Fundraising Trend #7: The End of the Donor (as we know it)?

September 4, 2017

Okay, maybe this one isn’t a trend; YET. But I think it will be…

Over this summer, I’ve shared the six trends that I believe most influence our work as marketers and fundraisers in the philanthropic marketplace. I hope you’ve found a few of them helpful. But, as I finished the six-part series, there was an idea that kept nagging at me – as if it wanted to be included in the list. The nagging didn’t stop – so here goes…

At the outset, let me be very clear – what I’m about to say to you is NOT based on rigorous research or philanthropic best practice. Far from it. This comes from my head. From what I think and imagine. And yet, I think that sometimes our thoughts and ideas are just as important as what we’ve learned or what we know.

I think the day is coming – soon – when the word DONOR will fade from our vocabularies.

There are a couple of reasons for this –

but let’s start with a little history…

Once upon a time (let’s say 20 years ago) a guy named Fraser became a fundraiser. The job of a fundraiser then was to find and keep donors who would give donations. Sometimes the job entailed persuading some donors to make bigger donations. That was pretty much it.

Now, what was a donor and what was a donation? I think of my dad, who is a member of the Civic generational cohort, born before 1946. Back in the 1990s, my fellow Good Workers and I would send mail to people like my dad on behalf of charities and ask for a donation. And, the people like my dad would mail a cheque back – and that was pretty much the end of it.

My dad trusted the charity to use his money well to further its mission. The charity pretty much took my dad for granted (because it could!). They both knew that they’d do the dance again next year with pretty much the same result.

The keys to all this – in my opinion at least were threefold:

  1. My dad was satisfied once he mailed his cheque. He didn’t want, expect or need anything more. He’d done his good deed, and he felt satisfied with himself.
  2. The connection between my dad and the charity was totally transactional. Neither side in the exchange felt the need to explore a relationship, so they didn’t. Pretty simple stuff – easy really…
  3. Most importantly (to me at least) the role of the donor was a largely PASSIVE one. Here’s my money. Spend it well. Good luck and God bless.

These days are pretty much gone.

The notion of the passive donor is pretty much gone. And I think the word ‘donor’ is so attached to that passivity that we need to come up with new words to describe our supportive constituents.

Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1966), Gen Xers (b. 1967-1982) and Millennials (b. 1983-1995) have very different thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and expectations from their philanthropy. I believe that this is very much a function of communications technology and how it has transformed our lives since about the mid 1980s. Our ability to connect, engage and stay involved with the people we care about has transformed in a generation.

Here’s a quick example. My daughter Rory just had a baby girl – my first grandchild – in Vancouver. Now, I can get out to the west coast for an in-person visit maybe two or three times a year – but we can text and email messages photos on a daily basis. We can Skype or FaceTime every week, so I can watch little Audrey grow and change.

When my dad became a grandfather in 1979, he would have had little if anything like that. Distance was distance. His expectations were WAY lower. He’d look forward to a summer vacation road trip, but that would be about it – unless I wrote him a letter (yeah, right!).

Today, we have all sorts of different wants and needs when we choose to support charities. I’ve given to charities on whose boards I’ve sat. I support charities that my friends and colleagues are deeply committed to. I give to charities that I’ve done pro bono work for because the cause matters to me and I think they’re underdogs.

In some cases, I want input into how the charity is led. In some cases, I want to offer my professional skills (for free) to further contribute to the cause. With a couple, I want something that further connects me to a friend who truly matters to me. In each and every case, it’s more complex than just saying “Here’s my $100. I guess we’re done.”

The long and the sort of all this, is that the word ‘donor’ is just starting to seem like a weak word to me. To me, it focuses on the money more than the person. It suggests transaction rather than relationship. It just falls short.

In Inuktitut, there are many words for ‘snow’. Perhaps it’s time we got far more thoughtful and creative about the words we use to label our supporters. I’d love to hear your ideas…


This is Part 7 of my seven-part summer reading series. I’m walking you through review the seven trends that we’re paying closest attention to – and why you should be, too. Check out Part 6, where we discuss the importance of disclosing how much impact your donors are making.

5 thoughts on “Fundraising Trend #7: The End of the Donor (as we know it)?

  1. This was such an interesting read! I agree very much that the experience people want to have with nonprofits has transcended my understanding of the traditional “donor” which for me implies almost a one-way interaction. I have no idea what word would encompass the relationship people want to have with nonprofits these days but I think the word would be more collaborative and have to communicate a sense of working on solutions together — at least that’s the feeling I’m looking for when I donate.

    1. I TOTALLY get what you’re saying Mimosa! And, I completely agree with your approach and idea. I’d love to know if we’re a club of two, or if others share this way of viewing the future!

  2. We’re always looking for new ways to identify the people and businesses who support us, here are a few we use:
    -Champion – a third party fundraiser or a workplace leader who encourages giving at work
    -Supporter – applies to donors, volunteers and people who support online campaigns and write to the government on issues
    -Member – actual member of organization, monthly donor and online community members

    I’m curious what other terms organizations are using.

  3. I like the term “partner” but then we have to make sure we treat them as partners. Build relationships. Keep them informed. Invite them to participate at events, committees. I have always found “invites”, even if declined, help forge relationships…..

  4. Thank you Fraser – a subject well worth discussion!
    The power of language cannot be understated and, language and its nuances are fluid – constantly changing and “we” must always be on the mark.
    I mind the time when I was working in animal welfare and we were working on a capital campaign for a new animal shelter. That is what we changed – we were not longer to be “the shelter” but rather the Humane Education and Pet Adoption Centre. A bit longer winded but we managed to go from the Shelter to the Centre and in turn (we hoped) would also begin to better reflect the good work that is being done there and the image in the public minds’ eye.

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Fraser Green

Fraser Green

Former political campaigner and current fundraising strategist with a knack for understanding how audiences will react to messages.