What’s the purpose of fundraising? This is not a trick question.
If you said ‘to raise the most money possible,’ you’re only partially right.
There are always other values at play in a fundraising program. You don’t break the law. You don’t lie. You try not to feed the white savior mentality. You try to uphold the dignity of the people you serve. You try to treat donors as partners in the work, not just ATMs.
When fundraising is 100% all about the money, bad things can happen and lines get crossed.
Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nazifa Zaman says “sometimes professionals can become so focused on a job-related goal that they neglect other important goals or aspects of their lives.”
Most fundraisers are highly goal-oriented. They take justifiable pride in meeting and exceeding their targets. But putting high achievers in a perverse pressure-cooker environment, as is all too common in nonprofit development programs, can lead fundraisers to set aside those important competing values.
Zaman calls it ‘bottom line mentality.’ She writes ‘I have seen fundraisers act in unethical and overly competitive ways that may be explained by this mind-set. ‘She cites as examples instances of sabotaging colleagues, taking dirty money from scoundrels like Jeffrey Epstein, and working crazy hours and neglecting family to meet financial targets. The New York Times recently published a scathing article on the ways online political fundraising misleads and sometimes bilks their visitors.
I can’t stress this more strongly: None of this is a criticism of the people who do this. It’s cultural and structural: The product of intense pressure by higher ups to maximize income; the product of work cultures where fundraisers are punished for missing targets; where success leads to raising the goalposts; and where senior management doesn’t take the time to learn what fundraising is really about.
Psychologists call it ‘perceptual narrowing,’ the way in which you become hyper-focused under extreme stress. That may have been useful when early humans roamed the savanna and needed all their faculties to avoid being eaten, but it’s not so helpful today. And it’s not good for fundraising.