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Relationship Fundraising

Building better relationships with donors, v2.0 and beyond

Since Ken Burnett first articulated the idea of ‘relationship fundraising’ in 1992 it has become probably the dominant philosophy of fundraising practice. And yet there is remarkably little theory about relationship building and maintenance that underpins or informs how fundraisers should apply relationship fundraising in their day-to-day work, or in fact, very much beyond anecdotal evidence that relationship fundraising actually works (although we know that it does).

To attempt to build this theoretical foundation, we published in 2016 a four-volume exploration of the theory behind relationship fundraising and how this could be further applied to fundraising. So if we think of Burnett’s original concept as Relationship Fundraising 1.0, this would be v2.0.

In a project jointly funded by US donor management software company Bloomerang and American fundraising agency Pursuant, we set out to identify academic theories that fundraisers can use to further enhance the donor experience, and recommends ways in which relationship fundraising could ‘refashion’ itself.

The four-volume report, Relationship Fundraising: Where Do We Go From Here, can be dowloaded below.

The first volume in the project examines the evidence for relationship marketing in the commercial sector and assesses whether, and under what circumstances, this can be transferred to fundraising, or if there are times when transactional approaches are appropriate.

Volume 2 explores how fundraisers can utilize and adapt current and emerging theories in social psychology to build better relationships that help meet their donors’ needs.

Leading relationship fundraising practitioners from around the world describe current trends in relationship fundraising and outline some of the key challenges they think it faces, and what the profession needs to do to meet those challenges.

The final volume summarizes the findings from volumes 1-3 and recommends future directions that relationship fundraising could take.

Main conclusions

  1. A choice between relationship fundraising and ‘good old fashioned’ customer care

  2. When to focus on the donor; when to focus on the beneficiary

  3. Use academic theory from social psychology to meet donor needs

  4. Focus on commitment, trust and satisfaction 

  5. ‘Total relationship fundraising’ and building a ‘culture of philanthropy’.

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More information

  • Read a summary of the project's main conclusions. 

  • Read the press release announcing the publication of the final reports.

Relationship fundraising: where next and what next? 

We started by wondering ‘where do we go from here’ and to decide where we might want to go, we had to get the best picture of where we actually were – that was the point of our original four volume review. The obvious next step is to try to answer that question and identify suitable next steps or new directions for relationship fundraising.

Barriers to RF

What gets in the way of good relationship fundraising?


New directions
for RF

What new concepts could add to or replace RF?


Community-centric  fundraising

The new movement challenging donor-centred principles


Ethics of relationship fundraising


There are many ethical considerations and issues concerning relationship – or donorcentred – fundraising, and ‘donorcentrism’ is one of the main normative ethical theories of fundraising we have identified in our work on fundraising ethics.

Ethics is present in all our work on relationship fundraising: Rights Balancing Fundraising Ethics is essentially about how fundraisers can balance their duties to donors with those to their beneficiaries; while it is highly pertinient to our work on ‘donor dominance’.

Some of the ethical/philosophical questions that arise from it can be found in this selection of articles on the Critical Fundraising Blog

  • The donorcentricity debate.

  • Donorcentrism – all things to all fundraisers, part 1. What is it?

  • Donorcentrism – all things to all fundraisers, part 2. What could go wrong?

  • Donor dominance: Are donors ‘taking liberties’ – or worse – in their relationships with fundraisers?

  • The donor is always right, part 1 – is being a donor the same thing as being a consumer

  • The donor is always right, part 2 – does it lead to donor correctness gone mad?

Our ideas on relationship fundraising have been presented at national conferences in the USA, England and New Zealand, at the IFC in the Netherlands, and in many regional conferences and webinars.

We are enormously grateful for the support of Bloomerang and Pursuant for making this review possible.

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