Donors as Mission: A New Paradigm

donors as missionBeing “donor-centered” or “donor-focused” had a good run. But Richard and I believe it’s dead.

It’s dead because it’s not working. That is, not working well enough. What was great about “donor-centered” fundraising is that it changed the focus from tactics and strategies that were centered on the non-profit organization’s point of view to thinking about what is best for the donor.

But while “donor-centered” fundraising has changed the focus, it still rests on the foundation of old ways that organizations view donors – namely, that they are a means to an end.

“Donors give us money so we can conduct the mission of the organization.” That is essentially how we think.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we’ve really tried to be good to donors. Today, non-profits are looked upon with scorn if they don’t receipt a donor’s gift within 48 hours or if they don’t have some kind of mechanism to report back how the donor made a difference with their gift. That is now a no-no. And organizations are now grappling with how to build a culture of philanthropy.

But like I said, those are pretty much just tactics and strategies. Good ones, it’s true, but Richard and I believe it doesn’t go far enough. Nope, donor-centered fundraising was a veneer that covered up nicely our deeply-rooted attitude toward our donors:

Give us the money and we’ll do good things with it. Trust us.

This will not continue to work. What is needed is a paradigm shift in how we view donors.

The new paradigm is to view donors as part of the overall mission of your organization.

Over the years, we have walked into the offices of hundreds of non-profits. Only one had a mission statement that included donors.


You see, we believe that if you do not shift your philosophy about the central role donors play as part of your mission, you will lose them in unprecedented numbers. We are already seeing it. When looking at files across the country of donors at the $1,000+ cumulative giving levels over the last four years, we are seeing donor and value attrition rates of 40-60%!

These are not $25 donors I’m talking about. These are donors who say they believe in your mission. They have made a significant investment in your organization. Yet you have not made the same commitment back… and they are going away. This is costing your organization hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions of dollars in gifts that aren’t being given each year. This is money that could be expanding your programs and projects that you intend to change the world.

At the same time, you’re losing the ability to create joy in these donors as they change the world. That’s right, seeing donors as part of your mission requires you to work each day to help your donors change the world.

Over the next five blog posts, I’m going to write about changing the paradigm and what it means to view your donors as part of your mission. Here are some of the things I’m going to cover:

  1. Re-imagining the role of a donor at your non-profit.
  2. Changing our language with donors.
  3. Changing leadership priorities.
  4. Restructuring a non-profit to support donors as part of its mission.
  5. Asking: if donors are part of your mission, how does that translate into how you serve them?

I invite you to think about this: Every non-profit was started by one person or a small group of people who had a common mission. Then they invited others to join in that mission; and by doing so, they became part of the mission themselves.

I think we’ve lost that idea with our donors. Especially with those who have made a significant financial commitment already and believe in your mission.

Over time, we have forgotten that donors are as much a part of the mission as the work you do that helps change the world. If we believed that donors were part of the mission of the organization, how would that change our thinking? Our actions? Our beliefs on how donors are viewed?

This is what we want to explore with you over the next couple of weeks. Come along for the ride.




  • Hunter Dockery says:

    Jeff, I am all over this idea. Thanks for the deepening of thinking in this area. I have been wrestling with building more places for people to feel “in” at our company. I think that’s what you are saying. I have so many ideas on that. Thanks for the conversation starter.

  • Sandy Pasotti says:

    This is very interesting and something I look forward to hearing more about. Would love to see an example of how a mission statement includes donors. I have some of my own ideas but think that this has a lot of merit. Thanks.

  • Tina Cincotti says:

    I’m dying to see the mission statement of the ONE organization that included donors. Please share! And thanks for all your practical, informative, and challenging content each week.

  • Jen Pederson says:

    Can’t wait to see where you go with this, it’s a fair more and better articulated thing I’ve been thinking about for a while! Thanks!

  • John Frick says:

    Jeff…I have been developing this same thought over the past few years, I am eager to see how you all unpack this concept. Thanks!

  • Shauna Lugar says:

    I am thoroughly impressed by this read and all of its implications. Thank you for sharing.

  • Mike Bartlett says:

    Looking forward to more blogs on this, thanks for raising. Particularly interested in the mid-value cumulative givers around the 1,000 per annum mark, who seem to fall between small and major donor programmes.

  • claire axelrad says:

    Agree. Just finished arguing with someone who really hated the idea that donors would be seen as “rich” folks to be “served” by the nonprofit, and that this would hamstring “mission-driven” organizations. Such thinking, sadly, loses sight of the value-for-value exchange that is the foundation of all successful fundraising. Donors give something of value (time and treasure) and nonprofits give something of value back (an intangible ‘feel good’ that helps them fulfill their quest for meaning). It’s a partnership and symbiotic relationship.

    For folks like the gentleman with whom I was in disagreement, “donor-centered” likely connotes too much focus on the donor and too little on the mission. While I don’t view it this way, for these folks another way of viewing the paradigm may be in order. I look forward to the rest of the series.

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