The epic fundraiser as translator: selling to the internal organization

Hero story

           In the universal hero story, a guiding sage helps the hero. The sage

  • Challenges the hero to begin the journey,
  • Introduces the hero to friends and allies along the way, and
  • Delivers magical instruments that help the hero finish the journey.

           The effective fundraiser is the donor’s guiding sage. She advances the donor’s hero story. In fundraising, this character is powerful and effective. It works. 

           But there’s a problem. The problem is not with the fundraiser, the donor, or even the public. The problem is within the organization itself. 

Conflicting hero story

           The universal hero story is “hard-wired” into our psyches. It’s deeply attractive. But not just for donors. It’s also attractive for those who operate the nonprofit. But this hero story is different. This hero story is the administrator-hero story. 

           In this story, the people who run the nonprofit are the only heroes. Donors appear only for a moment. They enter. They express gratitude for the administrators’ heroic work by donating. They exit. Fundraising isn’t advancing the donor’s hero story. Fundraising is asking for money by asserting the administrators’ heroism. 

           This worldview has no place for the donor hero. It has no place for the guiding-sage fundraiser. The stories are in conflict: 

+ The guiding sage provides value to the donor. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The only purpose of the donor is to provide value to the administrators

+ The guiding sage matches donor desires with specific organizational projects. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The administrators are the experts. They know where the money could be best used.

+ The guiding sage pairs donor preferences with ideal gift structures.
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The administrators can do more with unrestricted cash. Anything else is just a hindrance.

+ The guiding sage encourages gifts of assets. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. Assets create delay and administrative hassle. 

+ The guiding sage builds long-term trust by sometimes advising against interest. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The job of the fundraiser is always to get more cash now.

+ The guiding sage advances the donor’s hero story after the gift. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The donor’s only part in that story begins and ends at the gift. 

+ The guiding sage advances the donor’s hero story by providing gratitude after the gift. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The donor’s gift is an expression of gratitude to the administrators for their heroic work.

+ The guiding sage advances the donor’s hero story by providing impact reporting of the donor’s gift. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The only impact that matters in that story is the organization’s impact, not the donor’s impact.

+ The guiding sage advances the donor’s hero story by providing compatible publicity of the donor’s gift. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The only story that matters is the story of the administrators’ heroic work.

+ The guiding sage helps the donor. 
– But this makes no sense in the administrator-hero story. The only purpose of the donor is to help the administrators

Stuck in the middle with you

           The administrator-hero story motivates charity insiders. The donor-hero story motivates major donors. The organization needs both hero stories, but the stories are incompatible. Stuck in the middle is … the fundraiser. The fundraiser works for administrators living the administrator-hero story. But the job is to raise money from donors motivated by their own hero story.

           Stuck in the middle – what can the fundraiser do? She can, of course, take the easy approach. She can feed the administrator-hero story back to the administrators and out to the donors. She will receive easy approval of her copy. She can show effort, activity, and professionalism, despite weak results. 

           But what about the fundraiser who wants to do more? The goal is not to eliminate the administrator-hero story. The goal is to manage the rival hero stories. 


           This begins with empathy. It begins with understanding.

           Charity administrators will tend to behave in unhelpful ways. Their hero story causes them to misperceive donor motives. It causes them to misunderstand fundraising. This can lead to bad messaging and bad management.

           They aren’t stupid. They aren’t bad people. They’re just displaying the unfortunate side-effects of an otherwise valuable and necessary occupational narrative.

           Understanding this is a start. But understanding doesn’t require submission. You can still push for an internal culture of philanthropy. Administrators can become more donor friendly. As Margaret Holman and Lucy Sargent write,

“Major gift fundraising … is the culmination of a collective effort across the organisation to create a major donor-friendly culture within your charity.”[1]

           Organizations can do this. They can embrace delivering value to the donor as a core competency. When that doesn’t work, take another approach: translate. 


           If the donors all spoke Spanish and the charity administrators all spoke Russian, we would have to translate. These groups may not speak different languages, but they do speak different stories. Nonprofit managers speak administrator-hero story. Major donors speak donor-hero story. The fundraiser lives in both worlds. The fundraiser needs to speak both languages. The fundraiser must translate.[2]

It’s how you get what you want

           Let’s start with the gift. Administrators want immediate, unrestricted cash. They want a lot of it. They want it yesterday. This gift perfectly matches the administrator-hero story. The administrator makes all the decisions. He is the ruler, the expert, and the hero. The donor honors his efficiency, expertise, and heroism by humbly laying cash at his feet. The donor gives because the administrator deserves it.

           So, how can we translate? How can we get charity administrators to embrace other gift types? We explain how it gets them what they want. We might explain,

·      You dislike restricted gifts. But restricted gifts “sell” better. And didn’t you already want to spend money on this project? So, what difference does it make to you? Restricting to something you planned to buy anyway is as good as unrestricted. You get what you want. 

