110: Real Relationships: Creating a Culture of Fundraising and Systems to Support It with T. Clay Buck

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“I wish and pray and look forward to our sector valuing every gift and acknowledging that philanthropy is not just a wealth exchange and that philanthropy and wealth are not same things”

– T. Clay Buck
Episode #110


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

Clay Buck, founder of TCB Fundraising, challenges the fundraising community to prioritize and recognize all donors at all levels to create a culture of philanthropy, highlighting that fundraisers often miss this opportunity in trying to meet monetary goals. “Generosity is alive and well. People are giving at all levels and doing all kinds of things. I believe, and have for 30 plus years, that there will always be somebody who needs and somebody who wants to help – these are intrinsic to human nature and intrinsic to living in community and society.” 

With over 30 years of experience in all types of fundraising, Clay is an expert in the field of philanthropy and the power of individual giving. He is passionate about the idea of valuing every gift, every donor, and every level of involvement. He believes that fundraising is about relationships that ultimately yield money, but the relationship needs to come first, and that everyone in the organization, from the front-facing gift officer to the colleagues in marketing, has a role to play in fundraising. He advocates for the idea that fundraising is about engaging the community in solving problems and inviting them to join the mission – a concept that requires a shift in thinking and leadership. There is so much inside this episode for front-line fundraisers or anyone thinking about how to improve the culture of fundraising and the culture of philanthropy inside their organizations.


T Clay Buck


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Get to know T Clay Buck:

T Clay Buck is an independent fundraising consultant who learned early on, how words and language can inspire and compel donors. He has written thousands of letters, appeals, case statements, and all kinds of written collateral. He is also the founder of TCB fundraising, an organization focused on individual giving and majorly at the low and mid-range.


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I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.


episode transcript

00:01:54 Mallory Erickson

Welcome, everyone. I am so excited to be here today with Clay Buck. Clay, welcome to What the Fundraising.

00:02:02 T. Clay Buck

Thank you so much. I am so excited and thrilled to be here.

00:02:06 Mallory Erickson

We have so much to dig into and talk about. But let’s start with you, just giving everyone a little introduction to you and your work and then we’ll roll from there.

00:02:14 T. Clay Buck

Sure, happy to. I’m an independent consultant, racing consultant. I’m the founder of TCB Fundraising, principal consultant, which is focused on individual giving primarily at the low and the mid range of the donor pyramid, which means I do a whole lot of data analysis and systems work and copywriting and anything that relates to shops large and small right in those low and mid range donors. I’ve been in all types of fundraising. I’ve been a major gift officer and a chief development officer and you name it, I’ve done it, and have been insulting now for about four or five years. So thats me in a nutshell 

00:02:51 Mallory Erickson
Amazing. And I know that one of the things that we go back and forth around a lot on LinkedIn and in our personal conversations are some of the best practices, habits of individual giving and also some of the barriers around strong individual giving programs or move management. So why don’t we start with what do you think are the biggest mistakes that nonprofits are making when it comes to how they handle their individual giving programs? And starting to move folks up who have given to a crowdfunding campaign or peer to peer campaign and they’re starting to think about how to move them into a major gift program. What are some of the biggest mistakes or misconceptions, maybe, that we have about that piece of the process?

00:03:37 T. Clay Buck

First, if I could Mallory, I’m not calling you out or picking on you.

00:03:43 Mallory Erickson

Pick on me.

00:03:47 T. Clay Buck
I don’t know. I’m becoming a softer and gentler person, I hope, as I careen past 50. And I want to talk about mistakes fundraisers make because and let’s can we just start there? Because I really I want to support every fundraiser in every situation that they’re in because I think we all make the decisions that we have to based on the resources we have, the challenges that were met with what our experiences and what we know. So I don’t want to frame it as a mistake necessarily because I don’t want all finger pointy like you should do should all over people. So let’s say the biggest missed opportunities, right? Something like that.

00:04:23 Mallory Erickson
Or maybe could I reframe my question? Because I’m so glad you said what you said. I wasn’t thinking about it from mistakes, from the perspective of I’m so glad you said that because I totally agree. I was thinking, like, what do we misunderstand about this process that kind of trains fundraisers to so many things that it took me ten years to realize, like, I thought I was doing it the right way based on some things I had been taught about fundraising. And then I realized much later down the line that like, oh, like, whoa. There are actually these other ways of engaging in this part of the process that are more effective, that feel better to me as a fundraiser. And so not that it’s a mistake that the fundraiser has created, but something that sort of in our sector, in our industry is leading fundraisers to show up that way. 

