A new report suggests the purpose of fundraising is not merely the raising of money, but also the stewarding of the human capacity to love.

If you could double giving by making small tweaks to your nonprofit’s communications, would you give it a try? A new research report suggests you can secure game-changing growth by meeting the psychological needs of donors, rather than by treating supporter communication as a means to an end. The approach sees the purpose of fundraising not merely as the raising of money but rather, the stewarding of the human capacity to love.

Relationship Fundraising 3.0 is what the report’s authors – the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy’s Kathryn Edworthy, Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang – have named their suggested way of growing donor trust, loyalty and, ultimately, giving.

There is much to explore, but first, let’s cover off Relationship Fundraising 1.0 and 2.0.

Relationship Fundraising 1.0

It has been 30 years since Ken Burnett coined the term ‘relationship fundraising’, defining it as:

“An approach to the marketing of a cause that centres on the unique and special relationship between a nonprofit and each supporter. Its overriding consideration is to care for and develop that bond and to do nothing that might damage or jeopardise it. Every activity is therefore geared toward making sure donors know they are important, valued, and considered, which has the effect of maximising funds per donor in the long term.”

Many others have since shared a similar perspective. For example, experienced fundraising strategist Penelope Burk, sees what she terms “donor-centered” fundraising as:

“An approach to raising money and interacting with donors that acknowledges what donors really need and puts those needs first.”

Focusing on, and enhancing, the quality of the donor experience to drive greater revenue is the crux of 1.0. And it has led to a number of important innovations: the creation of donor surveys to determine interests; the introduction of more donor choice in their giving; and the creation of supporter journeys that better steward relationships. We have also seen the rise of ‘exit polling’ where organisations routinely check for service and donor care problems that could be leading to unnecessary attrition.

Perhaps the most consequential learning from 1.0, is the insight that many donors do desire an ongoing relationship with the organisations and causes they support. Properly practiced, relationship fundraising can extend the duration of these relationships, develop donor engagement and boost lifetime value.

So, in a nutshell, Relationship Fundraising 1.0 identified that enhancing the donor experience would result in an increase in giving.

Relationship Fundraising 2.0

By the mid 1990s and early 2000s, a new perspective of relationship fundraising had begun to emerge, drawing on the latest research and insights from the related concept of relationship marketing (the marketing strategy of cultivating more meaningful relationships with customers to ensure long-term satisfaction and brand loyalty). What developed was an understanding of how relationships are experienced and thus, the factors that should be managed to strengthen relationship bonds and the desired behaviours they drive, such as loyalty and increased giving.

Since that time, several nonprofits have developed measures of commitment, satisfaction and trust and are tracking their performance against these dimensions. In the UK, the NSPCC was one of the first charities to begin adopting this practice in the early 2000s and there are now a number of commercial service providers that offer this service to charity clients, providing them with scores and exploring the linked implications. All three of the concepts in the model have been associated with donor loyalty and so developing and monitoring these scores makes good sense.


The report shares one definition of trust as “one party believing that its needs will be fulfilled in the future by actions taken by the other party”.

Good communication is seen as key to fostering trust. The content of communications must evolve throughout the lifetime of a relationship, with early communications designed to establish the rules of the relationship and to develop trust. This requires full disclosure of purpose or meaning, and that any mistakes be acknowledged as soon as discovered. It also requires that customer-specific information be treated as confidential.

In the nonprofit context, 2004 research asserts that levels of trust drive giving behaviour and that trust may be enhanced by:

  • Communicating impacts achieved for the beneficiary group
  • Honouring the promises made to donors about how their money will be used
  • Being seen to exhibit good judgement and communicating the rationale for decisions taken by the organisation in respect to its overall direction and/or the services offered to beneficiaries
  • Making it clear what values the organisation espouses
  • Ensuring that communications match donor expectations in respect of content, frequency and quality
  • Ensuring that the organisation participates in two-way conversation, engaging donors in a dialogue about both the service they can expect as supporters and the service that will be delivered to beneficiaries
  • Ensuring that donor-facing members of staff are trained in customer service procedures and have the requisite knowledge and skills to deal with enquiries effectively, promptly and courteously

Relationship commitment is another driver of loyalty. Research indicates that commitment may be developed by enhancing trust, enhancing the number and quality of two-way interactions, and by the development of shared values.

Commitment also includes the concept of risk, defined as the extent to which a donor believes beneficiaries will be harmed should they withdraw or cancel their gift and trust.

Finally, the degree in which individuals believe they have deepened their knowledge of the organisation through the communications they receive will also impact positively on commitment. This reinforces the importance of planning tailored donor journeys, rather than simply creating a calendar of one-size-fits-all communications.


