Do Fundraising Professionals Really Sell?

This blog was sponsored by Fundraising Academy Cause Selling Education

No matter how worthy, causes don’t sell themselves. 

Without fundraising professionals, it would be impossible for organizations to do their work, and donors would lack trusted partners in their philanthropic journey. But what does that work look like, and how can we fundraise successfully? Dr. David Lill and Jennifer Lill-Brown express this concept: “Since asking is a fundamental part of our existence, the key is not what or even if you ask, but how you go about asking.”

In my past 20 years working in nonprofit development, I’ve found that the most successful fundraising strategies center on donor relationships and strive to meet the needs and goals of those who give. These strategies are part of a multi-step, relationship-driven process called Cause Selling. They also guide the resources and training we provide at Fundraising Academy Cause Selling Education. 

Is Fundraising Selling?

As fundraisers, we sell our cause because our cause won’t sell itself. Selling might sound contradictory to the work we do in the nonprofit sector, but we sell more than you might think. We may not sell products like the latest phone or timeshares in the Bahamas, but we do sell ideas, perspectives, and priorities. We sell when we’re connecting a donor’s goals and values with a cause they can support wholeheartedly. 

Consider the Three Fundamentals Truths of Selling, developed by business writer Mark McCormack:

  1. If you don’t know your cause, people will resent your efforts to sell it. 
  2. When you don’t believe in what you are selling, no amount of personality or technique will cover that fact. 
  3. If you can’t sell with enthusiasm, the absence of it will be infectious.

So, what’s the secret to standing out as a fundraiser? It’s not really a secret. It’s simply applying the same basic business principles that work in the for-profit world to our work too. This takes training, practice, and strategic action, particularly after this past year of navigating virtual relationships with donors. 

Cause Selling – It’s All About Relationships

In addition to the Three Fundamental Truths of Selling, there is a fourth fundamental truth that guides Cause Selling: If you don’t know who you are selling to, no amount of personality or technique will cover that. This is why, at its core, Cause Selling is all about relationships. 

This approach to fundraising is based on the well-established “relationship model of selling” in the for-profit world. But the problem with this description is that when you champion a cause, it’s all about heart and emotion – and “bottom line” talk from corporations does not seem to align with a heart-led approach to running a nonprofit organization. 

Professional fundraisers know how important it is to find that balance to support and sustain an organization. Our textbook explains the intersection of heart and the strategy in this approach:

“Cause Selling is the process of seeking out potential donors who have a need, interest, and passion for your cause, assisting them to recognize and define that need, showing or demonstrating to them how your cause fulfills that need, and inspiring them to donate to your cause.” 

Traditional message selling cycle

Traditional fundraising models have historically relied on impersonal messaging to cast a wide net. These messages can be distilled down to a cycle with these three questions and statements:

  • Have you heard we need money?
  • We need money.
  • Give us money.

Cause Selling message cycle

When you prioritize donors and donor relationships, those messages look more like this:

  • Here’s what we do.
  • Here’s how that affects you.
  • Support our cause through a donation.
  • Here’s what your support helped accomplish.

You can already see how this model resembles more of a conversation. It involves knowing about your cause and your prospective donors. Plus, it keeps the conversation going even after a gift has been received. 

Why Cause Selling? 

The quality of your relationship with each donor is the competitive advantage. This enables you as a fundraiser to succeed in the competitive nonprofit sector as you interact with donors who want to feel empowered by giving to impactful causes. With components of a healthy relationship in place—like communication, trust, and empathy—securing support is natural and mutually beneficial. 

This relationship-centered model extends to your whole organization as well. For donors, a decision to give means a choice to enter into a relationship with you and your organization. It’s up to you to foster and build that relationship so that one-time donors become lifelong donors. Does that sound like a big commitment? It is, but it does not have to be overwhelming. 

The Eight-Step Cause Selling Cycle

Let’s take a look at each of the eight steps of the Cause Selling Cycle in more detail. Cause Selling has been developed in conversation with contemporary philanthropists and builds skills that are valuable in any professional and interpersonal setting. You might even find that you have been implementing Cause Selling strategies in your fundraising practice all along.

