Ending the Stigma: Fundraising is Sales

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.

Giving should be appreciated, not expected

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.

Generating leads and following through

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

  • Becky

    Absolutely true and fundraising is much more rewarding!

  • Dawaune Latiefth Ellis

    Thanks so much for the article. It is true, fundraising is just like sales, however a 1,000 times harder! Smile

  • Gnosis Media Group

    In our opinion, the people who should be deciding fundraising strategy for a nonprofit are the ones who are the most sales-minded. Also, the ones who are the relationship builders. Sometimes this is a board member, but other times it may not even be someone on the executive staff. Nonprofits need people with selling skills, who aren’t afraid of networking and relationship building, to spearhead fundraising initiatives.

    Increasing fundraising margins is also about having the best tools. Some tools convert better than others. For example, research shows that many nonprofits will raise more overall with an SMS donation program in their marketing mix than they will without one.

    Text-to-donate is one area that is experiencing an increase in clickthrough and conversion rates, as more and more people transition to mobile-first. Check out this helpful infographic: http://www.gmg.cm/blog/do-sms-donations-work

  • Holly Palmer

    While I agree that fundraising borrows techniques from sales as appropriate, I don’t agree that fundraising is the same as sales, nor that we are selling the cause. I believe, as others have reflected over the years, that we are ‘selling’ the donor experience. The cause might be great, but people’s motivations for giving to achieve a dream or an ideal are much more complex than a sales transaction, even one where a strong relationship with the fundraising organisation exists. Updating a donor on the impact their giving is a key part of the donor experience and I believe that the real fundraising begins after the gift has been made.