How major gifts fundraisers should introduce themselves to donors

The universal hero story is attractive. This “monomyth” is “hard-wired into our psyches.”[1] In the donor’s hero story, the donor’s role as hero is compelling. But the same is true for the fundraiser’s role. The sage guides the hero in the epic journey. This, too, is an attractive, archetypal character.

A need for translation

The monomyth role of the hero’s guiding sage can inform the fundraiser’s work. It can build the fundraiser’s occupational ideology.[2] It can direct the fundraiser’s emotions and career. This can happen when the fundraiser personally adopts this role. But how can this story role be introduced to the public? How can we make them understand?

Suppose the person sitting next to you on a plane asks, “What do you do?” You can’t very well answer, “I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi.” So, what is the right answer? The answer starts by understanding a fundamental problem. “What do you do?” is not an easy question for a stigmatized occupation.

A tricky question

“What do you do?” For the baker or the candlestick maker, the answer is simple. But if your job is stigmatized, answering this question is a problem.

Suppose you work as a slaughterhouse inspector. You like your job. You know it serves an important function in society. But you also know the likely reaction when you tell people what you do. You feel the squirm. You sense the pushback.

After a while, this gets tiresome.

“What do you do?” Answering this question is a problem for stigmatized occupations. What’s the typical response? Often, it’s to avoid giving a clear answer. Researchers explain, “In socially stigmatized jobs … employees may be reluctant to share their titles.”[3]

Often the title itself is made ambiguous for outsiders. “Slaughterhouse inspector” isn’t an actual job title. The actual title is “environmental health officer.” A garbage collector becomes a “sanitation engineer,” and so forth.

A tricky question for fundraisers

Fundraisers also face job stigma. One fundraiser shared, “I just did a training session for our faculty … and I asked the question, ‘how many of you see fundraising as begging?’ and, you know, there were hands that went up.”[4]

Matching other stigmatized jobs, fundraisers often avoid clear job titles.[5] In the U.S., most use ambiguous words like “development” or “institutional advancement.”[6] For outsiders, this obscures the job. Normal people don’t use these words. For insiders, this portrays the job as advancing administrator goals. The job is to help the institution, not the donor.

This ambiguity goes beyond titles. One study found that fundraisers, “discussed avoiding using the term fundraiser in their interpersonal interactions.”[7]

One fundraiser in the study explained, “‘fundraiser,’ … I don’t like that name … if I were on a gameshow and they introduced me at Jeopardy I would probably say I’m a university administrator.”[8]

Of course, concealment isn’t the only approach. Some aggressively lead with the traditional stigmatized title. One former fundraiser explained that she would tell new acquaintances, “I raise money for [the university]. That’s what I tell people. Because I got tired of, everybody at [the university] used to apologize for it and that drove me crazy.”[9]

However, this frontal approach can generate undesirable reactions. Another fundraiser writes, “When responding to the question ‘So what do you do?’ with ‘I’m a fundraiser. I ask people for money.’ There’s silence, then confusion, then ‘I could never do that,’ or ‘Do you get paid to do that?’ No one says: ‘That must be interesting,’ or, ‘I’ll bet you get to meet lots of fascinating people.’”[10]

The hunt for a magic job title

Is it possible to address fundraiser stigma with a better job title? Is there a magic job title that is universally attractive to donors? I set out to answer this question in a series of experiments.[11]

I started by collecting as many fundraiser job titles as I could get. At one national fundraising conference, I gave away free copies of my book on charitable gift planning.[12] The only catch was that to get the book, attendees had to give me their business cards. I’m sure they thought I was going to spam them with sales material. But I’m just a professor. I don’t sell anything. Instead, my goal was to collect as many fundraiser job titles as I could find.

In total, I tested 71 different job titles with over 3,000 respondents. To keep the comparison simple, I changed all titles to “Director of ____” or “Chief ____ Officer.”

The worst

First, I measured people’s willingness to contact a charity employee about making a gift of stock. What was the worst performing title? Director of Advancement. Second worst? Chief Advancement Officer. Also in the bottom ten were,

  • Director of Development
  • Chief Development Officer
  • Director of Institutional Advancement, and
  • Chief Institutional Advancement Officer.

In other words, the most common job titles got the worst response. This result was true for both men and women. It was true for older and younger people. It was true for minor donors (<$1,000), moderate donors ($1,000+), and major donors ($10,000+).

It was true for giving stock. It was true for giving real estate. It was true for giving in a will. It was true for a charitable gift annuity. Across all donation scenarios, nine of the ten worst-performing job titles included the words “advancement” or “development.”[13]

The best

What worked? The top titles signaled that the employee offered donors

  • Guidance
  • Advice, or
  • Planning.

For example, “Director of Donor Guidance” and “Director of Donor Advising” were in the top ten. In fact, every one of the top ten job titles included some variation of “guidance,” “advising,” or “planning.”

