Fundraising Success: The Road Less Valued

I began noticing the disparities early in my fundraising career. Much of the fundraising advice shared at professional conferences did not seem to accurately reflect what I was experiencing with donors. I began asking myself if the seemingly ill-suited advice was:

  • Celebrating the fundraiser more than the donor?
  • Specific to the particular institution or culture where it was practiced?
  • Representative of only the rarest successes?
  • Too reductive in attempting to turn complex, nonlinear interactions into simple formulas?

I resolved to place more trust in what I was learning from my interactions with donors than much of the advice being dispensed in conferences, by consultants, in trade periodicals, and popular texts at the time.

The less I thought about fundraising strategies and tactics, and the more I studied philanthropy, the more successful I and my operations became. I sought to understand the big questions below, by learning from each donor I met with then looking for commonalities across donor groups.

The more I unleashed my curiosity, the more donors enjoyed being with me, and the closer we became.

When I began sharing what I learned at conferences, I was nervous. I knew my observations would be challenging long-held assumptions and established technique. But the more I spoke to my experience, the more heads began to nod, and the more people came up after my talks to thank me for validating their experience.

I never thought about fundraising technique. I simply observed, looking for what form philanthropy was taking in each prospect I met with and at what stage of self-discovery they were in. I tried to come alongside them in their journey and guide them to where they wanted to go. They said I made it easy to give. I couldn’t understand why we had made it so hard.

While we have more knowledge at our disposal than when I started, we still don’t have complete answers to the questions below. They won’t be provided by AI. The only way we will get closer to the big truths – and thereby better at fundraising – is by listening to donors and by comparing what we have learned. There’s nothing artificial about that kind of intelligence.

The Big Questions That Lead to Greater Fundraising Success
  • Why are some people philanthropic, some not?
  • Why do some give so generously within their means?
  • Why do some give only for specific purposes such as arts, medicine, religion or education?
  • How do people make philanthropic decisions, what processes do they follow, what information do they review?
  • What are they hoping to achieve with their giving?
  • What gives them their greatest satisfaction?
  • What has proven discouraging or disillusioning?
  • Do they have greater philanthropic aspirations or a desire to do more with their lives?


Jim Langley is the president of Langley Innovations. Langley Innovations provides a range of services to its clients to help them understand the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy and the psychology of donors and, with that knowledge, to develop the most effective strategies and tactics to build broader and more lasting communities of support. Jim has authored numerous books including his most recent book, The Future of Fundraising: Adapting to New Philanthropic Realities, published by Academic Impressions in 2020. 


Related Resources:

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scott Talbot
1 year ago

This is excellent! Fundraising is not about technique. It’s about serving people. The better we become at listening, caring, and serving, the better outcomes we will see in our fundraising efforts–not because we made the money the priority, but rather because we made the donor the priority.

Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!