Why a Donor-Centered Approach Is Wrong

Over the last decade, the concept of “donor-centered” fundraising has gained traction for institutions of all sizes.  Books have been written on the topic and a Google search of the phrase turned up 364,000 results!  The idea – that all institutional activities and behaviors should be concentrated and focused in ways that best serve donors – has high visibility.

But it is wrong.

Read this from Simone Joyaux, ACFRE, and web contributor to “Nonprofit Quarterly“:

“Sadly most organizations focus on their own needs and why their good work requires donations.  Instead, the donor-centered organization puts the donor at the center.  ‘Because of your gifts, we do this vital work.'”

You may be wondering why I would suggest this to be a wrong-headed approach.  At first blush, it sounds like a philosophy I would espouse.  But, I believe this is more than wrong-headed, I believe it is dangerous!

Here is what I mean.

The ‘center’ of our work, of our institutions, should never be our donors.  When we put our donors at the ‘center’ of our organizational focus and energy, we can quickly get our institutions into some curious situations.  For instance, if your institution practices a “donor-centric” approach, how might you respond if your largest donor asks you to give her son a job?  If the donor is at the center of your institution, your decision-making may get confused.

Now, some might say that I don’t understand the real meaning of being “donor-centered.”  In fact, Ms. Joyaux has written in other places that institutions should be both “donor-centered” as well as “mission-centered.”  The problem I have with this “dual-centered” approach is that I’m not sure what an institution leader does when those two “centers” come into conflict with each other.

And believe me – they can come into conflict.  Sometimes in ways that are much more devastating than giving someone a job.  Sometimes a “donor-centered” approach and a “mission-centered” approach can clash in catastrophic ways.

Here is an example of a real-life mission statement of a well-known institution:

“(The institution) educates students. . . and improves the well being and health of individuals and communities through integrated programs of teaching, research, and service.”

Do you know whose Mission Statement this is?  It’s Penn State University’s.

I wonder if leaders at Penn State University would have reacted differently to protect little boys from alleged sexual predator, Jerry Sandusky, if they had been “mission-centered,” instead of embracing some other “donor/money/winning/and/or reputation-based center.”

Our institutions should never be anything other than “mission-centered.”  Our focus, energy, decision-making process, and donor-relations should sit on a foundation of mission.  Why are we here?  Why do we do what we do?  Our mission-based center should evidence our values and our purpose.  If we truly live out our mission, we will put appropriate focus, recognition, and stewardship on our donors.

But, when we put the wrong concept, the wrong people, the wrong idea at our center – at our very core – we run a huge risk.  Even if that “something” is as important as donors, we run a risk.   And sometimes, when we allow our institutions to become something other than “mission-centered,” we put the very people we aim to serve in harm’s way.

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