Silk Purses and Silos

August 29, 2013

(NOTE: If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a fundraiser. While I hope you get value from it, I want to confess that I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for your CEO. I wrote it for your finance boss. I wrote it for your Board Chair and the members of your Board Fundraising Committee. This blog will do its work if you share it with them!)

My mom used to say “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” – and now that I’m a grown-up, I realize that truer words were never spoken…

This maxim simply means that you can’t make something that’s half-assed beautiful simply by dusting it off and putting it under good lighting. This is true in philanthropy as it is everywhere.

Here’s the problem that I see pretty much every day in the work I do: Fundraisers struggle to make ordinary mission seem spectacular. We try to take the mundane and make it gorgeous. We try to turn bland beige into brilliant gold.

Guess what? It doesn’t work.

Today’s donor is way to savvy to fall for the fundraising tricks and techniques that we got away with ten or fifteen years ago. They see through the vacuous language (like ‘enhancing patient care’), the deceptive pie charts (‘We only spend 3% of our revenue on fundraising.’) They see past the underlining, bold type and italics we use on our direct mail.

Today’s donor demands and expects substance, simplicity and results from you.

Which brings me to what I hope will be a new discussion in the sector about silos. Many of us have been talking for years about bringing down the fundraising silos. Integrating direct response with legacy giving. Weaving legacy and major gift work into a seamless donor experience. Using multiple channels like mail, phone, email and social media to transmit a singular message.

We still have a lot of work to do here. But, there are bigger silos that must come crumbling down.

Fundraising itself must be more seamlessly integrated into mission and program. Fundraising has to be an essential input into strategic discussion. Program priorities must be set in good part by donors’ likely willingness to support them. CEOs and Boards can no longer just say to fundraisers, “These are the priorities – now go find the money.”

Now, I’m not trying to say the fundraisers need to stage a coup d’etat and try to run their organizations. What I AM SAYING is that the donor wants a seat at the executive table – and that the fundraiser is naturally the one who can speak to leadership with the donor’s voice.

Not long ago, I went to meet with an NGO to discuss legacy giving. Four of us went into a small meeting room with a small table and four chairs. Before I sat down, I pulled another chair from against the wall and placed it at the table too. When the three NGO people looked at me a bit funny, I simply said “I think your donor wants to be a part of this discussion.” It worked.

Fundraisers are working too hard, losing sleep, burning out and leaving jobs because their leaders are giving them impossible jobs to do. Let’s all agree that there’s an elephant in the room – and figure out a constructive way to move forward, achieve our mission and advance our cause.

After all, that’s why we came here in the first place.

One thought on “Silk Purses and Silos

  1. Amen. Including your donor in the discussion is a game changer. Who doesn’t want to be consulted and contribute to the solution, especially if you’re putting your philanthropic interests behind it? A little lipstick on the pig certainly pretties the picture, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pig!

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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.