Is fundraising the same thing as sales?

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.

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12 thoughts on “Is fundraising the same thing as sales?

  1. Sasha, thanks for your thoughtful post.

    You write: “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.”

    A product of our consumer driven world, however, is that people don’t tend to look inside to discover what they need. Rather, they are told and influenced about what they need from external sources. They are sold on what they need. Need is precipitated from the outside in.

    As a fundraiser, I don’t think of my job as selling you on what you need (even the “need” to give). I see my job as more of a guide than a salesperson, offering you a new way to look inside and discover what you already have and to develop a passion for the ways in which you can make a difference with your life and your philanthropy.

    Philanthropy from the inside out.

    When you work from here, the fear of rejection, which is the number one reason why people won’t ask for a gift, simply dissolves because if your true passion isn’t aligned with the work we’re doing, then it’s not a rejection of my organization or me. When we are aligned, we can form a lasting partnership that isn’t based on need, but on shared commitment to discovery and impact.

  2. There used to be a time when salespeople came by your house selling encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners and more. Although they still exist I think there number has decreased dramatically over the last twenty years or so. Even when they started seeing selling as a craft.
    People just got fed up with them.

    That will happen in the next few years to fundraisers.
    There number will decrease rapidly.

    Full view on this:

  3. Sales and selling should not be dirty word. We are not selling used cars or insurance. Though there are great people selling both of those products well by cultivating long-term relationships and looking out for the needs of their clients ahead of their own. I have to agree with Sasha. While our world has become consumer driven, as Jennifer states, good sales is about developing a relationship and delivering on-going value to a customer or donor.

    I preach to my clients not to focus on the transaction, they get hung up on it, as do the volunteers. When they begin to understand that matching the donor’s needs and desires to the needs of an organization is philanthropy, a light bulb goes off.

    Maybe we need to distinguish between transactional selling and relationship selling. We, as professional fund raisers and consultants, are not up-selling an appetizer or larger order of fries, transactional. We want to help an individual who has a passion, interest and desire to support an organization addressing those passions and making them feel and see their contributions making a difference in the lives of people they want to help.

    Our default position when it comes to sales is generally negative and transactional, we’ve all had bad experiences. But in the end it’s about giving the customer what he or she wants. Rather than focusing on the transaction, we’d be better served to focus on the stewardship leading the donor to make a second, third or fourth contribution, again the relationship and yes sales. If you don’t ask, you’ll never receive a gift.

    A friend recently flew on JetBlue and her flight was delayed. Normally the gate area when a flight is delayed is an angry, irritated and hostile place, at least that’s my experience. JetBlue was handing out cookie, snacks, beverages and other stuff to make the delay more bearable. When the flight was delayed again, pizza was order for everyone on the flight.

    Short-term this cost JetBlue money, though not a lot. But how many of those individuals are going to fly JetBlue whenever they can in the future because they were treated well throughout the process. The relationship’s value did not decline once the ticket was purchased (transactional). JetBlue, understands the long-term value of those customer relationships.

    Good sales people, like good fund development people understand, it’s the relationship stupid. And the minute our needs and desires or our organizations are put ahead of the donor’s or customer’s needs we have failed to do our jobs and deliver value.

  4. Terrific post, thank you! Both are about benefiting the buyer / donor and improving his or her condition by providing access to high-value goods and services.

  5. I am new to fund raising but a veteran salesperson from the securities industry. It occurs to me that the same dynamic which happens during a sale also happens when seeking a donation. That doesn’t mean they are the same but the techniques used in successful sales should not be ignored.

    95% of the reason anyone parts with money has more to do with the person initiating the call than anything else. That is, what we’re really “selling” is ourselves and the belief and passion WE bring to the discussion.

    Raising funds, major gifts or donations to non profits need to have elements of good sales technique in order to be successful. I’m guessing that rejection is as much a problem for major gift officers and donation seekers as it is for salespeople. That means that proper sales practices which help overcome that obstacle will benefit fund raisers as well; that doesn’t make them salespeople.

  6. Great post Sasha.

    Fundraising is an important issue for non-profits because they are businesses too. Despite the fact that they are run for a cause instead of for profit, these organizations must try to “sell” their product to the general public just like anyone else.

    One way NP’s can raise funds is through my employer, CafeGive. Essentially we are an online shopping portal which earns advertising fees from merchants such as Best Buy, Powell’s Books and 340 others for listing them on our site. A portion of this earned fee is donated to a charity, which the shopper selects from a list of 36. We also add several new causes each month, so there’s sure to be one which connects with everyone. Visit to feel good about the online shopping you already do.

  7. I don’t think fundraising is like a sale. Fundraising is a good cause although these days it has become a business for some people.

  8. I don’t see the difference between professional sales and professional fund raising. Trying to distance ourselves from the negative image of a salesperson is the only reason I can think of to make a distinction. Think of it. Everything anyone ever bought had a salesperson involved. If not in the transaction that you might see, but the one that got the product or service on the shelf where you bought it. It’s time to elevate the notion of selling as a profession, and teach it in our colleges and universities, even high schools (as many do) as a legitimate and critical part of any economy. If authenticity is what we all crave, lets call it what it is. There are probably more unethical “fundraisers” taking more money from people with maniuplative tactics than all the car salespeople combined. Any good professional salesperson understands shared value, and the importance of referrals and repeat business. Nonprofits have no corner on good business practices.

  9. Absolutely! Nonprofit professionals don’t like to compare their work to that of the for-profit world. And it makes sense: nonprofits exist primarily to help those in need, and for-profit organizations exist primarily to make money.

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