Why the Term ‘Friendraising’ Makes Me Cross

Just Explain It to Me!

Ken Burnett’s classic 1992 fundraising text, Relationship Fundraising, taught and touted the value of developing relationships with donors based on the attributes of friendship, such as care, understanding, respect and mutual trust. The term “friendraising” is said to be coined from these concepts. Burnett and his disciples established the friendraising mind-set for successful fundraising over the last 30 years.

Burnett’s thoughtful approach possesses terrific value. Its application has helped many garner billions of resources to forward the good works of nonprofit institutions. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the philosophical approach per se. So why do I cringe every time it’s uttered as a tactic? Why am I irritated every time someone uses it to justify their actions? Forgive me, Mr. Burnett, but I want to scream, “Dear Lord, please make it stop,” every time I hear it or its iterations (friendraisers, friendraising events, etc.). Why? Because the gift of the term “friendraising” has sometimes resulted in unintended consequences, much like a gift of beautiful pastoral farmland ruined by years of dumping toxic waste on it.

“Friendraising” as a buzzword represents an easily grasped concept. It champions the necessity of “soft skills” (abilities creating effective interaction with others). Because people believe the theory has great merit, it invites a blanket approach to fundraising operations and hiring. People have come to think that all advancement employees (and especially its leaders) must excel primarily in soft skills to be effective friendraisers. The unintended consequence of such an approach is the chaos in a business that doesn’t balance soft skills with hard skills (abilities creating effective policies, procedures, workflows and other mechanics of how something works).

Soft skills facilitate the front-end goals of fundraising (securing a gift), while hard skills facilitate upholding donor intention, creating systems for the long-term stewardship of the gift and developing controls related to compliance with the law, conflict of interest and accreditation. Whenever donors and internal stakeholders become angry or lack trust in advancement operations, soft and hard skills are imbalanced in the advancement team.

Soft skills should never overshadow or replace hard skills in fundraising operations.

Here’s the biggest drawback to an individual fundraiser taking on the role of “friendraiser.” The line between close friend and employee/professional can easily be blurred or even abused. When the position of fundraiser tips predominantly into the realm of friendship with a donor, adverse effects occur, such as the friendraiser using the relationship for

  • Personal gain. Examples include employees influencing the donor to be personally named as a beneficiary in a last will and testament, to invest in their personal businesses, and to use the donor’s properties, assets and influence for access to opportunities for the benefit of family members, friends and themselves.
  • Unethical or illegal activities. The trust that develops between an employee and a donor can run deep. The goal of the employee is to secure gifts, but it cannot be at the expense of the donor or the institution. In egregious examples, employees persuade donors to give resources away, which has left the donor financially ruined or vulnerable. Conversely, the donor can use the friendship to convince the employee to enter into agreements violating institutional and governmental policies, the law, and tax code (quid pro quos, money laundering, conflicts of interests, discrimination, et al.) and accrediting standards related to donor influence (i.e., donor agreements or donor influence affecting programmatic content such as insisting a particular text or theory be taught in the classroom). There have been many lawsuits attesting to these types of occurrences.
  • Leverage with an employer. Because the relationship between the donor and employee can evolve into something personal, the ties can be used to protect employees who may not be fulfilling their roles and responsibilities adequately. In these cases, the relationship itself outweighs the employee’s performance. Suppose the employee is being held accountable by the employer. In that case, an employee may use their relationships with donors to threaten leadership by stating outright or implying that if the employee is held responsible for performance (not retained, given a raise, or allowed to do as they wish, et al.), then the donor’s support will be withdrawn. Donors may also act politically to protect an employee by threatening to withdraw support or wage war to terminate the supervisor.

Here, the employee and donor wreak havoc and hold the institution hostage. These possible scenarios have been enabled, or at least exacerbated, by the friendraising model going unchecked. Nearly every institution has encountered them.

The friendraiser must be held accountable for their soft skills (relationships) and hard skills (performance and results). Both employees and donors must not be permitted to use the friendraising mantra for political effect or gain.

However, fundraisers can work with donors respectfully and ethically without putting the institution’s reputation or resources at risk. A donor’s relationship with the institution must run deeper than a relationship with an individual employee serving as a fundraiser.

The friendraising concept also applies to the creation and management of fundraising events. These events provide opportunities for prospective donors and institutions to try out a relationship by engaging in an activity whereby the institution gives something tangible in return for participation. Examples include trips, auctions, galas and sporting events. Ideally, the purpose is to raise funds for the institution while cultivating a relationship that will move a potential donor from event participant to annual donor (and, ultimately, major donor).

With events, friendraising is often misinterpreted and can become counter to basic business practices and can undermine the purpose of fundraising (bringing in funds to support internal constituents rather than giving them away to external constituents). Suppose an institution overwhelmingly focuses on the friendship aspect of friendraising. In that case, you’ll see a greater focus on the tangible benefit to a donor and singularity of effect (an excellent one-off experience for the individual). Dysfunctional friendraising events find evidence in the cost to raise a dollar (CRD). For events, the CRD should be less than forty-five cents; if it is more, there is a problem. Success or failure find evidence in return on investment. The institution must have mechanisms to research the participants, assign fundraisers and other key employees to engage potential donors, and then track progress moving participants to donor status and retention.

Institutions must balance friendship etiquette with the responsibility of fundraising and best practices for friendraising events to be meaningful and successful.

Institutions must also be able to differentiate between friendraising events and stewardship events by setting the appropriate tone. Participants understand that the purpose of friendraising events is to ask for financial support. Taking a salesperson-like approach to the feel of the event may be appropriate. Asking for help from a participant without them receiving a great deal is expected by the participants. Friend raisers shouldn’t shy from fundraising in this context. The tact should be respectful yet focused on fundraising.

A stewardship event differs substantially. There is a time and place for asking; friendraisers know the difference.

Participants are thanked and celebrated for what they’ve contributed and achieved, much like a birthday or anniversary party. For stewardship events, the focus is on gratitude and friendship rather than getting more from the donor. For example, would you ask the honoree at a birthday party for a gift? No, that would be tacky. The same applies to stewardship events; don’t ambush attendees by asking for more money.

The value of friendraising is the careful balance between friendship and fundraising. Everyone involved in raising funds must eschew and protect against employing the term to achieve that which is unethical, irresponsible, disrespectful, distasteful, illegal, or harmful.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Monday, January 30, 2023
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Monday, January 30, 2023