People compare what they expected to get with what was actually delivered –  they only experience satisfaction when their expectations are either met or surpassed. Research confirms that there is a significant and positive relationship between satisfaction and a donor’s future intentions, particularly the likely duration of the relationship and level of donation offered.

This has led to an uptick in surveys and polls. But what do satisfaction scores actually tell us and how do they translate to action? The scores tell us little about the donor behind the rating – who they are as people and what might contribute to their sense of personal wellbeing.

It should be remembered that the proposition of trust, commitment and satisfaction being at the core of the experience of a relationship was developed in the commercial sector; a sector largely based on exchange, not on the love that is at the core of much of philanthropy.

And herein lies the ethos for the next iteration of relationship fundraising.

Relationship Fundraising 3.0

Fundraising if often defined as the seeking of financial support for a charity, cause, or other enterprise. Many fundraisers would agree with this view – a view that is entirely consistent with Relationship Fundraising 1.0 or 2.0, where relationships are cultivated as a means to an end. Essentially what is proposed is an exchange relationship where if we look after the donor, we can trust that they’ll eventually look after us.

Relationship Fundraising 3.0 is different. It eschews the focus on exchange and sees the purpose of fundraising as stewarding the human capacity to love.

This is a very different perspective that requires a detailed understanding of the psychological needs of the individual, their sense of self, their sense of wellbeing and how they might best experience the giving and receiving of love.

Identity – a case study

In 2018, the report’s authors conducted a survey of 68,000 donors sourced from an unidentified US-based organisation (4.7% responded). The respondents were randomly assigned with one of these two questions:

  1. What five words would you use to describe yourself as a person?
  2. What five words would you use to describe yourself as a supporter [of the organisation]?

These were the high-ranking words:

As you can see, amongst the donors to this organisation, ‘conservative’ is the most important aspect of both the self and supporter identities. The top self-identity words paint a picture of an honest, caring, and loyal Christian person. The top supporter identity words, in contrast, paint a picture of a conservative who is patriotic, committed, informed, and supportive.

So how was this information used? In a direct mail membership renewal ask, the most powerful self-words and supporter-words were tested to see if they would increase giving or response rates more than a control communication that did not include any of these words. There were three versions of the test: control letter, letter with self-words, and letter with supporter-words.

Based on an analysis of the response rate to each of the three conditions, both self (7.18%) and supporter words (6.83%) outperform the control condition (6%) response rate. The graph below shows the anticipated increase in revenue if those in the control condition had also received either the self or the supporter condition.

Why is this so powerful? Because essentially, people begin to see themselves in the communication.

The research suggests that it is important for nonprofits to understand both the self and supporter words because they may differ in power under certain circumstances. For example, at the beginning of a relationship, a supporter identity will take time to establish, so self-words will be more appropriate to use with new donors. Conversely, the test revealed that the higher the donor’s previous average gift amount, the more they gave to the membership renewal when reading the supporter words (ie the more they support, the more they resonate with being a ‘supporter’ and words associated with that).


The research uses ‘self-determination theory’ to assess supporter wellbeing. This theory says that people have three basic psychological needs that can be fulfilled through their relationships with nonprofits:

  1. The need to feel autonomous –  feeling that they are acting based on their own initiative
  2. The need to feel competent –  feeling that they are competent in completing activities that matter to them. Donors want to feel that they have made a positive impact because of what they have done, rather than what an organisation might have done
  3. The need to feel connected to others – people experience wellbeing when they feel connected to others that they love or care for. In the context of fundraising it is easy to imagine that donors may seek (or value) connectedness with beneficiaries, but it may also be a certain kind of beneficiary that is the primary interest. So one might support a Humane Society because of a love of cats, or a love a dogs. A donor may support a cancer charity because they care specifically about children’s cancer. Communications can then be created that reflect the requisite connection.
Identity and wellbeing

The interface between identity and wellbeing is important in Relationship Fundraising 3.0. Essentially, identity delineates who the donor is and once it is understood that they are a certain kind of person, the nonprofit can focus on creating a wellbeing approach appropriate for that sense of who they are.

But the picture is a little more complicated than that, because identities have a range of properties that make them more or less powerful for fundraisers. Enter the concept of ‘identity importance’.

Identity Importance 

Some identities can be frequently in the front of someone’s mind and hence highly accessible to that individual for a prolonged period. Psychologists call these identities important identities and the more important an identity is, the more likely it can be made momentarily accessible and that doing so will influence behaviour.

Example: Christian International Aid Organisation

For this research, an online survey was sent to 48,000 supporters in March 2017, with a response rate of 2.41%.