00:05:08 T. Clay Buck

There we go.

00:05:18 T. Clay Buck
I love that. I love that. And because I think we are pressured to show up that way from leadership, god bless them, our volunteer boards who don’t know better, right? This is how they see fundraising. So they guide the team into it. Cessation number of things to finally answer the question, I really do believe the biggest opportunity is the institutional valuing and prioritizing, honoring and recognizing all donors at all levels with all gifts. That a major gift, quote unquote, is an institutional definition that we come up with. Every gift is a major gift to that donor, right? And the immense, therefore, the immense power that comes with and the immense opportunity that comes with making philanthropy accessible and available and viable for everyone at every level. And I could go for 45 minutes just on this, but let me try to summarize it by saying that generosity is alive and well. People are giving at all levels and doing all kinds of things. I am not 100% convinced with this current trend that alarm bells that fewer households are giving. Philanthropically, I think the way we report has changed, especially in tax law in the United States and who’s itemizing, who isn’t. And I think that’s changed some of our reports. I believe, and have for 30 plus years, because I’ve worked it for 30 plus years, that there will always be there will always be, no matter how great our society. Gets. No matter what political or economic is in place, there will always be need, someone who needs. And there will always be someone who wants to help. And these are intrinsic to human nature. They’re intrinsic to what it means to be human. They are intrinsic to living in community and society. And I wish and pray and work for our sector. Valuing every gift and acknowledging that philanthropy is not just a wealth exchange and philanthropy and wealth are not symptoms that’s kind of high level nutshell because underneath that is a whole lot of systems and operations and prioritization. But that simple concept of valuing every donor at every level for every gift, I think would transform how we do fundraising.

00:07:40 Mallory Erickson

Yes, I really like that orientation. And I’m curious if that mindset is at the root of a development office or a small nonprofit with a single ed who’s doing the development function. What changes about their operations? Do you start to see in their operations or systems or way of being that demonstrate that they’ve adopted that mindset?

00:08:07 T. Clay Buck

I think the main thing is acknowledging that fundraising isn’t just two things, it’s two things. Number one, raising a philanthropy is not just a monetary exchange. This is a very difficult mind balance to be in because I really, truly believe and have really, truly experienced that we have to be able to carry two thoughts simultaneously as fundraisers. Number one, it is a monetary exchange because I have a budgetary goal to hit and I have to be focused on hitting that budgetary goal because the mission depends upon it. If I don’t raise the money, the mission doesn’t happen. So yes, it has to be very linear, very directly focused on that monetary goal. But then secondly, we also simultaneously have to understand monetary goal is based on this very intangible, touchy feely, fuzzy wuzzy relationships, right? In quotes, air quotes, and what does that mean? So the tactical look of that is we start to begin to realize and look at the measurement of fundraising. Success isn’t just about the development officer being out on the road all the time, meeting with donors. If you’re behind your desk, you’re not raising money. No, because somebody’s got to manage the data. Somebody’s got to look at reports, somebody’s got to make sure that the online giving page is working. And that requires desk work, and that requires infrastructure and process. So we have to value both. And I think when organizations really embrace a culture of philanthropy that values all gifts, all donors, all levels, inviting everyone who wants to be a part of the mission, that we see an investment in infrastructure, process, and systems as much as we see in the face to face traditional, major gift building relationships. Focus.

00:09:51 Mallory Erickson

So interesting to me, I love what you said there. And one of the things that’s really interesting to me is thinking about that piece around the desk work not being valued. And when you first shared that with me in a LinkedIn back and forth, it was new information to me. I don’t think I quite realize how devalued activities like that were and the mindset around the development professional always needing to be out in the field for folks to feel as though they were quote unquote, fundraising. What’s really interesting to me about this is when that’s mixed with this relationship building ambiguity that so many of us have been taught, it’s very interesting to me that an ambiguous meeting that does not talk about money between the development officer and the donor is seen as more concrete raising than fixing a donation page.

00:10:51 T. Clay Buck

Correct. I say this to my students so I can teach fundraising at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to a few other places as well. And one of my favorite ones to teach is unite to Fundraising or 101 or whatever it gets classified as. And I say this to my students all the time. So lecture one, right? Fundraising is about relationships, and we’ll go into great detail about what that means, right? And then lecture two is, fundraising is about money. And by lecture two, they’re like, wait, what? You said it was all about relationships. And then lecture three is, fundraising is about relationships that yield money. Right. So it’s those two things coming together. And I tell them, you can be out raising money. You can be out raising money all day, every day, coming back into the office with a stack of checks, getting credit cards processed, all that. You can be out raising money every day. You’re not fundraising. Oh, you’re hitting your budget goals. Sure. Oh, you’re paying for the programs and the mission. Sure. But you’re not fundraising because you got to do it all again tomorrow, and you got to do it all again next year. And conversely and I’m sure you’ve known fundraisers like this I certainly have. You can be out building relationships all day, every day and not raise a dime.

