A Firestorm:  Marketing v. Fundraising

This year’s Nonprofit Communications Trend Report, published annually by Kivi LeRoux Miller, highlighted the possibility of conflict within nonprofit organizations’ communications and development departments about role definitions, goals, resource allocations, strategies, tactics, and more. 

And, just to prove how prescient the report might be, nonprofit fundraising and marketing bloggers have begun to slug it out online.

Is marketing killing fundraising? Should marketing serve fundraising? Are fundraising and marketing the same thing?  What a firestorm of controversy these questions have sparked among nonprofit fundraising and marketing professionals. In case you’ve missed the throw-down, here’s a recap:

  • Claire Axelrad, author of Clairification, Best Fundraising Blog of 2013, argues—emphatically—the two (marketing and fundraising) are the same thing.
  • In Fired Up Fundraising, Gail Perry argues that marketing and branding can kill a nonprofit’s fundraising program.  In a follow-up post, she clarified that she was describing the ill effects of bad marketing and branding and not all marketing and branding and the effect of marketing and fundraising not working collaboratively.
  • Fundraiser Jeff Brooks in Future Fundraising Now, argues that charitable investment in branding kills fundraising by diverting funds from fundraising budgets.
  • And, “Agent” John Lepp, our Agent for Good  advises nonprofits to deal with our “marketing problem” by firing all marketers because they are not donor-centric.
  • Two days ago, nonprofit marketing expert Kivi Leroux Miller responded to the “marketing haters” by assuring people that there is no “marketing boogeyman” under the bed and calling for fundraising and marketing harmony.

I am fascinated by the controversy.  Throughout most of my history in the nonprofit sector, I’ve been both the Communications Director and the Development Director.  Many times, I’ve been the Executive Director, as well. 

Most of my work experience in the nonprofit sector has been spent in nonprofit organizations with budgets of about $1 million or less which is what 90% of nonprofits organizations are.  For many of these organizations, having the luxury of multiple administrative staff members is an extravagance they can’t afford.  In these places, administrative personnel wear multiple hats. 

I’ve been lucky. In my pre-consulting experience: I’ve almost always been either directly responsible for both communications and development or development and communications have both reported to me. This has meant that the work of the two functions, positions, or departments has almost always gone smoothly.  There has almost always been coordination and close cooperation. 

In the few instances when the two departments were not united, there were many problems and challenges with collaboration and competing agendas and coordination that made me convinced that the two should always be united. 

Here’s why.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate that communications has more to do than fundraising.  I do.

I recognize that communications directors have multiple goals.  In some organizations I’ve served, some of communications’ goals have included advocacy, public health (preventing unsafe or unhealthy behaviors), providing resources or information (for example, offering family caregivers support) in addition to supporting fundraising.

And I’ve seen first-hand how branding can help fundraising.  I worked for one organization that had absolutely no name-recognition.  The organization had a really boring, ugly, unimaginative, unhelpful digital and print identity that did nothing to further the brand.  The organization’s name only confused people. That organization went through a total rebrand—new name, new logo, complete re-design of everything.  The organization began telling its story differently.  Suddenly, everything worked.  Fundraising improved dramatically, almost over-night following the re-brand.

I’ve seen brandraising help, not hurt fundraising.

So I get all that.

However, I would say that all communications goals are not created equal. And communications departments, isolated not aligned with fundraising, often don’t understand either the importance or the urgency of fundraising goals and deadlines.

And where there is friction and an absence of collaboration and cooperation between communications and development, the situation usually requires good leadership to help smooth things out. 

And guess what?  Where there is friction and poor collaboration and cooperation between two departments, there is almost never good leadership.  So where things are problematic, the conditions for working it out, don’t exist.

It’s not that communications should SERVE fundraising or that communications is RESPONSIBLE for fundraising.  It’s not that fundraising BLAMES communications for poor donor retention rates. 

It’s not even that marketing isn’t donor-centric.  One of the first things marketing students learn in a good marketing class is that marketing isn’t about you, it’s about the consumer or customer so good marketing is customer- or client- or donor-centric.

It’s just that fundraising does require a ton of support from communications to be successful.  And where communications does not understand and agree to that, fundraisers can’t succeed.

Try to sell tickets to a gala without communications being on-board.  No press releases.  No posters or flyers around town.  No tickets coordinated and designed to match theme of posters and flyers.  Nothing on the website.  Info totally omitted from eNews.  Mentioned on Facebook?  Nope.  Tweeted about? Nope.  Instagram?  Not on your life!  Consistency in messaging about the event, its purpose, its theme, colors, brand, etc.?  Forget About it!  What about a silent auction program?  Are you kidding me?!?!

