Does the Commission on the Donor Experience promote donor-centric or donor-led fundraising?

The recent report by the Commission on the Donor Experience has been received by both applause, and a thread of concern. Reassuringly, it represents a powerful endorsement of good donor-centric fundraising practice, and potentially a route to more successful income generation for charities. However, it also states that ‘fundraising charities [should] firmly fix as their topmost priority the interests, convenience and positive experience of their supporters’. This statement risks elevating the donor experience above beneficiary needs, and inadvertently champions a donor-led approach.

I should be clear that, in many ways, the report is a valuable resource for the sector.  It rightly argues for creating a culture that enables thoughtful, responsive and relevant donor cultivation and stewardship. It recognises that donors should feel valued by a charity, and value their relationships with the charity in return. In addition, it highlights how charities should inspire their donors by sharing information on impact.  All excellent things.

However, the report fails to adequately address the fundamental principle of fundraising, namely that it is first and foremost a mechanism to enable activity in support of service users and beneficiaries. In sharing a clear message, the report lacks nuance, and risks advocating a donor-led approach which places the voice and needs of the end user in danger of being neglected.

Charities that end up being donor-led, either through necessity or lack of direction, experience problems on a number of fronts. These charities may:

  • Be more likely to end up pursuing programmes outside their core remit, and potentially beyond their field of expertise.
  • Expend a disproportionate amount of effort on managing the donor relationship.
  • Ultimately end up cross-subsidising tangential activities with valuable unrestricted funds which could be better deployed elsewhere—creating reputational risk along the way.

We know from our recent report Charities taking charge that charities increasingly recognise the power of ‘user voice’ and that many are making efforts to involve the voices and views beneficiaries in strategy, governance and operations. However, this can be easier said than done in fundraising, especially for charities on the brink of survival.  The fear of losing a donation can inhibit fundraisers and create an unbalanced power dynamic in the donor relationship; fundraisers may find it difficult to push back on donors who have their own opinions of need, or whose motivations seem to be more weighted to personal interests than those of the charity.

This is where establishing an honest and open dialogue, backed up by clear and demonstrable impact data, is vital.  We know from our work with funders, and our research, that donors really care about impact. Charities should therefore actively seek to communicate the impact of their work in a compelling way to donors—something which the Commission rightly highlights.

What the Commission fails to draw out, is that charities should also be gently robust with their donors. They should have a clear strategy and defined programmatic, campaigning and organisational goals that are set in consultation with their beneficiaries. With these things in place, it should be easier for fundraisers (with senior support) to  help donors understand how their money helps the charity to meet its strategic objectives.

In turn, funders should have the benefit of full buy-in from the charity, the knowledge that their contributions are supporting the charity to work in its area of greatest expertise, and the security of knowing that their funds are helping to address the most pressing problems.  It is this kind of sincere, transparent and mutually rewarding relationship that will ultimately result in committed and increased support for the sector—not something built on donor interests alone.


  1. Thank you for writing about the Commission on the Donor Experience, and for your positive remarks

    But you have made an inference that is wrong, and should be corrected.

    Of course CDE is not advocating that any charity would put concern for its donors ahead of doing what it exists to do for its beneficiaries. Donors are a means to helping beneficiaries, not an end in themselves.

    Further explanation of this really isn’t necessary, just as it isn’t necessary to say on a bottle of beer or wine, at the narrow part, ‘open this end’. Or to say on a saucepan, ‘this way up.’

    It’s clear from CDE’s outputs that we believe that if a charity is to maximise its resources to help beneficiaries it needs to ensure that its donors get the best possible experience of being a donor, so that they’ll stay giving and give more for longer. But that is not the same as making it an artificial ‘either/or’ choice, any more than claiming that paying rent on a building is depriving beneficiaries. It’s a foolish and unhelpful premise.

    For fundraisers and their employers, making the donor experience a top priority is in the interests of beneficiaries. But their interests are not mutually exclusive.

    We are trying to change the culture of fundraising, not of charities. We haven’t felt the need to explain this distinction any more than that, because to do so is unnecessary. Our aim is clear.

    The statement you quote: ‘fundraising charities [should] firmly fix as their topmost priority the interests, convenience and positive experience of their supporters’ needs to be read in that context, not in isolation.