00:12:00 Mallory Erickson

That was me for a long time. I don’t just know that fundraiser. I was that fundraiser.

00:12:08 T. Clay Buck

Okay, great. So here shocking, maybe some, but the more private one on one conversations I have with others, the more people will agree with me on this, but will very rarely state it publicly. I’ve been in fundraising, as I said, since 1996. So 30 plus years, countless face to face meetings with donors, one to one in restaurants, at events, you name it, been there, done it, can’t even remember them all. I can count on two hands the number of asks I have made in person, one on one with a donor, because 90% of the time, 95% of the time I contacted you carrying the title director of development, chief development officer, whatever it may be, on behalf of a nonprofit. We talked about cases. They know why we’re meeting. They know what we’re talking about. And 95% of the time, they will either meet me at the next meeting with the gift. They’ll make it online. Somebody will call me and say, call at the organization and say, hey, suffering the stock, right? Because I’m not praising myself or patting myself on the back there. I’m just saying, when it’s done well and done good. It’s the donor making the decision. It’s not us asking for it. But then again, and I’ve done it, too, because I had to hit a certain number of visits per month, or I had to demonstrate, and I have been called into HR and written up for it. We don’t know what you’re doing. We don’t see you out in the community doing the work. All right, can I go schedule lunches? So you do you schedule a breakfast and a coffee and a lunch and an afternoon and, you know, okay, fine. I’ll go. But is that as lucrative as the two weeks that I spent cleaning up of our database and confirming that the last gift was actually correct and putting that last gift in the direct mail piece and the email piece? So that I was putting a customized ask in front of 5000 donors and asking them very specifically to renew that gift, which resulted in six figures of donations. Like, both of those are as value. And I would love to bust open this concept that if you’re behind your desk, you’re not fundraising. Right? If you’re crunching data, that’s not fundraising. Listen, sorry, I’m up on the soapbox now. Right. Our colleagues in advancement services, our colleagues in prospect research, our colleagues in marketing and donor comms, our colleagues in donor relations are told they aren’t fundraisers because they don’t have a dollar goal assigned to their work. And it is absolutely 100% categorically untrue. If we’re lucky enough, if we’re lucky enough to work in shops that have one or all of those different types of roles in your shop, they are just as much a part of this work that we call fundraising as the front facing gift officer is. Right?

00:14:55 Mallory Erickson

Yeah, I’m going to hold myself back from going down a rabbit hole here, but I agree with everything that you’re saying. I’ve started to talk about this in terms of a culture of fundraising as opposed to a culture of philanthropy. And I think that sometimes I think there is that piece around the organization not recognizing the fundraising that’s happening in those other departments. I also think sometimes there’s a lot of discomfort in those departments being associated too closely with fundraising. I hear a lot from marketing and comms people, not the fundraiser. Not the fundraiser. And I think there is some stigma around fundraising and our discomfort with money in our society that also create some of those silos too. I’m curious what you think about that.