Successful fundraising campaigns—and not just successful fundraising events—require multi-channel coordination—and that means they involve many communications channels.  Fundraisers need the help, support, cooperation and—even more—the good ideas, energy, enthusiasm, and the goodwill of the communications staff of an organization to succeed.

The discussion and expression of frustration among fundraising bloggers, I believe, is not about pointing fingers, power grabs, or about jockeying over budget outlays. 

I don’t believe—not for one minute—that the solution is simply to say “let’s all hold hands around the campfire and sing “Kumbaya.”

Would that it be so easy.

For fundraisers, it’s infuriating when communications directors develop branding guides or organizational websites or newsletters without an iota of input from development and then have Executive Directors and Board members expect development to be able to use these tools to “sell” the organization.  65% of donors look at an organization’s website before deciding to make a gift. 

In one of the few organizations I worked for where communications and development were starkly divided and the two were not collaborative, the organization was led by an executive director who was much more excited about the organization’s number of Facebook likes (which he checked daily) than its number of donors (which he never wanted to know). The website was ugly, cluttered, and poorly organized.  The online donation process was driven not by development staff, but by people who handled back-end data management who organized the website to serve their—not the donor’s—purposes.  When I (as development staff) articulated that I thought development should have a voice at a planned re-branding and re-development of the website, Mr. Facebook Likes couldn’t begin to understand my perspective (and the back-end data people thought I was ridiculous for suggesting that we do things any way, but the way that worked best for them). 

There was a much bigger problem at that organization than budget or power (about which I cared not one bit).  The issue at the heart of things was a complete and total absence of a Culture of Philanthropy.

I suspect where communications and development cannot agree, collaborate, and talk things through, this is often the case—that is, it is often the case that there is no culture of philanthropy in these situations.  And while Underdeveloped calls on Development Directors to work to change from within the culture of philanthropy in organizations that lack it, it’s been my experience that in those organizations where no culture of philanthropy exists, the development director often lacks the power or authority to lead such change.  By the nature of the problem, the development director is disenfranchised in these situations.

So what can be done in these situations? I dunno.  But here are a few things I’d like to think might help:

  1. First, I see accusations of power plays and budget grabbing as no more fair or accurate as accusations that communications directors are killing fundraising.  And simple solutions like just sit down and talk it out like grown-ups, I don’t think, are going to cut it, either.  With all due respect to Kivi (and I really, really do have a lot of respect for Kivi) I think the problem is more complex and the solution needs to be also.  So let’s stop the finger-pointing and accusations in both directions.
  2. Then, for starters, I think that it would be helpful for Communications Directors and Development Directors to recognize that they have many shared goals and shared strategies.  Communications Directors should not, for example, think that they alone are charged with the goal of “engaging the community.”  At the heart of fundraising, fundraisers are also. Fundraising is about engagement.  It’s about connecting with people in a way that they want to contribute.  Giving is a response to having been engaged and moved.  If we don’t engage and connect with people, they don’t give.  Community engagement.  Shared goal.  Please don’t think we’re at odds on this.
  3. Communication Directors need to remember that we’re on your side.  Fundraisers want communications directors to succeed.  We need you to.  Our successful work hinges on yours.  Doesn’t mean you’re responsible for fundraising.  We are.  Doesn’t mean we blame you for poor donor retention rates. It simply means we’re in this together and we have an interest in your success just as you and others in the organization have an interest in ours.
  4. For decades, development directors have been attending communications and marketing classes, realizing that these disciplines were central to the field of development (That’s why so many fundraisers respect and follow Nancy Schwartz, Kivi LeRoux Miller, and Tom Ahern—to name but a few). As a development director, it would be so refreshing to see communications directors—and program directors and other nonprofit personnel—spend more time learning about fundraising—about what it is and is not, and about what they can (and should) do to support it. I see and hear so many misunderstandings (even in some of these blog posts).  There’s room for some learning.  (And I’m sure I need some, too).

I know this list is just a start.  The problem is bigger.  But let’s start working on it and not just in our blogs.  We all (I believe) love the missions we serve.  Let’s don’t accuse each other of other motivations.  I believe that if we had other motivations, we wouldn’t be working for nonprofits.  There are easier ways to make a dollar (and probably more of them).