8 steps to sell your cause

Step 1. Prospecting

Thoughtful prospecting is the important first step to building mutually beneficial relationships with donors. Before you approach them about giving to your organization, we recommend qualifying your prospects with the M.A.D.D.E.N. Approach, which stands for:

  • Money (Giving capacity)
  • Approachable (Can you get an appointment?)
  • Desire (To give philanthropically)
  • Decision Maker (With authority to give)
  • Emotion (Interest and connection to your cause)
  • Need (Of the donor) 

This strategy considers key factors that can help you discern whether this donor would be a good fit for your cause and whether they would be able to give if compelled to do so.

Step 2. Pre-Approach

You now have a qualified prospect—someone you know could be a great fit with your cause. You still have one more critical step to take before your meeting. The Pre-Approach step is all about learning. Take this time to learn about your prospective donors so that you can set goals and prepare questions and responses for your time together. Think of this step as the legwork that makes meeting with a prospective donor more enjoyable and effective. It doesn’t end after your first meeting, or even after a donor makes a gift. Learning about their background and giving history is ongoing.

Step 3. Approach

The first meeting with a donor sets the tone for your relationship. It gives you and your prospects a chance to get to know each other and build rapport. These days, that meeting might take place in-person, virtually, or one-on-one at an event. A successful approach is all in the details, such as being punctual, pronouncing people’s names correctly, using appropriate body language, and respecting personal space. 

Step 4. Need Discovery

Need Discovery is an ongoing step that starts during your first meeting and continues throughout your relationship with each donor. Learn directly from prospective donors what drives them to give, their core values, and the goals they hope to accomplish with your organization. Need Discovery informs how you will present your cause and, ultimately, how you will make The Ask. This critical step also helps you anticipate and get ahead of any potential roadblocks or objections. Get the most out of these conversations with strategic questions that build trust and invite prospects to be open and authentic.

Step 5. Presentation

Many traditional donor fundraising models start here. Your prospects’ time is finite, so it’s tempting to cut to the chase as soon as you get in the door. Cause Selling professionals see presentation as an extension of the conversation you started during Need Discovery. At this point, you engage prospective donors and compel them to give based on what you learned about them. Plan your presentation carefully and find that balance between emotional appeal, data, and a measurable return on investment (ROI).

Step 6. Handling Objections

In Cause Selling, objections are not rejections. In fact, objections are great conversation starters. Objections are a sign that someone is actively processing your presentation and wants to know more about your organization and cause. There are several kinds of objections, and many of them stack up to answering these four questions:

  • Is your organization doing important work?
  • Is the organization well-managed?
  • Will the donor’s gift make a difference?
  • Will the experience be satisfying for the donor?

Step 7. The Ask

In my experience, at various moments throughout the Cause Selling cycle a confident fundraiser can usually tell when it’s appropriate to make “The Ask” and confirm the gift. At Fundraising Academy, we teach emerging fundraisers that it’s important to have a “closing mindset” so that every choice you make contributes to a successful solicitation. Of course, you still want to ask for a gift conscientiously and confidently and not make assumptions.

Now, not all requests are successful. That could be for several reasons, including inadequate prospect qualifying, unsatisfactory presentation, or a general lack of relationship building. Many donors will be open to further communication and future Asks if you have already laid the groundwork of a solid professional relationship. Self-improvement and persistence can make a world of difference.

Step 8. Stewardship

Good stewardship practices develop donor satisfaction and loyalty. Continue to develop your relationships with timely follow-up and open communication. Gain an understanding of the factors that lead to donor contrition and focus on donors’ needs and expectations, whether they gave a small gift or a major gift. Some tangible stewardship tactics include:

  • Sending personalized “Thank you” notes ASAP.
  • Featuring donors in your social media posts and/or newsletter.
  • Sharing impact updates with the results of their support.
  • Keeping them up-to-date on developments in your organization and your cause.
  • Continuing the Need Discovery step throughout the relationship.

What Are You Selling?

Now that you’ve seen a detailed explanation of sales principles and how relationship-driven strategies inform Cause Selling, the question is, what cause are you selling? And more importantly, how are you selling it? I invite you to dive deeper into building donor relationships with our blog posts and Hubinars all about Cause Selling, created in partnership with Nonprofit Hub & Do More Good. 

Learn more about Fundraising Academy at or email us at [email protected].   

Do fundraising professionals really sell?

Tony Beall

July 8, 2021

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