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Should “Old School” be the “Now School” for Advancement?

We all know the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Like most advancement professionals, I did not start my career in the early 1980s thinking I would become a fundraiser. After graduating with a Master’s degree in public health and clinical nutrition, I secured a grant-supported part-time position at a new statewide food bank in Oregon. When it became clear that I was the only team member willing and able to ask large food companies for food and money, my career as a fundraiser was launched.

That was 40 years ago!!

Many things have changed for the better in 40 years:

  • Women now dominate the ranks of fundraisers.
  • Fundraising has a higher status in the nonprofit sector today than it did decades ago.
  • Donors’ gifts and information are now managed with databases instead of index cards and spreadsheets (though there is still great value in using spreadsheets in development operations.)
  • Printed directories of fund sources are now readily available online.
  • Computerized communications have become central to many annual giving and donor stewardship programs.

Some fundraising tactics have stood the test of time:

  • Direct mail (snail mail) is alive and well and, in many ways, is still far more effective, with a better return on investment.
  • Galas have endured as a fundraising and friend-raising mainstay.
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising continues to prove its effectiveness.

But printed newsletters and annual reports are prohibitively expensive and of questionable readership and value, while walk-ride-swim-golf events have waxed and waned over the years.

Before the Web

Fundraising, as we know it, started before the web and email became free and available in 1996. Fundraisers relied on phone calls, handwritten notes, personal letters, and face-to-face visits. Prospect research consisted of “street research,” getting information from acquaintances, your donor file, and conversations with donors. The big campaigns were $100M and not in the billions.

Funny story: In the late 1990s, I interviewed for a senior position at the MIT computer science and electrical engineering department. I suggested that email can be used in fundraising. The deans thought I was a genius, and though I was offered the position, I passed.

New School

The work of advancement, along with so many new tools, has evolved rapidly and has come into its own as a profession and industry. We now attend huge conferences and online webinars.  Big data, AI, analytics, sophisticated databases, wealth research, and much more help us mine and monetize a shrinking donor pool. This is while dealing with the headwinds of an ever-growing number of nonprofit organizations competing for the disposable income of donors.

Old School – Now School

We all know wealth is increasingly polarized, and we are all trying to identify and engage a declining number of wealthier donor candidates in a vastly more competitive environment. New school tools help us to find them, but it is the old-school techniques that will make your advancement program successful.

The donor relationship-building methods I used 40 years ago, and currently, are even more valuable today. Why?  Donors seek meaning and belonging, which are difficult to find in the hundreds of emails, tweets, LinkedIn messages, and Facebook & Instagram posts donors receive every day. When was the last time you called someone on the phone without first setting up the call via email? Or received a personal letter or handwritten note from anyone, let alone a professional person trying to engage you in a cause?  We know that the personal touch, the reaching out that takes time and deep thought, gets opened and read. Zoom is great, but breaking bread at a local cafe is better.

The more things change, the more some things should stay the same.


Copley Raff’s missionEvery interaction is to help nonprofit organizations fulfill their missions by meeting ambitious goals, aligning their leadership, elevating fundraising, and activating the brilliance of their teams. It’s a bold promise, but one that we know will serve you and your organization’s mission in a way that will deliver tangible and meaningful results – the kind of results that make a real difference!


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