00:15:47 T. Clay Buck

I do think there is discomfort around money. I think a lot of fundraisers, especially fundraisers in very small shops that are relatively low or mid range salaries, I tell the story all the time. My first real fundraising job, long story, I had worked in fundraising, but I didn’t realize it was fundraising for like ten years. What you did. Oh, this is actually a career in a profession and all that. I’m in Chicago having meetings with very powerful, very wealthy people at the top of the Hancock Building in what was the Sears Tower then that a lot of them wound up in the White House. A few years ago, I literally looked up and there was a news report about some meeting under the Obama administration. And literally everybody in the meeting, because they were all Chicago people, had been on a committee for an organization that I was like, wow, okay. Here’s me making less than $30,000 a year, wearing a clearance off the rack, men’s warehouse suit and shoes from Payless that I had to go into debt to look presentable enough to walk into the room. So, yeah, there absolutely is fear and concern and all kinds of mixed up stuff about money. But it’s that phrase, I’m not the fundraiser. Where we and this is hard, it would require a lot of shift in thinking. It would require a lot of leadership in boards and CEOs and executive directors to come on board with it. But where we need to get to is that again, go back to the idea, there will always be somebody you need. There will always be somebody who wants to help our missions solve a problem in society. Solve some kind of problem. Every nonprofit exists to solve some kind of problem. Our missions don’t exist without the communities that we serve. Whatever community that may be, whether you’re an international charity and that’s the global community, or whether you’re a social service agency in a small town in a rural state, right, exist because the community has said, this is something that’s needed. Give me just a minute to go through this process, please, because this is really how I see it. And let me use the state of Nevada, where I am as kind of sample in the Attorney General’s book for nonprofits. It says in the state of Nevada, as a nonprofit organization, the trustees hold the mission in trust for the good of the people of the state of Nevada, which is why we are required to have transparency. All of that right. Our missions exist to serve our communities. It is our responsibility, it is our obligation. It is a necessary part of who we are to invite to include our communities in solving the problem, not just the wealthy people in our community, not just the foundations and corporations, but everybody has the right to go, oh, I see this problem in my community as well, and I want to be a part of it. Our job is to facilitate that right. So we hold our missions in trust. Which then means fundraising isn’t about revenue generating for the operations of the business. Fundraising is about including, inviting, welcoming, in saying, and carrying that responsibility of saying, hey, there is this problem here. And in order to solve this problem, it’s going to cost us x amount of dollars, our budget. And we’re here doing the work, we’re going to do the work, and you are invited to join with us in this work. So fundraising isn’t about being the fundraiser, meaning being the revenue generator. It is about that engagement of developing. And it’s why we’re called development, developing the relationships, developing the history, developing the organization. When a donor gives to a nonprofit, they’re helping the organization grow. They’re helping the organization fulfill the mission. All of this is interrelated. None of it is separate when it’s done well and in its pure form. And too often we go, whooping isn’t programs, fundraising isn’t organizational, fundraising isn’t finance. You fundraiser, you go out and get the money. The rest of us will do the business of the nonprofit. You go get the money. I can’t go get the money unless I know what stories are happening, what programs are doing, how they’re performing, how the problem is being solved. But we have to be somewhat literal minded about this, right? Because we have to report our numbers. I really do think that those funders that have asked, that have held us to in grants and proposals, you name it, really show your impact, show your numbers, show your metrics. What they were saying was, show us this work, show us the mission in action. It’s just as humans, we tend to get literal and it’s hard to balance that sort of vague stuff, but I think that was their intent. We just, as an industry, have so internalized it that we have all made it very literal and have pushed fundraising out to this revenue generating place.

00:21:02 Mallory Erickson

I love everything that you said there, and you are hitting on this really, I think, tender intersection. So I deeply agree with everything that you said and I think it busts open also the framework around where does fundraising happen? Where does fundraising happen? Is it behind the desk at the computer doing the data? Is it walking into a major donor meeting? Because what I hear you saying is it’s everything, it’s anything that is inviting people in, making the organization and community accessible to do the work together. Anything that improves our ability to work side by side with donors of all types is fundraising. And not just with donors, but with just humans. And so to me, that really expands, I think, the list of activities that fall under fundraising, which I definitely agree with. And I’m trying to balance, I think, to this mindset with the tactical advice because it’s reminding me of this other piece that you were talking about around the ambiguity that exists in these relationships. And I so appreciated what you shared about how many donors you’ve met with and how few of them you’ve had to ask specifically in that moment. And my guess is some fundraisers might hear that, and it could almost make them uneasy in terms of the well, then how do you know if it’s going to surprise you or if it’s going to come in not in response to something that you controlled? In that moment made me feel, as a fundraiser, like I have no control. I’m just free falling in this environment where I keep doing these relationships and then the money comes in sometimes because I ask, but some of something else. And it made me feel now I think, building my skills around sitting in ambiguity and focusing on deep connection and relationships and being more comfortable in that in my body and my brain. What you’re saying makes a lot more sense to me. But I think in my early fundraising years, it made me so uneasy to not have a checklist that could give me the answer around how I would hit my revenue goals. So can we talk about in terms of how you work with your clients or how you recommend, what does purpose driven donor relationships and management look like that hold that relationship and the financial needs and goals, like, together?

