Why do Nonprofits Give Their Staff Such Terrible Titles?

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Greg Warner is CEO and Founder of MarketSmart, a revolutionary marketing software and services firm that helps nonprofits raise more for less. In 2012 Greg coined the phrase “Engagement Fundraising” to encapsulate his breakthrough fundraising formula for achieving extraordinary results. Using their own innovative strategies and technologies, MarketSmart helps fundraisers around the world zero in on the donors most ready to support their organizations and institutions with major and legacy gifts.

fundraiserI have always felt that the word “fundraiser” stinks!

As a donor, I feel like “fundraiser” screams “salesperson”. When a fundraiser calls me, I know I better hold on to my wallet and my checkbook.

The staff titles nonprofits use are pretty stinky too. 

Do you really think the average person feels comfortable when they read these titles below?

  • Gift Officer (will I get arrested if I don’t give?)
  • Director or Vice President of:
  • Institutional Advancement (surely the worst of the bunch)
  • Charitable Estate Planning
  • Real Estate Gifting
  • Gift Planning
  • Estate & Gift Planning
  • Planned Giving & Estate Administration
  • Trusts, Estates & Gift Planning
  • Charitable Estate Planning
  • Trusts & Estates
  • Donor Relations
  • Advancement
  • Development & Marketing
  • Institutional Advancement (surely the worst of the bunch)
  • Development
  • Advancement Development
  • Business Development
  • Executive
  • External Relations
  • Donor Ombudsman

Rather, I prefer (although I’ve never seen anyone use these) “Donor Engagement Facilitator”, “Mission Engagement Facilitator”, or simply “Engagement Facilitator”.  Those titles sound more inviting to me. In fact, I actually came up with these titles when I handed a fundraiser a check for $1,000 last year.

My titles above makes me feel like I can easily get engaged with the nonprofit’s mission if I call that person… instead of being asked for money from a fundraiser or Director of Advancement.

Who says that you have to continue using those same old stodgy, confusing, and often meaningless titles anyway? I think they make donors feel uncomfortable.  Donating to charity is a “familial” act (of, relating to, or occurring in a family or its members). It’s a social act. The nonprofit titles above don’t have an ounce of emotion. Yuck!

People want to engage first, then they’ll give. Change your titles and I bet you’ll raise more money.

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35 responses to “Why do Nonprofits Give Their Staff Such Terrible Titles?”

  1. Lisa Chmiola says:

    Interesting…Dr. Russell James includes this line of thinking in his latest research presentation too! My vote is we should be Philanthropy Officers 🙂

  2. When I was an “Asst.Vice President for University Advancement” at Calif. State Univ, Sacramento….the daily newspaper picked up my husband’s shorter title for me… “Dean for the Green” 🙂
    Last week the Monterey Elks Lodge asked me if I would serve as their Public Affairs chair for this coming year and I sure… “now all the Elks Affairs can be Public”… they didn’t get it 🙂 I’m using the title Public Relations… that may be a LITTLE better…you know..cousins, aunts etc.
    Really glad you’re discussing this,Greg…would love a non-threatening, universal title but doubt we’ll ever agree on it… but titles like “Advancement Officer” doesn’t sound quite as pushy, to me… and Engagement sounds like a wedding date needs to be set… tough choices!

  3. Greg Warner says:

    Maybe we should ask the supporters what they think.

  4. Kelley R.J. Tetzlaff says:

    It is excellent that you bring this topic to the forefront. I agree the whole discussion of titles is blown way out of proportion and gets blown completely out of bounds.
    Personally, I am fine with the term fundraising and fundraiser. I am of the opinion that is what we do, it clearly explains to the donor what our focus is and I am all about simplicity. Then again, I also believe that being a fundraiser or- a salesperson for that matter- are honorable professions! I know not every one agrees however!
    At any rate, I clearly agree that many of the manipulations of titles that have been put into use are not necessary and maybe. . . dare I say, attempts to cover up what we really do as “fundraisers”? Which is of course, to find people who care about the mission of our organization, build connections and relationships and facilitate their supporting our organization’s in various ways- which include funding?
    Just my humble opinion. Certainly a topic of passionate and varied thoughts and opinions!

  5. Susan Blackman says:

    Great evaluation. I think you’re spot on. Thanks.

  6. Ely Santoni says:

    I need help in coming up with a strategy for planned giving donors that live in Florida. Some of them are snowbirds and spend time in NJ where I work. Many of my Florida prospects refuse to give me meetings. We have about 3000 prospects/donors alumni in Florida. Do you have any good suggestions!

  7. Eugene Fram says:

    Great post. Please add Executive Director to the list. Should be President/CEO!! See link:
    http://non-profit-management-dr-fram.com/2014/03/30/whats-in-a-name-benefits-of-the-presidentceo-title-revised-updated/ Board External.

  8. I work for a hospice nonprofit, our Donor Relations Manager often got calls about organ donations…

  9. Roger Ellison says:

    Greg, at your suggestion I looked into the titles you created/liked. I am sorry, but I think they are absolutely horrible. I would hate to go to the home of an older friend of the organization I represent and tell them I am the Donor Engagement Facilitator. “You are WHAT?” “Who in the world came up with than name?” “Tell me what in the world/hell that is supposed to mean.”

