Don’t get me wrong. I still use the term fundraising. But not until we fully steep ourselves in the philanthropy — love of humanity — universe. Fundraising is merely a servant to philanthropy; nothing begins or ends there.

  3. I have really been enjoying this series, Claire. It’s not just fundraising that has changed, it is every customer relationship. In fact, it’s every business that has to think about its business as relationship-building. Fundraising has always been about relationship-building, but organizations haven’t always seen it this way. What we’re seeing with peer-to-peer online fundraising data is that hey, friends give to friends with whom they have relationships! Why not use social media to develop and engage with fans…and create relationships that might change into donor relationship…
    Debra Askanase recently posted…Connecting and Finding Fans: The Demographics of Social Media UsersMy Profile

    • Thanks Debra! And I found your post very interesting. The fact that social media usage is no longer increasing in any demographic does not surprise me. It’s come of age. I’ve held for some time that pretty soon we’ll stop calling it “social media” and it will simply be media. In other words, it’s no longer so new that we must consider it a shiny object (and one we don’t necessarily have to play with). Children aren’t playing with it; they breathe it like air. We’ve got to breathe it too. We’ve got to be there, as it’s one of the primary ways folks now build relationships. Agree with everything you’ve said. :-)

  4. Interesting facts about fundraising. Social media makes fundraising easy.actually fundraising is all about building relationship.Thanks CLAIRE for giving us such a good and informative article.

    • Thanks Mike, both for being a reader and for commenting. You’re right! Folks need to focus in on the “social” part of social media. Then it becomes apparent how complementary it is to the development process.


  1. […] “Business as usual” is no longer even possible. That’s a given, and charities must adapt. Much has to do with the fact that our would-be supporters today are all part of “Generation C“—they are connected and networked in ways that were previously (and not so long ago) unimaginable. […]

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