00:23:45 T. Clay Buck

So let me acknowledge and appreciate everything that you’re saying, because 100%, right? 100%. And I am by no means saying and advocating that you shouldn’t have an ask planned for each donor or just meet with people and the money will follow. Not at all. Okay, so go back to organizational budget, because I think it starts there. If we look at the organizational budget as the physical manifestation of the cost, the expense that it takes to solve this problem, the reason our organization exists is to solve this problem, and it costs this, right? It costs this amount per year to do that. Okay? So let’s articulate that. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tell this and that’s where I get to in all of this relationship. We are always open direct about stories about the people of experiencing the problem, what we do to solve the problem, and how much it costs. If a donor in very general terms, if a donor that either I meet with in person or that I send a letter to or an email to or that sees a social media post doesn’t have a general idea of this is what they do. This is how they do it, and this is how much it costs to do it. Then in one of the first interactions, then we failed, right? That is our story. Las Vegas, I use this example all the time because it makes people laugh, because it’s a funny phrase, right? Las Vegas is overrun with ravaging wombats. It’s not really Las Vegas, ravaging wombats, it’s a hilarious image, right? Las Vegas is overrun with ravaging wombats. There are millions of wombats scattered throughout Vegas, like wrecking havoc, upsetting the natural tendency and getting in the way of gamblers, right? And in order to rid Las Vegas of ravaging wombats and rescue them and send them to a place back to Australia where they belong and can be healthy, it’s going to cost us about a million dollars a year to get 500 wombats out of the city. And when we do that, we’re going to help little Joey. Little Joey could not get to his school. Every time he walked out of the door, a group of ravaging wombats would stand in front of the street and barrow and wouldn’t let him get to school. Joey is failing in life because of these ravaging bombats somewhere. These stories have to be told. This is what storytelling is about, right? What is the start of we do, and it’s true, and we need all of those techniques and strategies and absolutely and fundamentally we exist to solve a problem. The problem costs this much to solve. We’re inviting you to be a part of it. Now that gets into. So, Mallory, tell me how did you first experience? Have you had an experience with one bats or what’s your background? And we get into all that good relationship building stuff, sure. But at some point because sometimes hide behind it, like we get a little I don’t want to talk about that because they’re going to be afraid. They’re going to be afraid to ask it listen, I hate asking. I am always afraid to ask because I feel and I think this is human, right? I don’t want to bother people. I don’t want to upset them. I don’t want to offend them. Great philosopher whose advice we should heed, really and take as real fundraising guidance philosophy of Pitbull. If you know the song, then it will be stuck in your head for now. Maybe we can add a link to the show notes.

00:27:00 Mallory Erickson

My first Pit Bull quote, I’m saying.

00:27:04 T. Clay Buck

Pit bull, right? Ask for money and get advice. Ask for advice. Get money twice I meant thats true in fundraising, right? It is 100% true. Because people in general are not offended by being asked. They’re offended by being asked if you’re the type of person that only ever asks. They’re offended by being by being asked if you’re the type of fundraiser who is just constantly coming with an ask in need. Right. They’re not offended when they have a relationship with it. Think of your friends, right? Think of your closest friends. Mallory Erickson Coaching sue. The kids are just the kids are nuts today, and I’ve got 8 million things to do. I’m so sorry. I know you go to the grocery store on Tuesdays. Would you mind, please, terribly picking up a gallon of milk for me and dropping it off? Of course not. And the same thing is true in fundraising. Whether you’re doing it online, whether you’re doing it via email, whether you’re doing it in person, whatever it may be. If we’re telling the stories and engaging people, long as we’re here, I think we’re looking we’re obsessed with donor retention. We’re obsessed with donor retention. And yes, I agree, totally agree. Donor retention in the sector is a problem. And we talk a lot about the stewardship techniques and once you receive a gift, all the donor care and donor, all of that. But we’re not soliciting our gifts with the idea that they be retained.

00:28:21 Mallory Erickson

Yeah, I totally agree. I totally agree.

00:28:25 T. Clay Buck

We’re not saying this is an ongoing always problem. Today, if we raise $5,000 in this campaign, we can get rid of ten wombats, but tomorrow there’s going to be 21, you know?

00:28:33 Mallory Erickson

Yeah, I totally agree. And I think you’re hitting on some really interesting points. I think there’s this piece, something I find myself saying a lot, is being transactional does not equal talking about money. I think we think being transactional is talking about money. Being transactional is only caring about money. Talking about talking about investing. Yes, those are critical pieces of our work.