    I hope this is helpful clarification.Giles Pegram CBE

  2. Thank you for your response Giles, and it’s useful to have your clarification that of course donor interests and beneficiary interests are not always in opposition – of course in the best cases they are aligned. However, in order to achieve this alignment robust conversations may be needed along the way, something that charities and fundraisers should be empowered to conduct. Fundraisers may not always feel they can have these conversations if the focus on a wonderful donor experience is seen as paramount.

    I would also respectfully disagree with your point that further explanation isn’t necessary. Whilst I don’t for one second doubt the abilities of my peers across the sector to understand the position of fundraising, the omission of this clarification in such a comprehensive toolkit as the Commission on the Donor Experience is disappointing. Including something would not necessarily have been stating the obvious, it could have provided a written endorsement of strategic, beneficiary-focused fundraising by a well respected body that could have been invaluable for fundraisers, senior teams and funders alike.

  3. Hi Clare,

    I accept your second point, that further explanation may be necessary sometimes.

    However, I am going a lot further than you in your first point. You write: “…of course donor interests and beneficiary interests are not always in opposition – of course in the best cases they are aligned.”

    No. They must NEVER be in opposition, at least in the medium to long term. They must ALWAYS be aligned.

    As I wrote in my comment: “Donors are a means to helping beneficiaries, not an end in themselves.”

  4. You’re absolutely right, in an ideal world they would always be aligned, but we come across many charities that are still struggling to achieve this alignment. For many different reasons – including being led by donors – those charities can find it hard to deliver the greatest impact possible for their beneficiaries. It is for this reason that keystone guidance should always contextualise fundraising with organisational goals and beneficiary needs (however obvious this may seem), so that charities and fundraisers can be supported and encouraged on all sides to achieve the best for their service users – not just their donors.

    Thank you for your comments Giles; it sounds like we are fundamentally in agreement on many points! If it’s helpful I would be pleased to continue our discussion offline.

    • Hi Clare,
      For obvious reasons, my last response was terse, and precise. May I be more discursive?

      I was brought up in an era when fundraising was seen as fundamentally about connecting donor and cause. Then fundraising became focused on ‘technique’, ‘activity’ and ‘transactions’.

      So several of us started to think more about the donor, not as a victim of a fundraising machine, but as a partner in helping to meet need. So expressions such as ‘donor-led’ and ‘donor-centred’ became common.

      Somehow, and I hold partial responsibility for this, a new generation of fundraisers has interpreted this as meaning that there was a hierarchy, with donors at the top, and beneficiaries further down. This is awful, if true. They didn’t understand that fundraising is primarily about connecting ‘donors’ with ‘needs’. I don’t believe any of us who advocated a ‘donor-led’ culture intended that.

      People need to understand the context at the time, when donors were seen as people to be fundraised AT, not as partners in achieving our objectives.

      Because of this, I now never use the expressions ‘donor led’ or ‘donor centred’. Because they have been wrongly interpreted.

      The whole Commission is written from the starting point that if you give a donor a great experience, she will give more, and give for longer, and so help more beneficiaries.

      I repeat: ‘Donors are a means to helping beneficiaries, not an end in themselves.’

  5. You have real clarity of purpose on this subject, Giles, and you would never conflate donor-centred fundraising with prioritizing the needs of donors above beneficiaries.

    But what is that old marketing aphorism? ‘You are not your target market.’ Because this seems clear, ‘self-evident’ (as you have said previously) and without need of further explanation to you, that doesn’t mean that others see it this way.

    As you know, I have been working on and developing fundraising’s professional ethics for a couple of years, and confusion in this respect certainly does exist. Many, probably most, see donorcentric fundraising in consequentialist terms, that it is a means to the end of raising more money to provide beneficiary services.

    Others see it in deontological terms – duty-based and comforming to a pre-existing moral norm – and so is not dependent on the outcomes. For them, putting the donor at the centre of a nonprofit’s fundraising is simply ‘the right thing to do’.

    Often, fundraisers who say they are consequentialists when it comes donorcentred fundraising talk like deontologists when push comes to shove and they have to justify something that might not be in the best interest of the donor, as they say it. Ah, they’ll say, but we ought not do that, because it would just be the wrong thing to do, irrespective of whether it raises more money.

    Sometimes, fundraisers will flip-flop between the two concepts in the course of the same conversation or same blog.

    So there is confusion about this that requires a lot more discussion and further explanation. Shutting down such discussion by saying it’s not necessary because the answer is self-evident risks embedding and perpetuating flawed concepts and the flawed practice that will result from that.

