Philanthropy is powerful. It can do more for the donor than just consuming more stuff would do. It can provide personally meaningful impact. It can enhance the donor’s identity. It can advance the donor’s hero story. This series explores the steps for advancing that story. But for many charities, those steps don’t matter.
The lure of the administrator-hero story
The steps don’t matter because the charity doesn’t care about the donor’s hero story. Fundraisers aren’t even allowed to tell the donor’s hero story. Why? Because it lowers the status of the charity administrator. It conflicts with the administrator-hero story.
For the administrator, the donor’s hero story is offensive. So, it’s forbidden. This resistance is not trivial. It’s fundamental. It’s primal.
The desire for heroism is universal. The most compelling story for me is my hero story. The most compelling story for you is your hero story. The most compelling story for donors is their hero story. For the nonprofit administrator, the compelling story is the administrator hero story.
Fundraising with the administrator-hero story
Fundraising messages in the administrator-hero story may vary. But it will be some form of the following: “Look at how wonderful our organization is. Look at the many great things we are doing. We are worthy. We are inspirational. We are heroes. Give to us.”
What is the core message for donors? Alan Clayton describes it succinctly: “Hello. I’m Alan. I’m great. Can I have some money, please?”
Understandably, the donor response to such messages is weak. In this view, the donor is certainly not the hero. At best, the donor is just an ATM.
And the fundraiser? The fundraiser is the stick used to whack the ATM. Fundraising is dirty business. It’s unpleasant work. But alas, it must be tolerated. We must allow it so the real heroes – the administrators – can continue their heroic work.
This administrator-hero story usually falls flat for donors. But it’s compelling for administrators. In truth, most nonprofit administrators are not just normally attracted to their hero story. They are extraordinarily attracted to their hero story.
These are people who willingly accept lower pay. They live in smaller houses. They drive older cars. They endure all this so that they can do work with meaning. They do this so that they can be part of a hero story. Their hero story. The administrator-hero story.
The competitive problem of the administrator-hero story
Fundraising with the administrator-hero story is hard. It’s hard because it’s based on a false assumption. The assumption is this:
Donations will result simply from proving the organization’s greatness.
Even if this were true, it wouldn’t help. First, there’s a logic problem. Suppose donors gave simply to an organization’s greatness. Then, logically, they should give only to the greatest organization. Before donating, they should determine,
- Is this the greatest charity on the planet?
- Are there none that are more financially efficient?
- Are there none that help those in greater need?
- Are there none that make a more lasting impact?
Competing on organizational greatness means competing in an infinitely crowded field. In the U.S., there are over a million nonprofits. Most are pitching and promoting to draw attention to their greatness. Good luck proving that your organization ranks first out of a million.
But don’t worry. Even if you did, it wouldn’t actually help. It wouldn’t help because the assumption is false. People don’t give to organizational greatness by itself.
The donor’s impact
Charity managers often misunderstand philanthropy. They think that giving is motivated by organizational impact. It’s not. Giving is motivated by the donor’s impact. Donors care about their impact because they care about their hero story.
If the donor’s gift doesn’t make an impact, then why give? Removing the donor’s heroism removes the donor’s motivation.
Defending the administrator-hero story
It’s not that the administrator-hero story isn’t logical. It can be. In fact, it can be more logical than the donor-hero story.
Administrators spend their lives focused on these problems. They know the complexities. They are the experts. According to some, donors should, “cut an unrestricted check … and get out of the way.”
Or more forcefully, “Fund people to do stuff and get the hell out of their way.”
Administrators love these messages. Nonprofit management books – sold to nonprofit administrators – repeat these cherished ideas. One popular management book explains, “The best thing supporters can do is to give resources that enable the institution’s leaders to do their work the best way they know how. Get out of their way, and let them build.”
In this world of the administrator-hero story, people are supposed to give to administrative efficiency. Once administrative efficiency is achieved, fundraising should be easy. In this world, fundraising is “creating a constituency which supports the organization because it deserves it.”
The messaging problem of the administrator-hero story
This administrator-hero story is logical. It is reasonable. And for fundraising it is deadly.
Consider these messages from a donor’s perspective: “Give me your money because I deserve it.”
Or even worse, “I know better than you how to spend your money. So, give me your money then keep your mouth shut. I am the expert here.”
The problem isn’t that the administrator-hero story is false. The charity managers might “deserve” the money. They might be the experts. The problem is these messages don’t work. By themselves, they don’t encourage giving.
The path of the administrator-hero story
What is the typical experience for charities that fundraise with the administrator-hero story? These messages will create a few “pat-on-the-head” gifts. They’ll get an “isn’t-that-nice” comment. They’ll earn a word of encouragement: “You people” do such good work.