This was true across all four types of giving combined. It was true for both men and women. It was true for older and younger people. It was true for minor donors (<$1,000), moderate donors ($1,000+), and major donors ($10,000+).

Consider the universal hero story. What function does the hero’s guiding sage provide in the monomyth? What service did Obi-Wan Kenobi, Morpheus, or Gandalf the Grey provide for the hero? Guidance. Advice. Planning. What are donors seeking when considering a significant donation? Guidance. Advice. Planning.

Was there a “magic” job title? No. Instead, there were multiple expressions of a magic concept. That concept is this: I help donors. I give donors wise guidance, expert planning, and sage advice. The archetypal guiding-sage character attracts donors. It’s what donors want.

Flip the script

“What do you do?” The fundraiser as the donor-hero’s guiding sage is a new story. The new story suggests a new answer to this question.

Instead of leading with,

  • Secret code words (development)
  • Allegiance to administrators (institutional advancement), or
  • What they wanted to get from donors (fundraiser),

What if fundraisers led with what they offered to donors? In a traditional fundraising worldview, this is ridiculous. The job is to get from donors. It’s not to benefit donors. But this changes when the goal becomes to advance the donor’s hero story.

The underlying benefit is guidance, advice, and planning. The description can differ depending on the fundraiser’s focus. It can be as simple as, “I work for [charity name]. My job is to show our donors how to give smarter.”

In complex giving, it might emphasize practical benefits. For example,

  • “I teach our donors how to get special tax benefits.”
  • “I show our donors how to make gifts that pay them income for life.”
  • “I help people donate weird assets.”

Each of these encourages follow-up questions. They start a conversation. If that’s not the goal, the answer might be simply, “I help donors plan out their gifts and the impact they want to make.”

An example conversation

What might such a conversation sound like? It might start with,

Q: So, what do you do?

A: I work for [charity name]. My job is to show our donors how to give smarter.

Q: How do you do that?

A: I help our donors plan their gifts to make the impact that’s most meaningful for them. We work through what they care about. We discuss what’s been important in their lives. Then we connect that with possible projects that reflect their values and fit into their life story. This lets them use their money in a way that’s more meaningful than just consuming more stuff.

… Are there any causes that have been important in your life?[14]

… What was it that connected you to that cause?

Notice how this response leads with benefit. The benefit is, “how to give smarter.” In experiments, this phrase dramatically increases interest in learning more.[15] It creates curiosity for a longer explanation.

The explanation then describes benefits in simple, helpful terms. This person is an advisor. She’s a guide. She’s like a personal shopper.[16] Next, it touches on a deeper level of benefit. She helps provide meaning beyond just consuming more stuff.

Then things get really interesting. The fundraiser starts to play that role for the listener. This is powerful. Whenever the listener plays along, it provides “free” practice at donor mentoring. The fundraiser is guiding with appreciative inquiry. She is engaging in “Socratic fundraising.”[17] She may even hear a life story that connects strongly with a project at her own charity. By her conversation she is, in fact, fundraising.

Challenging the new identity

But what if the listener challenges this new identity? For example,

CHALLENGE: So, you’re a fundraiser. You ask people for money.

RESPONSE: Sometimes. It depends on the donor’s goals. I’m just there to bring them ideas. Sometimes that means a gift. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that means a gift to another charity. It’s mostly about thinking creatively to build interesting options.

This deflects the challenge by

  1. Partially confirming. (“Sometimes.”)
  2. Addressing the aversive stereotype of a “fundraiser” as a pushy “money getter.” (“It depends on the donor’s goals.”)
  3. Restating the donor benefit. (“I’m just there to bring them ideas.”)

The rest repeats the same points in more detail. The benefit description – “ideas” or “creative options” – encourages asking for examples. That opens another door for donor guidance.

Let me share a story

Sharing an example of a creative gift can lead to donor mentoring. In experiments, reading a heroically-framed donor story changes attitudes about giving.[18] This is especially true whenever listeners feel that the donor in the story is like them.[19] When asked for an example of a creative option, a response might sound like this:

“I worked with one donor who is about your age. You actually remind me of her. Maybe because you both work with finances.” [Listener is like the donor.]

“In talking with her I learned that she wouldn’t have been able to go to college without help from her late grandmother.” [Guiding sage elicits life story.]

“I also learned that she wanted to give others that same chance at an education.” [Guiding sage elicits goal.]

“I shared the idea of creating a permanent endowed scholarship. It would be dedicated for women studying financial planning. And it would be named in honor of her grandmother.” [Guiding sage provides creative option connecting with life story.]

“She loved the idea.” [Donor hero affirms value.]

“But the $250,000 minimum cost was too much for her.” [Donor hero experiences conflict.]

“So, I suggested that she create a ‘virtual’ endowment.[20] She donates the $12,000 annual payout for students now. But she also added a gift in her will that funds the full endowment principal. That way the scholarship named for her grandmother starts right away. And it’s still a permanent fund.” [Guiding sage provides creative option.]

