Passive-Aggressive Fundraising -- Just Stop It!

Passive-Aggressive Fundraising — Just Stop It!

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Do you need your donors?

It’s a yes-or-no question.

There’s no maybe, no degrees of agreement. You need donors to make your work possible, or you have some other source of funding and you don’t need donors.

Even if donors provide a small part of your revenue, you still need them.

If you really don’t need donors, you can stop reading. You’re pretty much wasting your time reading this.

But if you do need donors — and I suspect you do — I have a second question for you:

Do your donors know you need them?

Harder question.

So, let me give you some ways of finding your answer with this quick quiz:

1. Which way do you ask for donations?
a. Your gift will help us save the majestic Homing Snail.
b. Your gift will help save the majestic Homing Snail.

2. Which way to you frame the need?
a. We’re grateful for the amazing support we get from the Gates Foundation, the Government of Canada, and several large Wall Street firms. Will you join the team?
b. Your gift will help save the majestic Homing Snail.

3. Which way would you describe what the donor’s giving will do?
a. Please do your part to keep our fight for the Homing Snail on track.
b. Please send your gift to save the Homing Snail!

If you answered B to all three questions, you’re on the right track.

But sadly, too many nonprofits live in a shadowy land where they need their donors to fund vital programs — but they don’t want to admit it. Their fundraising propositions go something like this:

Maybe you’d be interested in giving. But don’t worry if you don’t give. We’re a very well-run organization, and if you can’t give, we have many other sources of funding. You’re a small fish anyway, to be honest.

I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit.

A lot of organizations practice passive-aggressive fundraising. It tiptoes around the issue of need. It hints at asking. It expects donors to read between the lines and understand what they’re unwilling to come out and say. In my experience, this comes from two related fears:

  1. If we admit need, it may appear that we are not a well-run organization, and people will think giving to us is not a good investment.
  2. If we admit need often, we’ll be the boy who cried “wolf”, and people won’t take our need seriously.

It’s true you can overdo “emergency mode” and lose credibility, like that car alarm in your neighborhood that’s constantly going off. But if you’re truly in need, tell the truth. Your sense of what’s “too often” is certainly more sensitive than a donor’s. I’ve seen emergency funding shortfall appeals do well more times than I can count. And I’ve never seen repercussions to such appeals.

But there’s another reason it’s easy to fall into passive-aggressive fundraising: We forget that our donors are not us! They don’t know what we know. They don’t see what we see. They aren’t at the meetings. While we spend hours thinking about our organization and cause, they give it a few seconds of thought now and then.

That’s why our laid-back approach to fundraising doesn’t work. It fails to cut through the clutter.

Donors want to be wanted and need to be needed. So if you need your donors, go ahead and tell them. Let them know the urgency and the stakes. Be direct, strong, and clear. Don’t hide behind a passive-aggressive smokescreen.

It works, it’s respectful of donors, and (assuming you’re telling the truth) it’s the right thing to do.


P.S. Ready to make your fundraising message direct, powerful, and effective? Register your interest in the Moceanic Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits course that’s you can access in The Fundraisingology Lab. It will help you connect with donors in the ways that stir them to action.

P.P.S. Or, let’s be frank, the problem isn’t you … it’s your boss or your board that make you do passive-aggressive fundraising. Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits will equip you to show them the right way!

Please share your thoughts by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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