But for some reason, the donors don’t seem to get “engaged.” So, the organization spends time and effort to “engage” the donors. It communicates the administrator-hero story in tweets, posts, and newsletters. It shares the administrator-hero story at banquets, on the phone, and in personal visits. And still, the gifts are small. The retention is poor. The revenue is flat.
Administrators read of major, transformational gifts at other organizations. They think again of their administrator-hero story. The story feels compelling – to the administrators. The story feels sound – to the administrators.
Why, then, aren’t they getting these transformational gifts? It must be that they aren’t reaching the right audience. They decide they need to take their administrator-hero story to new people. New donors. New wealthy donors! So, despite poor retention rates for current donors, they pursue the magic elixir of new donors. But such efforts are even more expensive. The rewards are even more modest.
A few bright spots remain. Some large gifts still happen. These come from board members. These donors actually control the organization. These donors are charity managers. For them, the administrator-hero story is the donor-hero story.
The worldview problem
The problem here is not effort. The problem is not commitment. It’s not technique or “best” practices. The problem is deeper. The problem is an underlying conflict of worldviews.
The most powerful experience fundraising can offer is to advance the donor’s hero story. Living the donor-hero story provides a transformational experience. It touches the essence of the donor’s being. It shapes the donor’s identity. It is why major contributors often express gratitude for taking part in the donation experience. But we cannot offer that experience without answering the central question: Who is the hero?
The competitive advantage of the donor’s hero story
Advancing the donor’s hero story changes the competitive landscape. Other charities may be great. They may be telling great stories. But it doesn’t matter because they aren’t telling the donor’s story. No story is more powerful than the donor’s story.
Think about your alma mater. Suppose I proved that a rival school was 10% more efficient. According to the logic of organizational greatness, you would immediately switch your donations. But you won’t. Why not? You won’t because the rival school isn’t part of your story. What the other school is doing is fine. It’s nice. But it’s not your story. And it won’t get your donations.
The donor’s impact
It’s not that donors aren’t motivated by impact. It’s that donors are motivated by their impact in their story. Administrative efficiency can be important. But it’s important only when it advances the donor’s hero story.
The charity impact story is nice. Did the charity help 10,000 people last year? Congratulations. The administrators are heroes. But that doesn’t tell the donor what his gift would do today. The donor’s gift must create change. Otherwise, why would he make it?
Having helped others in the past is great. But the donor’s gift is about reaching the one who hasn’t yet been helped. It’s about the donor’s impact. It’s not about what the charity has already done. It’s about what the charity hasn’t done.
Advancing the donor’s hero story is powerful. It’s compelling. It provides deep value and meaning. It works. The administrator-hero story is also powerful, but only for the administrators.
In the donor’s hero story, the charity and its administrators are not the hero. But don’t worry. The organization does play a vital role in the donor’s hero story. What is this role? The next article looks at this question.
 For research on the phenomenon of characterizing administrators as heroes in an administrator-hero story, see,
Bellavita, C. B. (1991). The public administrator as hero. Administration & Society, 23(2), 155-185; Hubbell, L. (1990). The relevance of the heroic myths to public servants. The American Review of Public Administration, 20(3), 139-154; Learmonth, M. (2001). NHS trust chief executives as heroes? Health Care Analysis, 9(4), 417-436. In fundraising literature, see Portnoy, D. (2012). The non-profit narrative: How telling stories can change the world. PMG Press.
 Personal notes from presentation. Clayton, A. (2019, February 27). A new ambition. Fundraising Institute of Australia Conference, Melbourne, Australia.
 Le, V. (2019, February 18). Sometimes the best thing we donors can do to advance social justice is to just write the check and get out of the way. [Blog post]. NonprofitAF, https://nonprofitaf.com/2019/02/sometimes-the-best-thing-we-donors-can-do-to-advance-social-justice-is-to-just-write-the-check-and-get-out-of-the-way/
 Devlin-Foltz, D. (March 27, 2015). FPTDSAGTHOOTW as a battle cry. [Blog post]. The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/fptdsagthootw-battle-cry/
 Collins, J. (2005). Good to great and the social sectors. HarperCollins. p. 24.
 Drucker, P. (1990). Managing the nonprofit organization. HarperCollins. p. 56
- Donor Story: Epic Fundraising eCourse
- The Fundraising Myth & Science Series, by Dr. Russell James
- Why fundraisers must understand the 6 common elements of every donor’s hero story
- Better Fundraising Begins With Better Terminology
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