  6. Hi Ian,

    I believe you’re right. Completely.
    The very first words of Sir Martyn’s introduction read:
    “In recent years reports of poor fundraising practice have eroded public trust, damaged the reputations of some charities, and unfairly cast a shadow over the charity sector as a whole. This has the potential to make a significant impact on donor giving – and thus the number of beneficiaries charities are able to help.”
    On the first page of The Commission’s report, we say:
    “The changes we advocate will not just benefit donors directly but will also be better for charity staff and for the many millions who directly benefit when donors and fundraisers work at optimum together, for the good of all.”
    Our first principle is:
    “Anyone who gets a great experience when supporting a charity will, over their lifetime, give significantly more than someone who doesn’t.”
    And you will have seen my blog. Donor-centred or beneficiary-centred. It’s a non-issue
    So we are totally clear.
    But then we do, as I have said in my first comment, take that as a ‘given’, and don’t keep repeating it.
    When I wrote: “Further explanation of this really isn’t necessary.” It was in the context of the Commission.
    You imply I was: “Shutting down such discussion.” Far from it. Particularly in the context of the Commission’s apparent success, I would suggest much more discussion is needed, and you are right to continue to encourage it.
    What should we have done? Our emphasis is on the donor experience. I would suggest is up to CEOs and fundraising directors to hammer home what I have now written three times in this string: ‘Donors are a means to helping beneficiaries, not an end in themselves.’

  7. Hi Clare,
    Unlike the commercial sector. Charities have two audiences: beneficiaries and donors. But the culture in our sector puts a huge emphasis on beneficiaries. So much so that fundraising is often considered secondary.
    To achieve great change you need the money and the mission to work alongside each other – that’s the WHY of the organisation AND the WHY of donors. No problem is solved with a little money (otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem).
    Too many charities focus on WHAT they do (it’s often a key heading on a website) or how they do it. What charities need to do is be clear on their mission – their WHY or mission. That’s how they can be robust with their donors (and inspire them too). You’ll find I advocate as much in my Commission project, Supporters as Champions of your Mission, with a reference to the NPC Money for Good report too (that appears alongside your piece). One of the first steps the project recommends is to clarify your mission purpose and one of the last is about giving a great experience.
    Framed in this way – it’s not about the money it’s about the money and mission together (so the funds raised are the right funds). This approach would avoid the concerns you raise such as pursuing programmes beyond the core remit (or mission) of the charity.
    What’s more donors and their donations are now critical in helping spread a charities mission story and helping engage other partners (which could be funders or even mission related support that doesn’t impact on the bottom line). That’s the learning I had from my time at SolarAid. Which is why the experience we give them is critical to delivering on our respective missions.
    It certainly doesn’t advocate building on donors interests alone as you suggest – but that a key part of delivering a great donor experience is people feeling that are helping achieve something remarkable, both in their impact (as you acknowledge) and also in the greater mission or dream the charity they support aspires to. One cannot work without the other.

  8. Many thanks for your comment Richard, and of course I agree with you – the ‘money’ and the mission should be working together to achieve change. I also agree with your point that clarity from charities on their impact and mission can help them both inspire their donors and be robust with them. It’s great that you have done so much work in this area to support charities and fundraisers.

    In terms of the report in question, my concern was not that the interaction of these two things was misunderstood by the authors, but that it was not adequately highlighted. It is fine to contextualise after the fact, but that relies on people reading exchanges such as our current one, or further reports, in order for them to fully understand the authors perspective. My view is that a report such as this, with such helpful guidance which will no doubt be widely circulated within the sector, should be able to stand alone in this regard. As you say, the donor experience and the mission should come together, and it is for this reason that guidance around this subject should address both things in balance – not just the donor experience.

    Thank you for engaging in this discussion.

  9. Hi Clare,

    I think I may have been unclear in expressing my thinking.

    The beneficiary comes before the donor. Always. Without a tension.

    In our opening sections we have made this clear. Several times.

    We believe that if you give a donor a good experience, she will give more, give for longer, and so help more beneficiaries.

    You say: “My view is that a report such as this, with such helpful guidance which will no doubt be widely circulated within the sector, should be able to stand alone in this regard”

    Indeed. If there is, in some places, a tension between donors and beneficiaries, this is for CEOs and fundraising directors to debate and clarify. Not the Commission. After our opening sections, we take this as read. It would be very tedious if at the end of each summary, we had written: “Of course we are only suggesting this because it will help more beneficiaries.”

    And this wold not have resolved the tension you describe, that needs full and robust debate.

    Best, Giles

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