For anyone who is interested in nonprofits, how they mobilize resources, how to do world-class fundraising, I have good news: Jennifer McCrea, who has done as much as anyone to revitalize and reposition philanthropic fundraising, just started blogging. Jennifer has worked with the Boards of scores of top nonprofits, she teaches a wonderful course called Exponential Fundraising, and she brings more joy, energy, conviction and purpose to fundraising than anyone I know.
In the interest of doing more than just pointing to Jennifer’s blog, I’d like to jump into a conversation she started yesterday, in her post titled “Fundraising is not Selling.” It’s an important question, because how we answer informs our mindset, attitude, the teams we build, the activities we engage in, and where we look for lessons.
So is fundraising selling? It’s tempting to say it’s not, because selling can appear to be about transactions, about pulling a fast one, about a sucker being born every minute. Selling is the guy with the big fake smile as you walk into a car dealership, it’s the manufacturers’ coupon that you can’t really redeem, t’s the spam that’s cluttering your Inbox, right?
Sure it is.
What about when you crack open your new iPod box and every last detail of the packaging is just cool and perfect? When you arrive for a vacation you’ve been looking forward to and the concierge does something special to make you feel welcome? When the Zappos customer service rep upgrades you to free overnight shipping? When LL Bean takes returns on 15-year old shoes? When a realtor finds you the house of your dreams, for less than you were willing to pay?
Well that’s selling too.
Just last week I was cleaning out my Inbox, frustrated with all the junk mail I still receive, when I opened an email from Dollar Rental Car. I was planning to hit the “Junk” button, but the email had an offer for specials on midsize car rentals. I had reserved a rental car an hour before, and by clicking on the link in the email, I saved $150. It didn’t feel like I had been “sold” anything.
The point is, when you sell something in the right way, you are helping someone get more value from something (a product, an experience, a donation) than what she is paying. You are solving a problem for her. You are meeting a need that she has.
So no, I don’t think that fundraising should be transactional, should be a one-time sale, should be about the money. But I’m not ready to go to the other extreme and say that “selling” is a dirty word, because the nonprofit sector is – technologically, tactically, strategically, in terms of execution – in the dark ages in terms of how we sell the incredibly valuable things we have on offer. And there is a whole world out there of people in other sectors who do the best, highest level, most value-creating, partnership-enhancing kinds of sales imaginable, and if we throw out the notion that we have something to learn from them, we close ourselves off to a generations’ worth of learning and experience.
It is true that philanthropic giving, especially large gifts, are by definition deeply personal, and that the job of the best fundraiser is to be present, to listen, to understand, to sit at the same side of the table as the philanthropist and help her both understand and realize her goals and and connect her philanthropy to these goals. And that process of discovery has many characteristics that are absent from sales of almost any other product.
But I think we’ll serve ourselves better by putting a finer point on what makes philanthropic fundraising (“philanthropic sales”?) different from other sales, and what makes it the same. Because I for one believe that there are great salespeople – whether they call themselves salesmen or marketing directors or CEOs or slam poets – from whom I have a lot to learn.