00:28:57 T. Clay Buck


00:29:00 Mallory Erickson

And they feel good when we genuinely care about more than the money. But it’s in our head, in our heart, we’re like, I just want to figure out what I can get financially from this person that is going to feel transactional. But I for a very long time thought, okay, don’t be transactional. So don’t talk about money. Bury the lead, all that stuff you were saying, don’t talk about how much something will really cost because then they’ll think you’re going to ask. And so I so appreciate everything that you said. I also really appreciate you sharing how uncomfortable asking makes you feel. Share this a lot when I speak. But I for 13 years thought I was a bad fundraiser because I was uncomfortable asking for money. And I was sure that good fundraisers felt different. Can you talk to us a little bit about what do you do maybe the five minutes before you walk in the door? What do you do the day before in terms of the donor record? Like, what are some of your habits that help build your confidence and preparation when you are walking into an ask?

00:30:09 T. Clay Buck

So my immediate reaction to that is I do as much possible research as I can and I do research not to know what their wealth is and not to know what their capacity is, although that’s helpful, but because I want to know as much about the person as I can. But see, I do this in my personal life too. It’s a great irony here because one of the greatest fears that I have as a person is embarrassing myself or getting something wrong with someone and being it wrong and saying the wrong thing to somebody. I of course, am convinced that if I say the wrong thing to somebody, then I’ve ruined my impressions and they’ll never like me. Totally screwed up our first meeting. Totally screwed it up.

00:30:55 Mallory Erickson

Oh my God. I don’t know if you’re okay with me saying this, but I just learned I share that feeling. Worrying about getting something wrong or getting an identifying factor about someone wrong or misremembering something about someone’s kids or something. That’s actually very common for people with ADHD to spread that fear and to then me, I overcompensate in other ways with having probably not enough boundaries and how I show up for people because I’m definitely going to miss your birthday and I’m definitely going to miss some text messages. And I used to compensate in these other ways. And so I really appreciate you sharing that. And I know a lot of people who are listening have different neuro divergent brains because our whole human in personhood is a part of our fundraising. It intersects with these moments.

00:31:43 T. Clay Buck

We cannot be fundraisers unless we bring our whole selves to it. We can’t because we get into vulnerabilities talking about money. We get into really ugly and difficult situations, right? We’re talking about sometimes we’re talking about people in the most. Painful, awful, worst situations of their lives. We’re dealing with a lot. And this is also where I really jump on the soapbox about fundraiser, mental health fundraiser, self care, and managing fundraisers, because it’s very easy for leadership to say, you’re just the revenue generator. Just go out there and meet with donors and get wealthy donors and blah, blah, without factoring. Look, whether you involve me or let me access programs or not, I still know what’s happening, and I know people are dying hungry in terrible situations. And unless there is something really, forgive me, wrong with you, there is no way that doesn’t affect you, and there is no way that as a fundraiser, no matter what it is, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what area you’re in, that serving the mission of need doesn’t affect you in some way. And if we don’t bring our full humanity into it, then I don’t think we’re doing the mission and the cost justice. I don’t think we’re doing the donors justice, and we certainly aren’t doing the Beneficiaries justice, neurodivergent or neurotypical. It’s just human vulnerability around things, and of course, human vulnerability about not wanting to embarrass myself, not wanting to upset people. And then the power dynamics of money, right? I mess this up, I’m going to mess up the money. If I mess up the money, I’m in trouble with my leadership, and the Beneficiaries don’t get served. It’s a double whammy. It’s a lot. And I don’t think our leadership recognizes that enough, and I don’t think we accept that about ourselves enough that we need to recharge. We need to anyway, I’m on a tangent, but your question was about right knowing everything that I can possibly know, but because I’m going to sit in a meeting, and after discovery, I’ve found that you have this love of horses or whatever, and I’m going to go, so tell me about horses. Right? Like, how do you know that isn’t prospect research creepy? That is, if I show up and go, hey, Mallory, so I know you’ve got $9 million in an investment account with Public. Like, yeah, that’s weird. Do that. But, Mallory, love to get to know you for a minute. What are you interested in, and how are you connected to us? How did you connect with even if I know, tell me again how you got connected with Rabbit and Wandback charities or whatever it may be. Because, look, everything has to be grounded in that mission. Everything has to be grounded in that mission. If we’re diverging from having conversations about the mission, we’re doing our job wrong and unethically. I’d argue there’s another thing. Building relationships is not about building relationships between the fundraiser and the donor. It is about building the relationship between the donor and the mission and the beneficiary. Period. That’s what you’re there for. You’re just a conduit.

