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

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


by David Allen, Development for Conservation


Development for Conservation is on vacation this week – heading back to Scotland! – so I have repurposed one of the posts that has gotten the most interest. This one was originally posted in May of 2017. I’ll be back next week.


Vu Le had a great post 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 I have with it is that “donor-centric” should not be interpreted as allowing donor to determine the mission. The concept of “donor-centric” evolved in opposition to “organization-centric,” and “ego-centric” and it specifically refers to donor communications – not programs. 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.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the topic.






Photo by Sarah Pflug courtesy of Burst.


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1 Comment
  • Judy Anderson
    Posted at 08:31h, 27 August

    Agreed. Thank you. Another way to think about this is leading from behind and elevating those around you. I don’t think it’s just about money. It’s engagement at all levels.