Nonprofit professionals don’t like to compare their work to that of the for-profit world. And it makes sense: nonprofits exist primarily to help those in need, and for-profit organizations exist primarily to make money. However, certain aspects of nonprofit work truly are synonymous with for-profit practices, even if they’re called something different. A perfect example is fundraising. Or, in for-profit terms, sales. That’s right: fundraising is sales.
Again, it’s easy to see why fundraisers are reluctant to call their work “sales.” But, technically, nonprofit fundraisers are doing what salespeople do every day. Fundraisers and salespeople try to convince customers (“customers” in the fundraising world are donors) that their product (“product” in the fundraising world is the cause for which you’re raising funds) is worth the investment. They try to find common ground between their customers and their work, and, more often than not, they use stories and relationship building to get there.
Fundraisers have a hard job. Convincing other people to donate their hard-earned money to a cause is no easy feat. At least with sales the customer walks away with a physical, tangible product or service. In many cases, nonprofit donors don’t even see where their money is going. Despite (or perhaps in spite of) all this, fundraisers could learn a thing or two from those working in sales.
Donating to causes is a very noble thing to do, and it’s easy for us nonprofit folk to expect it of people. But when you approach fundraising with the expectation that potential donors will give, it can appear off-putting, or even arrogant. In the rapid-fire tech age, donors are aware of hundreds of charitable causes. In order for them to choose your cause, you need to sell them. Convincing a donor to give to your cause can take weeks, months, or even years, so be sure that you’re transparent, and appreciate their donation rather than expect it.
In the sales world, generating leads is the first step to closing the deal. In the nonprofit world, fundraising professionals are generating leads all the time. Whether fundraisers are researching marketing tactics, conducting surveys or doing grassroots advocacy, they’re identifying potential donors every step of the way.
Just like salespeople stay engaged with potential customers over a long period of time, fundraisers spend time building relationships with donors and potential donors. And, just like salespeople often frame their ask in the form of a narrative, fundraisers use stories to relate to and empathize with their customers.
Fundraising and sales aren’t so different after all. In fact, fundraisers and salespeople could learn a lot from each other. But before collaboration can happen, we have to acknowledge that these two practices aren’t mutually exclusive. Once we do that, we can start raising even more money and doing even more good.
Originally published 8.29.17—Updated 7.12.18