Fundraising Is Not A Commodity

A lot of the services we experience from businesses today are commodified.  For instance, there are 3 “legacy” airlines now – United, American, and Delta.  While each has its own strengths (United has the best mobile app., Delta still serves the best free snacks on flights, etc.), the overall experience of air travel has been commodified.  The seats are about the same, the boarding process is about the same, and the planes are about the same.  A flight is a flight is a flight.

There are many other examples of commodification.  Major hotel chain experiences have been commodified.  Rental car experiences have been commodified.  Your internet provider offers a commodified service.

When a service or product becomes commodified, two things happen.

  1. The companies that provide the commodified service match what their competitors do. They benchmark against the competition excessively.  Over time the product or service becomes more similar and less distinctive.
  2. The consumer in the marketplace looking for a commodified service or product makes her choice almost exclusively on price. Why pay more when you are going to get essentially the same service or product from any vendor?  Low cost wins.

But, not all services are commodities.  For instance, a personal fitness trainer is not a commodified service.  Your physician does not provide you with a commodified service.  Education is not a commodity.

With a non-commodified service or product, the consumer might be willing to pay a bit more because of the perceived extra value and benefit of that particular service or experience.  For instance, you may be willing to pay more for your personal trainer because her unique energy and coaching encourages you to push yourself further than anyone else could.  She provides you with a qualitatively superior experience so price is no longer the only reason for making your decision to purchase her service.

Far too often in advancement we act like we are in a commodified environment.  We benchmark ourselves against other institutions (which we believe are “similar” to ours).  We create performance metrics for gift officers that are not designed to encourage relationship-building with donors, but rather serve to standardize the giving process (as if that is possible).  We hold up the value of “big donor data” and “analytics” while treating as secondary the immense power derived from gathering and analyzing the “little data” of personal relationships and experiences.  And we are, I’m afraid, focusing our donors more on the transaction of giving than on the joy of giving.

I have heard so-called “consultants” propagate the awful idea that there should be a specific number of visits a gift officer should complete with a donor before asking for a gift.  That’s like suggesting one should go on 7 dates and then make a marriage proposal.

When our strategies point us in the direction of sanitizing the giving process into a standard process, formula, or template – when we start to commodify the giving process – we are going down a wrong, bad road.  When we focus more on trying to find the magic mechanisms of fundraising and focus less on the uniqueness of our institutional mission, we are not understanding what drives generosity.

If we want to raise more money, our strategies should encourage us to delight our donors.  And delighting donors means that we recognize that each is unique.  It means that we must get to know them – not as equivalent points in a larger data field.  Not as a herd of homogeneous cattle. Not as robotic “giving units.”  But as individual, idiosyncratic people with unique interests, motives, and values.

Giving is a highly personal experience. It’s the opposite of the commodified experienced.  There is no formula that can be equally applied to all donors to encourage their generosity.  Just like there is no formula for the personal trainer, the doctor, or the best teachers.  Yes, there are principles that are time-tested and effective, but no template.  And the most important principle to effectively raise more money is simple:

Your best donors aren’t consumers and their giving isn’t a marketplace transaction.


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