Is Fundraising Sales? (And Does It Matter?)

There are literally 5 versions of this blog in my drafts folder.  I keep coming back to it because the question keeps coming up and I keep falling – leaping? – into the conversations.

Fundamentally this is a matter of opinion and semantics.  I am firmly in the camp that Fundraising is not sales and how we define, and compare, our work matters greatly in terms of investing in and advancing the profession.  Fundraising is fundraising.

The Backstory

In 2010 the consulting firm I worked for was sold.  I was the VP of Client Services and had every intention of retiring from this company.  Under the new leadership I was moved into a very different role than I’d had, overseeing our onsite consulting program and the man brought into replace me – to improve efficiencies and results – looked me straight in the eye on his second day and said, “What’s the big deal about fundraising anyway? It’s just sales.”

So, yes, there is personal ego and emotion involved whenever I hear “fundraising is sales.”  Because if fundraising is sales, then any sales person can do it.  And that’s just simply not true.


What is Sales?

Google the phrase “What is sales?” and you’ll get 100 variations on the theme, and that’s just the first page of hits.

Here’s one:

“From an accounting point of view, a sale is when an obligation is created for a buyer to give us money in exchange for a product or service we provide them.”
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes “What is Sales?” Huffington Post, 7/12/2017

The discussion of sales has to center around a product.  A customer buys a thing, a product, in exchange for payment.  A product can, of course, be anything – a widget, a wombat, an idea, a consulting agreement, art, whatever – but, fundamentally, there has to be a product involved in the transaction for it to be a sale.

If fundraising is sales, what is the product a fundraiser is selling?

In the nonprofit world, the product is the mission.  And while the donors are buying “the product,” they’re not the ones using it.

I’ll argue there are only three nonprofit verticals where donors are actually supporting a product – mission – that will directly benefit themselves:  performing arts, healthcare (primarily community healthcare) and public media.  If you, as a donor, are making a gift to your local hospital, you’re supporting a mission you may ultimately need.  Most performing arts donors are also ticket buyers and most public media donors also watch or listen to their PBS and NPR stations.

But in most cases, donors are not funding a product that they will directly benefit from.  Their community might, they might get a warm fuzzy from it, yes it goes inflate their personal image of themselves and their value, but the actual product – the feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, taking care of children, etc. etc. etc. – is provided to someone else, the nonprofit beneficiary.  The person the mission exists to serve.  The person experiencing The Problem the nonprofit exists to fix.

“But we buy gifts to give to other people from sales people all the time, it’s the same thing.”  Sure.  That’s true.  But a donor is buying more than a product with their gift – they’re buying the hope of a world without hunger, they’re buying the dream of a time when all dogs have good homes.

Here’s another definition of sales, though:

“Selling is about discovering the prospect’s need by asking them and actively listening to them, and then having a joint plan to help them achieve their needs better, faster and more cost-effectively than anyone else could help them.”
Zorian Rotenberg, Unlocking the True Definition of Sales, 2/10/2014

OK, now we’re getting closer to what fundraising is and how we define it:  it’s about relationships.

The Techniques Are The Same

If we take that second definition – and most sales people will define their work as being relationship-based and very similar to what we do:  identify a prospect, determine their need, cultivate a relationship, make the pitch, keep them engaged with you – we start to see where sales and fundraising are very, very similar in their pure, theoretical approach.

Much of the great inspirational thought-leadership in sales is immediately transferable to fundraising – Og Mandino, Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar, Steven Covey – and provides insights to both sides of the profession.

Many great fundraisers and thought leaders in our space came from business-to-consumer or business-to-business sales and they learned their craft and the techniques well.

So, Aren’t You Confirming That Fundraising Is Sales, Then

Yes.  Fundraising IS sales.  In its pure theoretical construct.  Again:  identify a prospect who has a need or passion for your product, cultivate the relationship with them ask them to buy, continue to steward the relationship after the sale.  Tap into their personal beliefs and personal passions.

Yes, all of these techniques in sales are exactly what we should be doing and correlate directly to fundraising.

For that matter, many – MOST – of the techniques and best practices of Marketing translate directly to fundraising.  So, Fundraising is Marketing, too.

So, Why Does It Matter?

Because we have to stop defining ourselves as fundraisers in terms of another profession.

Never, ever do we see: “High-level sales position available. Previous sales or fundraising experience required.”  But all too frequently we see the opposite: “High-level fundraising position available. Previous fundraising experience preferred. Sales experience considered.”

Because what many nonprofit leaders or boards are looking for are fundraisers who have experience closing big dollars.  And that’s what they mean – they don’t want salespeople, they want order takers.

If sales’ maxim is “Always Be Closing,” then Fundraising’s should be “Always Be Cultivating” or maybe “Always Be Opening.”

In the article quoted above, Dr. Adizes goes on to describe the difference between sales and order-taking.  He says:

Selling is different from order taking.

Some companies, I find, have sales departments who do not sell. They take orders, but because those orders create an obligation for the buyer to pay, it is called “sales,” although the actual process of selling did not take place.

It’s the exact same issue in fundraising.  There are “fundraisers” who can close big gifts, but did they fundraise? Did they build upon the personal passions and commitments of the donor? Did they truly cultivate and build a long-standing relationship with that donor?  I’d argue that this problem is partially to blame for declining renewal rates and retention of new donors. We’re focused on the dollar and not the donor.

And that’s why I bristle when someone says “Fundraising is just sales.”  Because sales has that connotation of exchanging dollars for a product, of taking an order.  And all-too-often fundraising falls into that same trap.

Fundraising is Fundraising

Whether or not Fundraising is a true profession is certainly open to debate and is being widely discussed by Rogare and other thought leaders in the field.  But we do have our own experts and teachers, we do have our own best practice – much of which is widely researched and proven – we do have our own expertise and our own techniques and our knowledge and experience that relates directly to what we do and informs our work.  And when we describe ourselves in terms of another – regardless of how related the two are – we dilute ourselves and contribute to our own second-class citizen – er, profession – syndrome.

Or as a dear friend of mine once said, “You don’t send a Neurologist to do a Proctologist’s job.  Sure, for some they may be in the same location, but that’s a different skill set.”



  1. Linda on May 7, 2018 at 2:34 am

    Selling is transactional. You pay: you get.

    Fundraising (with the exception of premiums or ticket sales) is not. If it is, something is wrong.

  2. Beth Ann Locke (@FundraiserBeth) on May 8, 2018 at 5:40 am

    Clay – so glad you wrote this post! I agree that people think it is transferrable – from sales to fundraising, but not the other way around.

    I really like, “Always Be Cultivating”… but real fundraisers are always doing that, right?

    A thoughtful contribution to the conversation.

  3. jasonelewisfundraising on May 9, 2018 at 4:20 am

    Good stuff Clay

  4. Kenneth Mowad on May 16, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    Hi Clay, great article. I hope you are doing well

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