Or maybe the money is restricted to scholarships. When it’s spent to pay for tuition, what does it become? Unrestricted revenue. You get what you want.

·      You dislike asset gifts because they’re a hassle. But you want more money. Donors can give you more at the same cost. Asset gifts avoid more taxes. You get what you want. 

More importantly, it changes the donor mindset. Giving from wealth is different. The reference point is no longer just disposable income. Gifts can become much larger. Later contributions rise dramatically. A national study of nonprofit tax returns proves it.[3] You get what you want.

·      You dislike estate gifts because you have to wait. But these gifts are massive compared with annual gifts.[4] You get what you want, eventually. 

More importantly, it changes the donor mindset. When donors give from wealth, not disposable income, things change. Gifts can become dramatically larger. Annual contributions increase over 75% following addition of charity to an estate plan.[5] This increase is sustained even 2, 4, 6, or 8 years later. You get what you want.

           Administrators may dislike spending to provide a compelling donor experience. They may not want to deliver donor recognition or gratitude. They may not want to track individual gift impact. But this can all be translated. It can increase future giving. It can be a solid investment to get more cash. It’s a way for the charity administrator to get what he wants.

           As the father of economics, Adam Smith, explained in 1776,

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”[6]

           We translate for administrators. We do this not by showing how it delivers more value to the donors. We do this by showing how it gets them what they want.[7]

Otherwise, we’ll lose to the competition

           Ultimately, fundraising lives in a world of choice. The administrator delivers value to the donor. He does this not because he wants to, but because he must. Otherwise, the donor won’t give. Or, more likely, he’ll give to a competitor.

           We often want leadership to support budget increases for fundraising and marketing. What metrics work best for this? One study researched this at over 200 charities. The most influential metric was “Comparisons with other charities.”[8]   

           Administrators understand competition. What focuses them on delivering compelling donor experiences? Seeing their competition doing it better. Seeing that they are losing.

           Want charity administrators to accept the hassle of asset gifts? Don’t just tell them these can save donors 30% compared with cash. Show them a competitor who is getting more of these gifts. (To find examples, look at other charities’ IRS Form 990s Schedule M free online.[9])

           Suppose a donor wants specific instructions for a scholarship fund. Don’t just explain how this will deliver a compelling donor experience. Instead, show a community foundation that will accept these instructions.[10] Point out how these competitors won’t limit the scholarship just to your school. 

           Competition can motivate. But the real motivation starts by recognizing the real competition. It’s probably not who you think it is.

The ultimate competitor

           The ultimate competitor for major gifts is not the nonprofit down the street. It’s not another charity representing your cause. It’s always and only one organization. It’s the private family foundation.

           They’re named for and controlled by the donor and the donor’s family. They follow the donor’s detailed instructions. Forever. For donors who can afford them, private family foundations are your biggest rival. Nonprofit managers and fundraisers often miss this. They remain blithely unaware of their real competition. 

           Much has been written about the coming intergenerational wealth transfer. And it will include massive gifts to nonprofits. But probably not to your nonprofit. Why? Because over 2/3 of charitable bequest money goes to private foundations.[11] Your competition is kicking your butt. 

           This isn’t just about estate giving. Private foundations receive nearly a third of all current donations from the wealthiest donors.[12] This trend is increasing. Charitable giving remains flat at about 2% of GDP. But private foundation wealth has been growing at more than double the rate of GDP.[13] Donor advised funds are growing even faster. They now constitute six of the ten largest fundraising organizations in the U.S.[14]

           This shows how donors respond to receiving more control. They give. But it can also reframe administrator views. Charity administrators do not prefer donor control. But they do understand competition. 

           Understanding the real competition changes the game. It’s not about whether the donor or the administrator controls the donor’s money. It’s about which organization will win the donor-controlled money.

The guiding sage in the middle

           The fundraiser may not be in control of the organization. She may be stuck in the middle between two rival worldviews. But she can still be effective. She can advocate for the donor. She can translate the donor’s quest into the language of the administrator. She has the expertise to advance the donor’s heroic journey. She can be the guiding sage for the donor. She can do this both outside and inside the organization. Sometimes, the organization’s structure can help. The next article looks at this.

Next up: Organizational solutions to fundraising with rival hero stories

Lecture video at https://youtu.be/ECQ-rv9LQIc


[1] Holman, M. & Sargent, L. (2012). Major donor fundraising (2nd ed.). Directory of Social Change. p. 138.

[2] A study of the factors underlying successful major gifts solicitations reported the following:

“Three important factors that lie behind successful “asks” are identified and discussed: First, they are made within relationships of trust rather than as a result of a transactional approach. Second, they occur as a result of fundraisers’ ability to be an “honest broker” between donors and the organisations they might support. And third, they rely on the fundraisers’ skills in reframing complex issues and finding alignment between the recipient organisation’s needs and the philanthropic aspirations of the donor.”

Breeze, B., & Jollymore, G. (2017). Understanding solicitation: Beyond the binary variable of being asked or not being asked. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 22(4), e1607.

