An individual and a group. The individual's thought bubble shows that they are thinking about the group.

Seinfeld character George Costanza claimed to have coined the phrase It’s Not You, It’s Me.  He found that it came in handy when explaining why he wanted to break up with the person he was dating, hoping to make it easier on the soon-to-be ex by putting the blame for the failed relationship on himself.  But he didn’t really appreciate it when one of his girlfriends used it on him.  Psychology Today points out that those on the receiving end of “It’s not you, it’s me” often feel worse, not better, for having heard this excuse.

In fundraising, we strive to develop and deepen relationships with our prospective donors and donors, not break up with them.  Then why do we so often send messages that make it sound like our fundraising success is all about us?  I believe it’s because we let our internal language get out into the world.

We call ourselves “fundraisers,” because we raise funds, and we like to talk about just how much we have raised.  This language motivates us and the volunteers who join us in soliciting members of our community, but it doesn’t acknowledge the role of the donors in achieving those results.  Our asking isn’t enough; donors have to actively choose to make our organization a philanthropic priority.  When we report our results externally, we need to remember this and celebrate those who gave, not those who asked.  Here are some examples of how you can shift the spotlight to the donors, rather than the institution:

INSTITUTIONALLY ORIENTED FOCUSED ON THE EXTERNAL AUDIENCE SPEAKING TO DONORS
“The Annual Fund raised” “Donors gave $XXX through the Annual Fund” “You and other Annual Fund donors contributed”
“Our institution raised” or “We raised” “Our community contributed” or “Alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends gave” “You and other generous community members gave”
“We met/exceeded our goal” “X,XXX members of our community generously contributed $X to support our incredibly vital mission, meeting/exceeding our fundraising goal” “Because of you, our clients/patients/students will benefit even more as we expand our mission/strengthen our programs.  We are so grateful that our community responded so generously, meeting/exceeding the ambitious fundraising goal and making so much good work possible.”

We get excited when we succeed in raising money, not just because we’re goal-oriented, but because we know what those funds make possible at our organizations.  They are put to work to execute our missions which change individual lives and improve our world.  But when we talk externally about the impact of our fundraising campaigns, we again need to highlight the donors who provided the resources, not the organization that put them to work.

INSTITUTIONALLY ORIENTED FOCUSED ON THE    EXTERNAL AUDIENCE SPEAKING TO DONORS
“The Campaign provided” “Campaign donors provided” or “Through their campaign gifts, members, grateful patients, and friends provided” “Through your campaign gifts, you provided”
“Our institution made a difference by” “Our donors made a difference by” “You made a difference by”
“Our institution is great” “Donors make our institution great” “Because of you, our institution is great” or “You make our institution great”

We even fall back on our internal language when we ask for support.  We talk about the fundraising effort, whether it’s a Giving Day, the annual fund, special initiative, or comprehensive campaign, as though it’s the reason to give, but that internal shorthand hides the real purpose of the effort.  We should instead always focus on the impact that donors will make if they choose to make a gift in response to our request.  For example,

INSTITUTIONALLY ORIENTED FOCUSED ON THE EXTERNAL AUDIENCE
“Support the Annual Fund” “Make an immediate difference for faculty and students by giving through the Annual Fund”
“Contribute to the Campaign” “Help meet an important need and solve a pressing societal issue by making a Campaign gift today”

When many shops segment their constituents based on recency of giving, the terms used convey that “It’s not me, it’s you!”  I urge everyone to consider new vocabulary for talking about donors who have not yet given in the current year, shifting the burden from being on donors to give to being on us to engage and solicit them.  It’s our responsibility to invite and persuade them to renew their support, to get them giving again, or to bring them on board as new donors.

INSTITUTIONALLY ORIENTED                (“fault” lies with our constituents) FOCUSED ON THE EXTERNAL AUDIENCE (responsibility lies with us)
“Lybunt”                                                        (gave last year, but unfortunately not this year) “Renewal prospect”
“Sybunt”                                                        (gave some year, but unfortunately not this year, usually 2-5 years ago) “Retrieval prospect”
“Non-Donor” or “Never-Giver”                      (no previous gift or most recent gift was 6 or more years ago) “New prospect” (someone who was never previously asked to give)
“Acquisition Prospect” (someone who was asked to give previously, but didn’t give or gave, but it was a long time ago)

For many people, switching between internal and external language is hard, making it almost inevitable that the internal language will be heard by our donors and prospective donors.  And as a Star Trek fan and mother of a linguistics major, I’m also aware of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which argues that culture and worldview are shaped by the language we use.  If the way I talk is the way I think, then I want to keep my language focused on my donors and prospective donors as the heroes of the stories I tell and my role as in support of them.  Please join me in trying to keep the language of fundraising focused always on those generous donors who make it possible for our institutions to do the good they do in the world, even in our internal conversations.

Tammie L. Ruda