What is a Donor? And What is “Donor-Centric”?

What is a Donor? And What is “Donor-Centric”?



23 May 2017


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Vu Le had another great post last week, this time taking on the concept of donor-centric fundraising. In some ways, he is right on – in some ways, he misses the boat. Either way, he challenges our assumptions and makes us think. I love that about him. You can read his post here.

The all-important premise of his post is that “donor-centric” means putting the donors at the center of your organization. Even though I don’t believe that is what it means, it’s easy to see where someone could get that impression. Consider this article from Simone Joyeaux – Keeping Your Donors. Joyeaux puts it rather plainly, “the donor-centered organization puts the donor at the center.”

The problem is that the concept of “donor-centric” evolved in opposition to “organization-centric,” and “ego-centric.” When donor communication is focused on the role they can and do play in making progress, the organization is reinforcing the positive reasons the donor was motivated to give in the first place. The organization builds trust and loyalty. This isn’t just true for the rich – it’s true for everyone.

Joyeaux puts it this way:


“Donor-centric” is another way of saying “building trust.” A donor’s relationship with your organization deepens or frays mostly based on how much trust you can create in three areas:

  • Trust that donors play an essential, vital, central role in your mission’s success.
  • Trust that your organization does worthwhile things with donor gifts.
  • Trust that your organization conducts its operations efficiently


I think we need to reconsider what each of these words mean more carefully. (Le does not define donor-centric in his post.)

“Donor” should simply mean one who gives something they have to an organization they wish to support. Theoretically, it could be time, money, goods or services, or even blood, but I think it’s safe to assume everyone is talking about money here.

Frankly, “Major Donor” should be taken out of our lexicon. “Major” should modify “Gift”, not “Donor.” Le complains that “We define ‘Major Donors’ as people who give a certain level, not according to their personal context but according to set thresholds.” I agree that it happens – indeed I see it all too often. Though I have never agreed with that point of view, I don’t believe the fault lies with donor-centrism.

I learned about major gift fundraising from Jerry Panas and Bill Sturtevant years ago. Sturtevant preaches that “Major Gift” describes how the donor comes to make the decision, not the dollar amount involved. In this way, everyone is capable of making a major gift decision – for them.

The problem we face in fundraising is this: imagine two donors, each making gift decisions in your favor. One gives $250 which is a BIG number for them. The other gives $25,000, which is a BIG number for them. Those two giving decisions might have been equally difficult and significant to different donors in different circumstances, but once that money is deposited in the bank, the $25,000 is not the same as the $250. In fact, it’s 100 times different. It doesn’t make one donor better than the other, but it does allow the organization to accomplish a great deal more.

In the same way, a volunteer who contributes 500 hours of labor is not a better person than one who contributes 5 hours. But their work product is significantly greater.

The “Center” of the organization is where the action is. The mission is at the center. Science is at the center. The staff and Board are at the center. The volunteers are at the center. And for land conservation, the land and water and all the critters they support (including humans) are at the center.

The problem with much of our donor communication (letters, newsletters, website material, even Facebook and other social media) is that it is written as if the reader/donor is NOT part of the center. “Your gift today will help us buy more land.” “Help us make a difference in ____ County.”

Therefore, “Donor-Centric” fundraising is fundraising that brings the donor into the center where the action is. Instead of being “out there” supporting the stuff “we’re” doing, Donor-centric fundraising invites donors into the center. And I think that’s a good thing.

Kudos to Vu Le for starting the conversation. There is much to digest in his writing, and he’s written more this week. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the topic.






Photo by Darren Coleshill courtesy of Stocksnap.io.


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  • Stacy Harbaugh
    Posted at 09:21h, 24 May

    Do you think the “Your $1,000 helped 10 kids go to summer camp” is a good alternative to your example of “Your gift today will help us buy more land.” “Help us make a difference in ____ County.” I’d be interested in seeing more good examples of asks that put the donor in the center of the action.

    It gets more complicated when your nonprofit’s service you provide is totally knowledge based (shout out to the public interest lawyers!). Our environmental law center’s reality might be that “your $100 helped legislators read our wonky blog post and understand the environmental and public interest impacts of a proposed non-fiscal budget item and why it was safe to strike it at a joint finance meeting.” Not as sexy as sending kids to summer camp, but was an action that was a sliver of the work needed to be done to make sure those kids could swim in the camp’s clean lake.

    Love your blog! Always good food for thought.

  • Brandy Bertram
    Posted at 10:13h, 23 May

    David, thanks so much for sharing this and Vu’s post. Deeply thought provoking on so many levels. Some of my favorite challenges were in this section:
    ‘A tenet of Donor-Centrism, at least of some of the blog posts I’ve read, is the idea that we need to be accountable in reporting to donors exactly what their donation went to. “Your $1,000 helped 10 kids go to summer camp” or “your $50 bought 20 containers of hummus and five pounds of baby carrots for our preschoolers” or whatever. This is an illusion we tell donors, because the combination of hundreds of elements is needed to make programs successful. This reporting practice allows donors to feel a false sense of cause/effect and accountability, but at the cost of furthering their ignorance about nonprofit work, which is holistic and requires so much more than a single donor’s contribution. This ignorance perpetuates the overhead myth and other barriers and harms us and our community in the long-run.’

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:57h, 23 May


      Thanks so much for writing. I agree, but again, I have a different take on Vu’s perspective.

      It’s easy to agree with the points he makes in the section you pulled. However, being that specific is not necessary and isn’t even recommended. The push-back on this point was actually included very elegantly in the comments on his blog:

      “There’s a big difference between ‘Your $1,000 helped 10 kids go to summer camp’ and ‘your $50 bought 20 containers of hummus and five pounds of baby carrots for our preschoolers.’ The first one is true and includes overhead. The second one is untrue and reinforces the overhead myth. There’s nothing wrong with explaining impact. It feels good to know you’ve had an impact, whether you gave $10 or $10k. We just have to educate donors correctly in the process.”