The role of “translator” is another way to describe this need to “reframe complex issues” and serve as a “broker” between the donor and the organization.

[3] James, R. N., III. (2018). Cash is not king for fund‐raising: Gifts of noncash assets predict current and future contributions growth. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 29(2), 159-179.

[4] Those with estates under $2 million generate estate donations worth 3.5 times their annual giving. For estates $2-$5 million, it’s 20 times. For estates $5-$10 million, it’s 25 times. For estates $10-$50 million, 28 times. For estates $50-$100 million, it’s 50 times. For estates $100 million+ it’s 103 times annual giving. Steuerle, C. E., Bourne, J., Ovalle, J., Raub, B., Newcomb, J., & Steele, E. (2018). Patterns of giving by the wealthy. Urban Institute. Table 4.

[5] James, R. N., III. (2020). The emerging potential of longitudinal empirical research in estate planning: Examples from charitable bequests. UC Davis Law Review, 53, 2397-2431. p. 2422.

[6] Smith, A. ([1776] 1986). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. In R. L. Heilbroner (Ed.), The essential Adam Smith (pp. 149-320). W. W. Norton. p. 169

[7] This conflict – and solution – is not limited to fundraising. In business, large ticket sales do not work effectively under the same processes as small ticket sales. Effectively managing these “key accounts” requires the establishment of long-term, consultative relationships which may, at times, feel at odds with managers trying to hit immediate sales goals. Researchers have labeled key account managers who thrive in this conflicted world “arbiters.” Who are they? “Arbiters are employees who identify highly with both entities, their organization and their customer. Such Key Account managers aim to create value for both sides.” Peters, L., Ivens, B. S., & Pardo, C. (2020). Identification as a challenge in key account management: Conceptual foundations and a qualitative study. Industrial Marketing Management, 90, 300-313.

[8] Or in another analysis, “Marketing expenditures of other charities in the sector.” This points to the power of comparisons with other organizations to influence leadership. The least useful? “Predicted improvements in donors’ feelings of satisfaction with or commitment to the organization.” This points to the need to translate donor benefit into something that fits into the worldview perspective of charity leadership. Results from Bennett, R. (2007). The use of marketing metrics by British fundraising charities: a survey of current practice. Journal of Marketing Management, 23(9-10), 959-989.

[9] These are freely available at a variety of sites such as guidestar.org ; www.erieri.com/form990finder ; candid.org/research-and-verify-nonprofits/990-finder

[10] As an example, the Oklahoma Community Foundation administers more than 200 such scholarship funds. See https://www.occf.org/scholarships/

[11] For decedents in 2007 and 2013, respectively, 72.3% and 67.5% of all charitable bequest dollars reported on tax returns went to private foundations. See Internal Revenue Service. (2010). Estate tax returns filed for 2007 decedents making charitable bequests, and recipients of charitable bequests, by sex and marital status of decedent. [Excel spreadsheet]. https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/07es04yd.xls and Internal Revenue Service. (2017). Estate tax returns filed for 2007 decedents making charitable bequests, and recipients of charitable bequests, by sex and marital status of decedent. [Excel spreadsheet]. https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/13es03yd.xls

[12] Giving USA. (2016). Giving USA 2016: The annual report of philanthropy for the year 2015. Giving USA. p. 203.

[13] Internal Revenue Service – Statistics of Income. (n.d.). Domestic private foundations, tax year 2013, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/2013privatefoundationsonesheet.pdf

[14] Philanthropy news digest. (2017, November 2). Fidelity Charitable tops list of largest charities in 2016. https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/fidelity-charitable-tops-list-of-largest-charities-in-2016

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About the author

Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP

After more than a quarter century spent as a planned giving fundraiser, an estate planning attorney in private practice, a major gifts fundraiser/college president, and now as a university professor researching charitable giving and fundraising, my focus is to make and share words, pictures, and discoveries that help others to encourage generosity.

My research has been cited in outlets such as The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Reports, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg News, ABC News, USA Today, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy. My research methodologies include econometric analysis of large datasets, functional magnetic resonance imaging (neuroimaging), skin conductance response, and online and in-person experiments.

My teaching includes classroom and online graduate instruction, webinars, seminars, educational videos, and keynote presentations at national conferences for fundraisers, financial planners, and estate planners.

My publications have appeared in more than forty different academic journals including Cognitive Neuroscience, Environment & Behavior, Applied Economics, Applied Economics Letters, American Journal of Economics & Sociology, Social Indicators Research, American Review of Public Administration, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, International Journal of Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management, Voluntas-International Journal of Voluntary & Nonprofit Organizations, Journal of Financial Counseling & Planning, Financial Services Review, Journal of Personal Finance, Journal for Financial Planning, Journal of Financial Therapy, Ageing & Society, Educational Gerontology, International Journal of Consumer Studies, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Review of Religious Research, The Geneva Papers on Risk & Insurance, Estate Planning & Community Property Law Journal, and UC-Davis Law Review.