Fundraising growth in an increasingly crowded marketplace

Guest post by Alan Clayton, Philanthropy and Fundraising North America (PFNA)

In all wealthy countries, non-profit fundraising is becoming increasingly crowded.  When we study fundraised income across these markets, we see many organizations which have stalled in fundraising growth or even slipped into decline. 

We also see some organizations completely buck the trend and achieve transformational growth – typically 200 to 400% in the middle term.  It is these organizations we have studied in great depth.  We call them the Great Fundraising Organizations.  The initial research was academic, carried out by Professor Adrian Sargeant and team.  This has been followed up by five years of monitoring these growing organizations, constantly adding learning on exactly how they behave to achieve this growth.

Critically, there are three key areas which differentiate the Great Fundraising organizations:

  1. They behave differently; they have an organization-wide culture that supports fundraising and respects fundraisers and donors.
  2. Their views on fundraising investment are longer term.
  3. Their communications are uncompromising in meeting donors’ needs.

Such differentiators are not mere techniques, they are behaviours which transcend the fundraising department.  In these organisations, the board, CEO and executive team understand how fundraising works and what their contribution needs to be.   They develop knowledge of and expertise in fundraising leadership across the entire organization.

The leaders of these successful fundraising organizations intuitively understand that fundraising is not the same as marketing the organization.  Simply describing the quality of projects is not enough to transform private income.  Nor are slick communications or raising awareness of the brand.  A long-term strategy focused on meeting the needs of donors is key to loyalty and therefore the lifetime value of the donor base and income growth.  This, of course, requires a rigorously scientific approach to fundraising to precisely identify those needs and become exquisite at meeting them.  Consistently.

More striking are the observations on the internal behaviours of the Great Fundraising organizations.  They are noticeably more focused and energized than the rest.  On examination, it is the simplicity of this focus which provides the inspiration and energy needed to grow.

What is the key to fundraising growth in an increasingly crowded marketplace? Focus.

The focused organization;

  • Is more energized, effective and efficient with significantly less internal conflict about fundraising.
  • Meets the needs of its donors as well as it meets the needs of its service users.
  • Carves out a clear and unique place in the marketplace and communications jungle.

It turns out that ‘focus’ is much easier to say than do.  Here’s the rub and the cause of so much confusion and wheelspin; ‘We’re really good at what we do and we have been around a long time’ is not a focussed fundraising position.  So what is?

Finding a focused fundraising position means navigating a complex mix of;

  • the unique element of the organization’s mission and cause
  • the style of projects and other solutions the organization provides
  • the emotions through which donors engage and an understanding of how these change over time and with the number of gifts they have made
  • the differentiating personality traits of the whole organization
  • any ties with tradition or habitual giving. 

It takes time and effort to find focus.  It takes real leadership expertise, too, because the death of focus is compromise and compromise is inevitable if too many internal opinions and fears are allowed to hold sway over the fundraising function.  Focus requires the whole organization’s leadership to be knowledgeable, decisive and resilient about fundraising.

If you are a fundraiser seeking to create transformational growth, the first step is not focus, but managing upwards in order to be able and allowed to focus.   This is the outstanding behaviour of the Great Fundraising leaders we have studied.  It is a skill to be learned, nurtured and constantly developed.

The market-place is indeed crowded, but there is some very good news for those prepared to take the big picture, medium term view; when one includes legacies in one’s thinking, the amount of money people will give in their lifetime and beyond is set to increase relentlessly for the foreseeable future. 

A change of the metrics which drive thinking, from a focus on donor acquisition to increasing lifetime value, is inevitable and desirable for Great Fundraising organisations.

Driving lifetime value means a shift from extolling the merits of the organization to gaining a deep understanding of donors’ needs and meeting them in communications, for a long time.  The excellent news is that this shift makes donors happier as well as more generous – surely a good thing in its own right.

When the whole organization is focused and can give the fundraiser everything they need to delight their donors, transformational growth can happen.

It’s not the most efficient fundraising department that will grow in a crowded market-place – it’s the most focused and energized organization.  I emphasize this means the whole organization and achieving this starts with the fundraiser and spreads upwards then outwards.

Engaging the whole organization on behalf of the donor is the starting point for a Great Fundraising leader.

The research underpinning this article can be ordered free of charge from And our team at PFNA is putting together the next Great Fundraising Masterclass on September 15 so you can learn the culture, behaviors, and leadership required for your organization to achieve Great Fundraising and grow your organization and income significantly. Learn more here.

About Alan Clayton and PFNA

Alan is a co-founder of Philanthropy and Fundraising North America (PFNA.)   PFNA helps non-profits learn, develop and build their capacity for fundraising growth.  Alan is a Scot who works world-wide.  He has pioneered the Great Fundraising program with Professor Adrian Sargent over the last six years.  The program was conceived after a 20-year career in professional fundraising, initially in-house and later with his own London based agency.  The parent group of PFNA, PF International has permanent bases in Europe and Australia as well as a base in Washington DC.  They work in more than twenty countries and track 350 clients around the world to constantly update the learning and teaching element of their work.  PFNA was founded in 2019 by Alan, Kyla Shawyer, Professor Sargeant, Tina Hudgins and Geoff Peters.  PFNA provides education, training, design, creative and consulting services to the most ambitious of non-profits.

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