Avoiding Advancement Commodification

The primary goal of advancement programs should be to create conditions which encourage donor generosity.  Generosity producing conditions – be they through direct mail letters, phonathon calls, special events, or face-to-face visits – lead to donor experiences.  If these experiences are inspiring, energizing and/or encouraging for our donors, generosity is more likely to follow.

So, how does an advancement team create these conditions for donors?  One way is the professionalized, “staff-centered” approach.  Hire sharp people, indoctrinate them on what your organization has done in the past, train them at professional conferences where they find out what everyone else is doing, and tell them it is their job to do the work.

And while this may be an understandable approach, it can also lead to the commodification of advancement.  According to Wikipedia, “a commodity is a good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.”  Think rice, gold, soybeans, or oil.  No creativity in the final product because the producer doesn’t much matter.   Oil is oil is oil.  A bag of rice on your supermarket shelf is the same as a bag of rice on mine.  It is what it is.

For some areas of life – i.e., filling up our car with gas – commodities are great!  It’s an easy exchange relationship – we know what we are getting, pay the market price, and it’s over.  There is little in the way of building a relationship with the gas pump!

But advancement is a bit more complex.  And as advancement programs become more professionalized, I see commodification as a concern.  Professionals, in any field, have been educated.  They have been certified and trained.  Unfortunately, the number one area in which many have been trained, is in the belief  that they know more about the work than those they serve!  For surgeons, this approach might work.  For directors of development, this approach is suicide.

Professionalized, staff-centered advancement programs believe it is their job to sign the direct mail solicitation letters and their job to extend thank you calls to donors.  And advancement activities look more like commodities in the process.  One direct mail letter from a director of development is the same as another.  One thank you call from an annual fund director is the same as another.  Oil is oil is oil.

Of course, I’m not against hiring sharp people.  It’s what we ask them to do after hiring that concerns me.  Steer clear of professionalizing their thinking.

Instead, educate them on how to ask thoughtful, engaging questions.  Role-play with them to strengthen their listening and response capabilities.   Have them visit with donors, before visiting with peers.  Teach them that donors typically will be more inspired, more encouraged, more energized, and more generous in response to calls, letters, and visits involving volunteers, other donors, Board members, and others not being paid.

Our role is not to do all the work ourselves.  It is to engage donors and others in the work.  The best advancement programs are far from commodities.

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