00:34:39 Mallory Erickson

Okay, so I want to double click on this and ask a tactical question here because I’m so glad that you said that. And to me that probably has some ways materializes in donor records that in terms of the type of information that a fundraiser is capturing in a meeting and then ultimately putting inside a donor record and what they should be prioritizing in terms of identifiers that are important for connection and research, but also ensuring that they’re really capturing the alignment points between the person and the organization. So can you talk about that a little bit?

00:35:20 T. Clay Buck

Yeah, because I’m also thinking about how you do that, capturing visit notes and major gifts and moose management and all that. But I’m also thinking about how do you do that at scale, in annual fund, in direct mail, in digital, et cetera. The things that matter most are the things that connect the donor to the organization. Just like we ask programs to do and just like we do with Mission and Beneficiaries. Let’s capture the same stories from donors. Mallory today we had a terrific lunch. She prefers chicken, she’s allergic to fish. And the reason why she connected to us is because as a kid, she was beat up by a woman bat every day on her way to school. I don’t know, wombat. It’s just a silly word, right? She was beat up by a wombat on her way to school every day and she vowed at a young age that she never let that happen to anybody else. To college. She got started her business and it drifted away from it. And then when she saw our ad on Facebook, reached out and asked to volunteer, whatever it may be. So that because we need to manage every donor relationship as if we’re going to win the lottery and leave the organization tomorrow. Because what we want is the person after us to be able to pick right up where we left off. And this happens all the time. And this is why there is so much turnover and so much change, because every new funder that comes in has to surf from scratch.

00:36:38 Mallory Erickson

And I know it might feel or it could have felt to some people, even with my last question. That is like a very elementary question. But I will be honest to say that I have inherited donor records that were totally about the personal relationship between the fundraiser and the donor, and there were literally no connection points that I could really draw on, other than saying it sounds like you and So had so much in common when it came to blank. I don’t do that, but I do this.

00:37:15 T. Clay Buck

I inherited one that was a multimillion dollar, multi millions dollar, multi year pledge. There was no gift agreement in place, there were no notes in the system. This was a very well known person in the community that I was in. There was a lot of knowledge when I called and said I’m their replacement. I had been there for three months, four months. And their first words took me long enough to call us because I had to spend four months getting caught up to figure out what was what and literally walked into the meeting going, I’m sorry I don’t have any notes. Please forgive me if I’m covering ground that’s already been covered, but I would love just to get to know you. Which they were very kind about, but they also expressed some frustrations. Okay, we’ve done this. Fundamentally, the relationship is not with us. The relationship is with the organization, with the Beneficiary.

00:38:05 T. Clay Buck
Mallory it just impressed on me, and I sort of need to name this despite the fact that it leads into some tricky, perhaps controversial waters. And you smile as if to say, yes, bring it on, or dear God, what is he going to say? And are we all going to get in trouble with who? And if I get in trouble for it, then I get in trouble for it. But I’ll continue to say it and gladly have the discussion. Fundamentally, this is what both pure donor centered fundraising and community centered fundraising are saying. The divergence between the two, the conflict between those two theories is in the execution. Right. Donor centered fundraising was never about prioritizing wealth, donor dominance, ETCA. Same thing in community centered fundraising. Community centered fundraising, there’s never been. And what I’ve seen implemented there is we do community centered now, so we don’t talk about our beneficiaries. We just list all of the accomplishments that we’ve done in the community and the statistics that’s that community centered fundraising. I really think fundamentally, both of those in fact, all theories of fundraising are trying to come to the same place that donor mission, Beneficiary, all of this working together, does the donor make the mission? Does the donor make the mission have it? No, but without their money, we can’t do the mission. So in a way, yeah, but let’s talk about that in our relationships. Let’s talk about putting the donor on par with the program people that are out in the community, the programs people that are doing stuff. Let’s tell the stories of our programs people to our donors. Hey, this is Jack. Jack is a wombat wrangler. Jack goes out there every day and puts himself on the line because any minute now he could be consumed by how adorable these darn wombats are and lay on the ground and scratch their bellies and eat them food all day. And then we still have ravaging. Womanbats right, but Jack is out there every day getting wandbacks and getting them to a safe environment. And he’s doing that because you made this gift. So it’s like you and Jack are out there together ticking warm bats.

