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Development vs. Fundraising? P.S. They’re Not the Same.

I’ve worked in our industry for just about three years, and in that time I’ve learned a lot. I’m fortunate to have a long list of mentors (Claire, Greg, Pamela, Solomon, Brady, the list goes on and on) who have “shown me the ropes.” Thank you.

One thing you realize when you first begin your career in our sector is that nonprofits operate a bit differently than their for-profit counterparts . As a vendor, you get a unique perspective to witness this. Rather than being inside one organization, I get to ebb and flow through hundreds of organizations each year, popping in and popping out for hours at a time. I’ve been able to identify patterns and similarities across even the most distinctly different organizations.

Even more compelling is the fact that some of those patterns and similarities identified within nonprofits resonate back home with me here, at our for-profit company. Organizations of all shapes, sizes, and structure experience similar pain points, hardships and struggles. Go figure.

As a vendor it’s always interesting to reflect on the dynamic of our relationship with our clients. Vendors strive to make money — they’re for-profit companies — while the organizations they serve are nonprofit, and are not in it for the money, but rather to further their mission.

This creates an interesting dynamic.

You might not see it (thanks to savvy marketing), but vendors fight, vendors scrap, and vendors scrutinize their bottom line endlessly. Nonprofits fight (for their mission), nonprofits scrap (for their resources), and nonprofits scrutinize their bottom line (to make sure programs can be funded) endlessly too, but it’s a bit different.

From my perspective, as a vendor, I have been able to develop a fairly robust understanding of our industry. One thing above all else has stuck with me through the years, and that is the distinction (or lack thereof) between development and fundraising.

Vendors tend to sell products to “fundraisers,” when they really mean to be targeting development professionals. The two phrases, although different, appear to the naked eye to say the same thing. The reality is that they take on drastically different connotations.

There is a huge distinction and one that, as a sector we should strive to further validate. Let’s discuss the difference, the implications it has, and how vendors (much like myself) can help further the conversation and adapt the existing landscape.

Fundraiser vs. development

What’s in a word? An awful lot, actually. Words and their meanings play an incredibly important role in our society and, more significantly, in our communication with one another everyday. You didn’t need me to tell you that, you already knew it, but it’s a friendly reminder that the words we speak carry weight.

As with any industry or sector, we nonprofit professionals have our own dictionary of terms, acronyms, and jargon. I’ve written about that in the past, and I highly recommend you take a peek and contribute to the list, but for today we are going to get more into the weeds.

What is a fundraiser? From our good friends at we know that a fundraiser is “a person who solicits contributions or pledges.” Simple enough and most likely inline with the definition most non-nonprofit professionals have too.

What is a development professional? That definition is harder to come by and there isn’t a entry we can reference. Instead, let’s look to thought leaders. Campbell and Company has a bit of a long-winded definition:

“‘Development,’ on the other hand, encourages us to think about our work in ‘relational’ terms–the building, over time, of a continuous, powerful and life-long connection between a donor / philanthropist and the organization or cause we represent. When we approach our work as ‘development,’ the process includes extended cultivation, thorough education, and attentive stewardship — as well as appropriate solicitation!”

And Claire Axelrad of Clairification has an abbreviated definition rooted in the work of Kay Sprinkel Grace, “Development is ‘the process of uncovering shared values.’ It is about cultivating meaningful relationships and then providing opportunities for people to invest in areas that are important to them.”

When you compare and contrast the definitions of our two words (fundraiser and development professional), it is easy to see why most people outside of our sector refer to us as “fundraisers.” Fundraiser is easier and less abstract to comprehend .

This is a shame though, because both fundraisers and development professionals do more than simply solicit people for money. My time in this industry has shown me that nonprofit staff are some of the most resourceful, innovative, and dedicated professionals in the world. Suggesting that someone with the title of “fundraiser” simply asks other people for money is ludicrous.

This comes back to connotation. Internally, as a sector we agree that we are not fundraisers, we are development professionals. But externally, to our peers in program departments or our board of ex-industry titans, and most importantly to our donors, we are simply the people who ask for money. This connotation boxes us in, and vendors perpetuate this problem.

Fundraising and development are different. And, if I may add my own definition into the mix, a development professional can simply be defined as “a person who creates the systems and processes required for a nonprofit organization to sustain itself financially.” That’s it.

Yes, this definition encompasses raising funds, but it also speaks to the myriad projects and disparate existing systems you have to work with. Fundraisers ask for money. Development professionals create financially sustainable organizations. Fundraisers are development professionals. And development professionals are highly valued assets at any nonprofit organization.

Why the distinction?

At this point you might be thinking, “What got into this guys coffee this morning, why does he care so much?” It’s simple: I’ve seen the implication of being a fundraiser vs. being a development professional first hand.

Remember the introduction of this blog post, where I discussed the interesting perspective I get as a result of being a vendor? Yeah? Well, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, and one is the standard all nonprofit professionals should strive for.

Anecdotally, in my experience, a fundraiser is perceived lesser than a development professional. I’ve been to a variety of conferences where the conversation relates to developing a “culture of philanthropy,” and each time I think to myself, “Don’t refer to your fundraising staff as well, fundraising staff, shift the cultural mindset away from ‘transactional solicitation,’ and towards development — building systems and processes for financial growth.” Unfortunately, I haven’t been invited to speak at any of these events, and I may never will, but this is the distinction I strive to highlight.

Even as a point of career advancement, we should take great effort to have our peers understand that as a development professional we do much more than ask people for money. [inlinetweeet]When other staff and leadership comprehend the full scope of the roles and responsibilities you take on, you have a greater chance at getting a raise, or being identified for a promotion[/inlinetweeet]. I’ve witnessed this happen firsthand.

Again, this is all anecdotal, and my experience as a vendor jumping in and out of organizations for hours at a time has it’s pros and cons, but never the less, this is what three years in our sector has shown me. These experiences are what inspires blog posts like the one you are currently reading, and, more importantly, gradual changes vendors make in the space. Speaking of vendors…

Perpetuating the problem

In a lot of industries the outside vendors who provide resources to the sector play a large role in how things get done. Vendors supply data, services, and solutions. And, the quality of those offerings directly relates to how efficiently and effectively an organization can operate.

This blog post is not an attempt to be an indictment on how vendors could (and should) do a better job providing solutions to their clients, but rather a focus on how vendors market their solutions in such a way as to further our fundraiser vs. development professional divide.

Take a look at the homepage for MarketSmart, the parent company of Fundraising Report Card®, and my current employer.

Do you see the language, “Finally, busy fundraisers can generate more major and planned gifts at lower costs in less time with fewer resources.”?

I’m petitioning internally to remove that. We aren’t helping busy fundraisers, we are helping busy development professionals. There’s a difference! Vendors, board members, anyone who isn’t a true nonprofit professional doesn’t get the difference and that’s a problem.

Here at MarketSmart I am preaching the importance of understanding the distinction. That’s a start, but until leaders outside of the fundraising world “get it,” we’ll be stuck in this cultural rut.

Share this post, talk about the distinction internally and further the conversation. We’ll be doing that here at MarketSmart, and we hope you join us.

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