“I love to see how she connects with these young women now. Their lives have been changed because of her giving. And I think they have a special place in her heart because of her own journey.” [Donor hero experiences victory.]

Notice how this example tells a story. It includes backstory, goal, conflict, victory, and resolution. In it, the fundraiser serves as the donor-hero’s guiding sage. The fundraiser provides value. The fundraiser suggests creative ideas. The fundraiser provides flexible solutions.

The story describes the fundraiser’s job. But it also begins a donor-mentoring process. The listener identifies with the donor in the story. The listener hears of a gift connecting with the donor’s

  • Life story
  • Family
  • Career, and
  • Values.

The listener learns six novel gift concepts:

  1. Virtual
  2. Permanent
  3. Named
  4. Scholarship
  5. Honoring a loved one
  6. For students in the donor’s field.

The listener discovers the value provided by this skilled guiding sage.

One story, many applications

The underlying story is primal. The fundraiser is a guiding sage. She helps to advance the donor along the hero’s journey. But this primal role is introduced gently. The fundraiser’s job description leads with donor benefit. The fundraiser provides a valuable service to the donor. This idea is shared through simple words and stories.

There are, of course, many variations of this core concept. It’s not about one magical description. It’s not about one magical title. It’s about translating the fundraiser’s archetypal monomyth role into simple terms of donor benefit. That translation can be expressed in many creative ways. But the underlying story stays the same.


This new story role works. The fundraiser serves as the donor-hero’s advisor, sage, and guide. The fundraiser helps the donor. Introducing this new role may require side-stepping the stigma of the old role. It may require new descriptions. It may require new conversations.

But when this new role is translated into simple, practical terms, it is powerful. It is attractive for donors. It can be inspirational for fundraisers. It can lead to gifts that are transformational for charities and for donors.

But with this power, comes temptation …

[1] Pressfield, S. (2016). Nobody wants to read your sh*t and other tough-love truths to make you a better writer. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. p. 68.

[2] Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434, p. 414. (“Occupational ideologies reframe, recalibrate, and refocus the meaning of [stigmatized] work.”)

[3] Grant, A. M., Berg, J. M., & Cable, D. M. (2014). Job titles as identity badges: How self-reflective titles can reduce emotional exhaustion. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1201-1225. p. 1201

[4] Meisenbach, R. J., Rick, J. M., & Brandhorst, J. K. (2019). Managing occupational identity threats and job turnover: How former and current fundraisers manage moments of stigmatized identities. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 29(3), 383-399. p. 392.

[5] Id. p. 392

[6] James, R. N., III. (2016). Testing the effectiveness of fundraiser job titles in charitable bequest and complex gift planning. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 27(2), 165-179.

[7] Meisenbach, R. J., Rick, J. M., & Brandhorst, J. K. (2019). Managing occupational identity threats and job turnover: How former and current fundraisers manage moments of stigmatized identities. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 29(3), 383-399. p. 392

[8] Id. p. 391

[9] Id. p. 393

[10] Perdue, P. E. (2014). May I cultivate you? Careers in fundraising. Petar Publishing. p. 3.

[11] James, R. N., III. (2016). Testing the effectiveness of fundraiser job titles in charitable bequest and complex gift planning. Nonprofit Management and Leadership. 27(2), 165-179.

[12] You can download a free copy here:

[13] The tenth-worst performing title was the only one that didn’t include “advancement” or “development”. But it wasn’t even a fundraiser title. It was simply Chief Executive Officer. This result just reflects the idea that donors wouldn’t normally contact the nonprofit’s CEO for help with making a gift.

[14] See testing of this phrase in, James, R. N., III. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.

[15] For experimental results testing the level of interest generated by this phrase, see James, R. N., III. (2018). Creating understanding and interest in charitable financial and estate planning: An experimental test of introductory phrases. Journal of Personal Finance, 17(2), 9-21.

[16] Since this book series started with a reference to the movie City Slickers, I’ll say this is a bit like the role of the brothers who could select the precisely correct ice cream pairing for any meal.

[17] James, R. N., III. (2018). Increasing charitable donation intentions with preliminary importance ratings. International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing, 15(3), 393-411. See also, Book IV in this series, The Socratic Fundraiser: Using Questions to Advance the Donor’s Hero Story

[18] James, R. N., III., & Routley, C. (2016). We the living: The effects of living and deceased donor stories on charitable bequest giving intentions. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21(2), 109-117.

[19] See e.g., Agerström, J., Carlsson, R., Nicklasson, L., & Guntell, L. (2016). Using descriptive social norms to increase charitable giving: The power of local norms. Journal of Economic Psychology, 52, 147-153; James, R. N., III. (2019). Using donor images in marketing complex charitable financial planning instruments: An experimental test with charitable gift annuities. Journal of Personal Finance, 18(1), 65-73.

[20] See, e.g., University of Wisconsin Foundation (2012, June 1). The virtual endowment. [Website].



Related Resources:


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

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