The survey measured several factors to predict supporter behaviour and psychological wellbeing. These factors fall into five categories:

  • Donor disposition (eg How compassionate they are or how much they like to problem solve)
  • Donor identity (eg Moral or Christian identity)
  • Donor loyalty (commitment, satisfaction and trust)
  • Connectedness (eg How connected people feel to the organisation, its staff or to God)
  • Factors specific to the Christian context (eg Which Bible verse inspires them or how people think about their relationship with God)

The survey established three considerations as important predictors of intent to continue and increase donations, as well as intent to leave a legacy. These were:

  1. Commitment to the organisation. People who scored highly feel passionate about the organisation’s mission and goals and are committed to the relationship with the organisation. The maximum score was 7 and the average in the supporter sample was 5.9
  2. Connectedness to the organisation. People who scored highly feel strongly connected to the organisation on a personal level. The average in the supporter sample was 5.6 on a scale of 7
  3. Christian identity importance. People who scored highly on this scale feel that being a Christian is central to their sense of who they are. The maximum score on this scale was 7 and the average in the supporter sample was 5.4

The table below shows the difference to giving intentions that increasing these scores to their maximum (ie 7) would make. For example, raising the average commitment score across the supporter base from 5.9 to 7 increases the average intention to continue donating by 7.6 percentage points, the intention to increase a donation by 7.0 percentage points, and the intention to leave a legacy by 17.4 percentage points.

Six months after the survey, a direct mail appeal was sent to the organisation’s supporter base. Supporters received the letter with one of four conditions. In each condition, the copy of the letter remained exactly the same, but the response form differed with the inclusion of sentences derived from the results of the supporter survey.

You can see the long-form results to each of the conditions applied in the full report, but we’ll cut to the chase: it was found that if all 55,299 supporters mailed with the appeal had been sent the Christian identity condition, an additional £30,250 would have been raised (in comparison to a scenario where all supporters received the control condition with a response form that was not amended based on the supporter survey).

A further two tests were conducted, and ultimately, the winning mix was the use of language that highlighted both Christian identity (‘Yes, piecing together fractured lives is a vital part of what being a Christian means’) and connectedness between the organisation’s mission, the donor and God’s heart (‘Yes, mending broken relationships connects me to God’s heart’).

The first of the two tests showed that if all 18,127 mailed supporters in that test had been sent the Christian identity and connectedness condition, an additional £17,157 would have been raised in comparison to all supporters receiving the control condition. The second test showed that if all 26,269 mailed supporters in that test had been sent the Christian identity and connectedness condition, an additional £33,503 would have been raised.


It is interesting that even though love is quite literally at the root of philanthropy, it tends not to feature in fundraising communications. Too often, we default to the language of money and gifts: Your donation can … Your gift can … Thanks to your gift of … Thanks to your support …

This focus on money has spawned an annual fascination with matched giving. People are increasingly incentivised to match the sum of their gift, donation or support. A fictitious example is depicted here:

Imagine instead the power of doubling the love, as shown here:

The report’s authors have been working with organisations to change words to a love-based language. Response rate improvements are similar to those reported above for identity and wellbeing, but it is too early yet to report on results in detail – watch this space.

You should be a steward of love

Relationship Fundraising 3.0 focuses on developing a detailed understanding of the psychological needs of the donor. Identity, wellbeing and love are at the core of the approach.

While relationship fundraising 1.0 and 2.0 focus on the impact on the organisation, 3.0 focuses on the impact of giving on the individual supporter. Experiments have shown that developing an understanding of identity allows a nonprofit to develop wellbeing approaches engineered for specific kinds of people. And ultimately it opens the door to understanding how these kinds of people might better experience or articulate the love that is at the core of their philanthropy.

Recently, in the context of international development, the community centric fundraising (CCF) movement has warned us against celebrating donors in a way that might be harmful to beneficiary communities. There is nothing in philanthropic psychology that is at odds with CCF principles. Rather it provides a toolbox for the facilitation of change. In simple terms, we can change what we choose to help people feel good about.

The report also teaches us that people who feel good about who they are when they make giving decisions are significantly more likely to give, give more in the future and give for longer. And conversely, it appears that people who plan to grow their philanthropy can also experience higher levels of wellbeing as a result.

“It is hard to over state the significance of our results,” say the report’s authors. “We have shown that just changing a few words in communications can double giving and bolster wellbeing.

“We believe that there should be an increased recognition of the wider social role that fundraising could perform and that fundraisers should be trained as stewards of love not just facilitators of gifts and support. Such a switch of emphasis is at the core of the concept of Relationship Fundraising 3.0.”


To read the full report, which includes several further case studies, experiments and tests, click here

Read more on donor identity from Adrian Sargeant here.

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