3 principles of being a better fundraiser

Sage Fundraising Advice and 3 Principles of Being a Better Fundraiser

Mckenna Bailey

Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Early in your career and 20’s that’s normally how you can see things. Your job. Your faith. Your relationships. Your beliefs. Your ideas. It makes it a lot easier to be an advocate and passionate supporter because, well, you’re right. Your cause is just. In fact, it’s the best cause out there and all other causes suck! Okay, maybe not that black and white…

This post originally appeared on re:charity.

But as you grow older and gain more experience, these views change. They don’t necessarily go away – although that can and does happen – but they fade. Or they become more nuanced. Moderate.

Growing up in rural Alberta (Canada’s Texas) in a Christian home, I had a comfortable life, with great parents, and possessed certain views. But going to school in urban Chicago, having a close mentor tell me he was gay, and traveling to Zambia in the years after I left home, to name just a few experiences, challenged much of what I thought and believed. About myself. About my faith. About the world.

Those experiences didn’t completely change what I believed previously but added a new perspective. Depth. Moderation. And my faith, career, and life are better because of them.

The same is often true when it comes to marketing and fundraising.

Now, ‘moderate’ isn’t exactly an inspiring call to arms and is often associated with safe, boring, and average. But when it comes to marketing and fundraising, the moderate view that takes the edge off our extremes is often what is best. That’s what Jeff Brooks’ recent post Advice for the fundraiser as a young man discusses. It’s full of great insights from Jeff’s journey as an ‘extremist’ fundraiser and the battle between his ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ fundraising but at the end he lays out some principles he would try to live by to be a moderate fundraiser:

“We’ve always done it that way” is not a sufficient reason for doing something. It’s also not a sufficient reason for not doing something. The past is a guide. Not a prison.

Best practices are more likely good than bad. But there’s no guarantee they’re good. Test and question them.

Change is inevitable. We face a change of generations (Boomers are replacing the older generation). We face major changes in communication technology and the way people use them. Costs for traditional fundraising media are going up faster than inflation. Ignore those things, or fade away!

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Human psychology has not changed, despite all the other things that are changing. Everything you have to do to succeed in the old media — you still have to do in the new.

Building off of those great principles and incorporating some of my own fundraising lessons learned, here are..

3 Principles Of Being A Better Fundraiser

1. The Cause Is More Important Than You. And Definitely More Important Than You Being Right.

More net revenue means more people will be helped. That is why you do what you do right, to help more people. So don’t lose focus of that. When looking at cutting events, adding campaigns, or hiring/firing staff, think about the impact on net revenue which affects your bottom line: making an impact.

Too many decisions get made out of fear – of failure, job security, of being wrong – but if the end product, helping people and making an impact, can be front and center constantly then hopefully it makes it worth overcoming those fears. And if you fail, and you will fail at some point, at least you’ll be failing for the right reasons and the right purpose.

2. Let Numbers Tell You What’s Working, Not People (Like Your Board)

How do you know if you’re failing? If something is working? Ultimately it has to be something objective like metrics. My experience has been that nonprofits are generally poor when it comes to metrics. Not just in the data management, CRM, no KPI’s kind of way, but in understanding the best metrics, putting themselves out there in choosing key metrics, and then being ruthless in using them as a guide.

If you can stick your neck out on some metrics and adhere to them, it will help with identifying new strategies that are working (or not), technologies that are worth investing in (or not), and best practices that are still working (or not). Absent clear, good metrics, stated upfront, you won’t actually know – one way or the other. This is why we keep doing the same old same old because we don’t know if it’s working. Or why we’ll jump from the tried and true to the new and shiny because we don’t know if it’s working. Or why we rely too much on our own experiences or the opinions of those around us – like the board.

Opinions are valid. They just aren’t worth much to your work. Especially when they come from high-level insiders.

3. Learn What Makes People Go (And Give Them More) And What Makes People Stop (And Give Them Less)

That’s a pretty general principle and it touches on one of Jeff’s pieces of advice in understanding the human psychology around giving – what motivates someone to give? To fundraise for you? If you can figure that out, even in small glimpses, then that’s what you need to do, to communicate, to increase the motivation to give and get involved.

And if you can understand why someone won’t give, get involved, or fundraise then you have to remove those obstacles or reduce that friction of taking action. This can be as simple as having fewer fields to complete on your online donation page, not using ‘us’ and ‘we’ language in your letter, website, and email copy, or having a mobile friendly website.

My experience has been that it’s a lot harder to know what increases motivation compared to what reduces friction. So by all means, start with some simple things to make it easier for people to get involved, but don’t shy away from the harder, bigger, more powerful work of understanding more about people and why they want to give in the first place.


We all start out with extremes in our lives and careers and over time it’s not such a bad thing if we can learn, evolve, and become more moderate. We’re better for it. And if you can put the cause above yourself, let numbers guide the way, and can find ways to increase motivation to give in people and reduce the friction for them to do so, you’ll be a better fundraiser as well. Good luck!

digital fundraising experiments webinar

Take a tour of the Virtuous Platform

Learn more about how the Virtuous can help you save time and build better relationships with your donors.

Take a Product Tour