00:40:16 Mallory Erickson

So I was never formally trained in donor centric fundraising. And so what I mean is that I can’t speak to sort of history of the founding of the ideology, but I do see ultimately what has happened to the practices that are considered generous centric, and that labeling. And I think maybe one of the issues, and perhaps I’m wrong here, is that a strategy or a theory or a methodology was rolled out without acknowledgement of power dynamics. And so it just pretended that the relationship was just objective relationship. As opposed to the fact that there are all of these layers of influence and persuasion and power and ownership and direction that are tied to money unless they are given with an increase in transparency and clarity around the fact that they do not come with those things that like money does not come with power. That the money is to serve this mission. It is allocated and decided upon by the community. This is what happened. And so what’s really interesting to me about what you said, I agree that some of the strategies that fall under donor centric fundraising are important human design strategies. Like, I did this really interesting interview recently with a behavioral designer, and she said he tests how humans respond to certain things. Sometimes those tests give us an inconvenient truth about how humans respond to things. And there are some really inconvenient truths about donor behavior. The fact that people respond better when there’s 100% model in the email, or they respond better when they have more direction around the impact that their money is going, those are inconvenient human behavioral truths. What I appreciate about what you’re saying is, and that you and I have had this conversation offline too, like, hey, where are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? In terms of I don’t want community centric fundraising organizations to lose all the human design elements that have once been referred to as owner centric strategies. And I think they have to be looked at in the context of understanding, because this goes to the piece that you and I have been talking about, which is that there’s a conversation that happens between the fundraiser and the donor, and there’s a whole conversation that is happening but not being said out loud. And it’s that conversation, the things we’re not saying, the things we’re not being transparent about, the things we’re avoiding bringing into the conversation.

00:43:19 T. Clay Buck

There you go.

00:43:20 Mallory Erickson

That, to me, is what’s created the issue.

00:43:25 T. Clay Buck

I completely agree. Forgive me. It’s also the very linear minded, literal minded approach to tactics when we try to be all logical and factual and non human about it, that we lose the impact. Let’s just touch on gratitude, right? Let’s just touch on gratitude. So the neuroscience of gratitude. There are neuroscientific studies that explain why it’s hard for us to express gratitude. And there’s a number of reasons why. There’s personal biases, right? We assume they know we’re grateful. There is the access to vulnerability. In order to say thank you, I have to admit that I was less than ambient need. And then there’s the conditioning to it telling Betsy you’re grateful for the ugly sweater, so you told me a lot not to lie, but now you’re telling me a lot. So all of these biases come forward, and a handwritten thank you note will raise more money and improve retention rate. Okay. I have arthritis in my hands. I am the only person that can do this here. I can’t do a handwritten note, and we tend to get very literal minded on these things. So yeah. Okay. Studies showed that a handwritten note will improve retention rate. Okay. Does that mean that a mass produced letter that’s personalized is going to raise less? I don’t know. You test it for your, but implement any of these tactics with the humanity and the style of your organization. The intent is get it out of the transactional. Dear Mallory, thank you for your gift of $50. You can include use this enclosed letter as a receipt for your taxes. Okay? I know we’re supposed to do that because the IRS, but dear Mallory, thank you so much. Because of you, Jack got another day out in the field. We’ll let him know that you’re behind him, cheering him on with your support. It means so much. By the way, we received your $50. We put it to work right away. You can use this to receipt if you need to. Let’s bring the humanity back in and as much as we can while still hitting our numbers in our metrics. And that’s the hard part. That is the hard part. While still hitting the numbers and the metrics that we need to bring the humanity back and be balanced with this donor, I don’t need to put an asking for because I am confident in the conversation. I am confident with what they are. I am confident in what I have provided to them and that they know this donor over here. Now I’m going to have to tell them exactly right, what we need and bringing that humanity in. And let’s acknowledge how hard that is, really, truly, because it does require that balance and that split focus and that.

00:46:05 Mallory Erickson

And it requires a level of wellness in the fundraiser to be able to access that. Like, we cannot perform humanly if we aren’t allowed to be our human selves.

00:43:24 T. Clay Buck

100%. That goes to as it always does, that goes to leadership. And how do we get that to board? How do we get that to the CEOs and executive directors? The only way that I know to do it is to be the leader from where you are. To advocate for yourself, to continue to stand up for yourself, add boundaries. I didn’t do it. Good lord. Some of the stuff that I hear today, I’m like never have said that to a donor. Yeah, we should have. We should have. My bosses then. Should have. Right. But okay, we learned we grow up. It’s not a perfect answer, I know, but the main thing is same place where I started. If we can come to the belief that all giving is good, that all people want to be a part of things that do good, and if we can build our systems and our infrastructure structure and our approach to honoring the mission and inviting people who want to be a part of it to be a part of it, then I think we continue to move the needle towards success and to doing the important work that we all want to do.

00:47:27 Mallory Erickson

Perfect way to end this. 

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