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Organisational attributes for and against donor-centricity

Working definition of ‘donor-centric’: "An approach to fundraising whereby for-purpose organisations genuinely strive to understand their donors and meet their needs – usually, but not exclusively, through relational marketing approaches and the use of two-way communications – in order to maximise sustainable voluntary income." (Ian MacQuillin, Director, Rogare)

Like every fundraiser I’m sure, I’ve come across ‘donor-centric’ organisations and those that just can’t seem to grasp the concept, or appear unwilling to implement donor-centric strategies.

The language of an organisation is both an expression of its personality, culture and beliefs, and can influence the same. So, one of the first indications of an organisation’s attitude to donor-centricity is found in its language. Does the organisation communicate in a ‘corporate voice’ or is its communication donor-centred?

An organisation’s language in its external communication is of course influenced by a host of complex and interrelated factors. For example, two extremes I've come across:

First, a very large organisation with multiple silos and competing objectives, very hierarchically organised (reminiscent of the military), with a narcissistic leader, lots of back-stabbing and bullying, high staff turnover, and a world-view the organisation was ‘superior’ in its power relationships with stakeholders, and funded largely by the government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this organisation was very far from being donor-centric in terms of its language and practice.

Second, a small organisation with an emotionally intelligent leader, clear vision in terms of mission and beneficiaries, caring of its employees with very low staff turnover, dependent on the support of a small number of major donors, and a shared world view that clearly positioned donors and beneficiaries as being in a superior position in terms of its power relationships. Again, perhaps not surprisingly this organisation was extremely donor-centric in its communication and behaviour. And interestingly enough, it had a donor attrition rate close to zero.

There are a vast number of factors that can influence an organisation's predisposition to be donor-centric or not. From experience, I believe they include (not necessarily in priority order):

1. Culture: Although there is not a single ‘culture’ in large complex organisations, if the prevailing culture is one that reflects a ‘mentally fit’ organisation, truly respectful of staff and stakeholders with open and collaborative behaviour, it is more likely to be donor-centric than one which does not share these attributes.

2. Leadership: Isn’t it strange how often narcissists and organisational psychopaths achieve leadership positions? Perhaps because they are often mistaken for ‘true leaders’ and people who ‘get things done’. And maybe there is some truth in that. Whatever, an organisation led by a narcissist or organisational psychopath is going to have trouble embracing the concept of donor-centricity.

And a non-profit that has a board which is actively involved in identifying potential donors and deepening relationships with them is also likely to be more donor-centric than one that carries a board that doesn’t actively contribute towards its financial sustainability.

3. Size and complexity: The larger and more complex an organisation is, the more difficult to instil shared values and beliefs, including a belief in the value of donor-centricity. Organisations with silos working against each other and with rigid hierarchies are less likely to be donor-centric.

4. Sources of income: If an organisation derives its income largely from government or other non-philanthropic source, then it is less likely to be donor-centric than one which depends on the support of donors. In Australia, it’s fascinating to see how the disability sector, which is moving from a direct government funding model to a user pays system, is having to scramble to refresh its approach to engaging with the community (beneficiaries, donors, potential collaborators, etc). The sector is at the beginning of a learning curve to become more donor-centric.

5. Systems and policies: A donor-centric organisation needs to have in place good systems and policies to support this approach. An adequate CRM system and fundraising policies supporting its donors need to be in place.

6. Education: Obviously very important that people in an organisation responsible for fundraising, development and communication are well-educated in the techniques and benefits of being donor-centric. But, no matter how conversant they are in being donor-centric, it’s a struggle when they are operating in a culture that does not support this way of thinking and behaving.

There are a host of other influences in addition to the above list on an organisation’s predisposition to be donor-centric or not. Changing its language is very important. Changing its ‘mental fitness’ and world-view can be even more of a challenge! See 'Fundraising and Organisational Change' in the resources section of this website for some relevant strategies.

For more resources, click here