    • marketsmart says:

      Wow Roger, you almost sound angry about it. Harsh words. “Absolutely horrible.”
      Well, I’d just like to respectfully remind you that a fundraiser’s donor-facing title should be developed for the donor, not the fundraiser. In other words, although you clearly have an opinion on the matter, what you think shouldn’t really matter.
      I hope you’ll at least ask your donors what they think about them before completely overruling the ideas. If you won’t do that, you’ll never really know whether the title is horrible or not. Again, your opinion shouldn’t really matter.
      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion though.

  10. marketsmart says:

    Oh, one other thing… let’s not forget that a fundraiser’s role is to help donors get engaged and to facilitate their giving. I cannot imagine a donor preferring something like “Director of Institutional Advancement” over “Donor Engagement Facilitator.” The former is all about the employee and the organization. The later is all about the donor. Donor-centricity is the key here.
    Thanks again for your contribution though. It’s great to hear a variety of opinions.

  11. Lisa Aubin says:

    I would love to know if anyone has changed their title to one of these and what the results have been. I think development means nothing to our donors and is confusing – I’ve had friends who thought it meant the same as a developer of land/buildings, etc.

  12. Matt Bregman says:

    After reading the first part of this (via LinkedIn), the title that came to my mind was “Vice President for Supporter Engagement.” So I was tickled to see that that closely aligned with the suggestions here.
    I agree that we should consider overhauling these titles. “Development” is a euphemism and creates a sense of dreary confusion. We fundraisers are most successful when we engage our supporters with creativity, consistency and sincerity, so perhaps the new title would help us focus more energy on that element of what we do. And it just might make people less reluctant to sit next to us at dinners!

  13. Jake says:

    Interesting thoughts here on titles. I agree that some titles can be a bit crass. I spent some time in sales years ago doing B2B web hosting and bandwidth for Qwest before they merged with US West and I used to call and say “Hi, I’m Jake and I’m a salesman with Qwest just peddling some bandwidth. Are you in the market for bandwidth? If not, can I send you an email and when you are looking in the future, would you give me a chance to win your business?” People loved that I was very forward about being a salesperson. They would tell me about how people would try to be sneaky about what their real purpose was, etc. I got a lot of calls back in future months because they knew that I was going to be straight forward.
    Just another perspective to consider. A straight forward approach might be good. (obviously though not suggesting a title like “Jake, Getting your kids inheritance for a great cause.”) 🙂

  14. Virginia says:

    Maybe the disagreements here reflect, in part, the differences in the way we see our profession. Are we strengthening individuals’ relationships with the organization, developing the organizational capacity, or getting money in the door? I say all three, but just focusing on the money doesn’t work for me. So I would say the word development works for me – development of relationships, development of systems, development of ability to advance the mission.

  15. Agree that “development” is meaningless to many. What are you “developing?” I’d say donor relationships. And philanthropic support. So perhaps using those words might be more to the point?
    My boss often referred to me euphemistically as the “director of donor experiences.” Because, as I’m wont to say, “if you want gifts, you must give them.” Really, we’re all philanthropy facilitators. I’m fond of using the word philanthropy in titles, since it literally translates to “love of humankind.” And that’s what giving is all about, n’est-ce pas? When I supervised major gifts officers, I renamed them “directors of philanthropic gifts.” I also like CPO — Chief Philanthropy Officer — for organizations that have a CEO, COO, CFO structure.
    When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a “fundraiser.” I’m proud of the title, and it’s absolutely the point of the endeavor. However, it’s a word that makes people uncomfortable. Because they connote it with money — still a huge taboo in our society. So… why not take the titles away from the perception of “filthy lucre” and move towards the warmer, fuzzier perception associated with “love?”

  16. Charles O'Neil says:

    At the QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation business cards for all our gift planning and major gifts people use “Charitable Giving Advisor”. Three words most folks will understand. Not sure about “Mission Engagement Facilitator”, but we’ll have to wait for Dr. James’ research.
    Thanks

  17. Dawn Veillette Diana says:

    I have no problem with Donor Relations; I certainly prefer that over my current title of Director of Resource Development – ugh! My title is passed down from our national organization’s structure. It’s so internal; I hate it. I would prefer Director of Donor Relations. In terms of an overall department, I have no problem with Development, though I understand it can be confusing for donors and prospects to know what this is (I explain that we develop relationships between the community and the organization), and I also like Philanthropy. And I certainly prefer Development or Philanthropy over Fundraising. To me, Fundraising is a part of what do in Development/Philanthropy.

  18. Mark says:

    What about something along these lines?

    Philanthropic Relationship Liaison
    or

    Philanthropy Liaison

    Or

    Philanthropic Experience Liaison

    Does Liaison hold a positive or negative connotation in most people’s (donors’/prospects’) minds?

  19. Mark says:

    That title assumes everyone you can touch will become a donor (that would be ideal), or that everyone is already a donor (vs a mixed portfolio of existing donors and potential new donors).

    What about Philanthropic Relationship Specialist as an option to consider?

    Or

    Philanthropy Specialist?

  20. Kathleen Morgen says:

    Thanks for this conversation. I have a client that needs a VP title. What are your thoughts on “Vice President, Philanthropic Impact” or “Vice President, Philanthropic Strategies?”

    • Greg Warner says:

      I like both.

      How about having her ask her DONORS what they think of the title? That would be a great way to engage them. Ask them what they think her title should be. How do THEY see her and view what she does FOR THEM.

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