What Fundraising Can (and Should) Learn from Sales

Ellen Bristol

February 13, 2022

About the Author

Ellen Bristol

Ellen Bristol, President of Bristol Strategy Group, is a nonprofit thought leader in fundraising effectiveness and nonprofit management optimization. She has a passion for helping small to medium sized nonprofit organizations, NGO’s, and social enterprises build and grow fundraising capacity, adapting classic principles of the process-management discipline to this all-important strategic function.

The terms “sales” and “selling” make a lot of nonprofit people nervous, which is too bad. There are many beneficial sales skills nonprofits would be wise to adopt, especially if you’re raising major gifts and corporate sponsorship. So kindly overcome your distaste for “sales” and “selling” and read on. Fundraising and selling are two ways to generate income. Why not see what our for-profit brethren are doing that we could use??


Nonprofit leaders, let’s come to terms with this idea: fundraising is like sales. Or maybe we should just say fundraising IS sales. We “sell” our missions to people who want to invest in them. Regrettably we continue to hold on to some self-defeating ideas about sales that just don’t hold up. Let’s do some myth-busting.

Rethinking Sales People
Development people sometimes think of sales people as greedy Closeup portrait of unhappy angry mad, pissed off senior mature woman, annoyed, giving thumbs down looking with negative facial expression disapproval, isolated white background. Emotion, sign, symbolhustlers who are only in it to make money. This is a misconception. Forget the “used-car” mythology. That really doesn’t work too well for anybody. Pestering people and trying to con them into buying stuff they don’t need might work on late-night TV, but it certainly doesn’t work in business-to-business settings where the deals are larger. I hate to say this, but lately, it seems I get the most cold-calls and hustles from nonprofit cold-callers who don’t know me. Oh, and political candidates. Ugh. Stop it already.

Major Accounts, Major Donors
So enough with cold calling, arms-length fundraising. Selling major accounts and doing major gift work are nearly identical. In both sectors, you need to:

  • Build rapport, and find areas of alignment.
  • Cultivate the relationship, to learn whether you and your prospect are “right” for one another.
  • Negotiate ways to work together, in the interests of both parties.
  • Respond graciously, whether you win or lose.
  • Stay in touch, pretty much forever. Stewardship anyone??

Close up view of the hands of a group of people giving a thumbs up gesture of approval an success with their hands raised against a blank green chalkboard with copyspace

Major-account managers and major gift officers share so many similarities. They are both mission-driven (yes folks, for-profits have missions too, and they are not simply about making a ton of money). They become close to their clients and donors. They work hard to keep the relationship thriving.

Beneficial Sales-like Disciplines for Fundraising
Corporate sales teams tend to have more robust support from their management, than appears to be the case in the nonprofit sector.  Just see our Leaky Bucket research for further insights.  Here are a few things nonprofit leaders can adopt from the world of corporate sales:

  • Sales professionals know what’s expected of them, which creates accountability. Sales teams almost always know how much money they’re expected to bring in, how many new buyers, how repeat buyers, and even how many prospects they’ll need to reach their targets. By contrast, about 76% lack such performance targets.
    • They know how to identify and qualify high-potential prospects. Effective sales teams are provided with qualifying criteria, what we’d call ideal donor profiles, because without them, the sales team will waste a ton of time on DOA’s. By contrast, 84% of our  respondents lack qualifying criteria. Imagine how much time they’re wasting.
      • They rely on their opportunity pipelines to track progress. Sales teams manage their opportunities to keep track of brand-new opportunities, know which ones are mid-way through the process, and which ones are “ripe” enough to forecast with confidence. Nonprofit CRMs, which should provide similar discipline, tend to lack effective opportunity management modules, so it can be difficult for development officers to keep track of everything, and figure out how to move their prospects along the arc of cultivation. Too many balls in the air at one time.

What About Commissions?
The nonprofit sector considers incentive pay (commissions) unethical for the development team, but we are OK giving team bonuses when things go especially well. Everybody likes to get some extra cash once in a while. Commissions are common in sales, though recent studies show  sales teams actually perform better under the team-bonus concept. We nonprofit folks don’t need to like or replicate the way sales people are compensated, but let’s not pretend we are somehow “better” than they are.  

Management Support
Our Leaky Bucket research shows a consistent lack of the management support enjoyed by the sales profession. We’re not doing a great job providing qualifying criteria, performance targets for acquiring, retaining or upgrading funders, tracking the progress of opportunities, or finding strategic ways to respond when fundraising results are undesirable.

We’ll blog more (and more) about fundraising management in future blogs. Let us know how you feel about this one! Meanwhile, download our benchmarking study Fundraising Down the Drain, all about the need for management support for the fundraising team.