Compassion and Accountability: How They Drive Donor Engagement

Ellen Bristol

May 23, 2023

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.

Subscribe and learn

Stay up to date with the latest fundraising tips and trends

Let’s talk about compassion. says it is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” I think that’s the basis for true philanthropy, a word which means “love of mankind.” Philanthropy means showing compassion for those stricken by misfortune, with a desire to alleviate their suffering.

Nonprofits are philanthropic by nature, working to alleviate hunger, poverty, climate change, and so on.

But this blog is not about having compassion for those your nonprofit serves. It’s about having compassion for those stalwart souls who raise the money that makes it possible for you to alleviate the suffering of others. In other words, your fundraising team. They need some love.

To my great dismay, fundraising professionals are leaving the sector in droves. Why? There are many reasons, including their compensation, but I think the heart of the matter is this:

Fundraising professionals get no, little, or misguided support from their managers.

Great Management and Work-Life Balance = Compassion

Great management practices are typically clear, documented methods of doing the work that needs to be done, appreciating the human costs of the work, the importance of the work, and the need for compassion for those doing the work. Such practices remove obstacles to success and provide the tools and other resources required to achieve success, regardless of how that success is measured.

Thus, great management practices clarify performance expectations, and give workers the software, phones, transportation, paper and ink and glue they need to do the job efficiently and effectively.

In addition, the managers and leaders of the organization recognize that all employees and fundraising volunteers have personal and family obligations outside the four (virtual) walls of your nonprofit. Truly great management practices demonstrate a willingness to recognize those needs and obligations, and do their best to honor them.

Compassionate managers and management practices create happier fundraising teams with lower turnover.

Great Management and Productivity = Accountability

Great management drives productivity. Productivity, contrary to contemporary opinion, does NOT mean “work until you drop, then we’ll ask for more.” It means “work effectively and efficiently, avoiding obstacles and unnecessary rework, with access to the right tools and resources. Then get some rest.”

If your organization is truly compassionate about its fundraising team, then you have made sure they:

  • Know what’s expected of them, and
  • Have the right tools, methods, and resources to do their best work.

It also means you don’t change your mind about what’s expected of them on a whim. You ask if they’re willing and able to handle an unanticipated shift in the workload. You acknowledge their need for a break if they are sick or exhausted or there’s an emergency at home, and honor it to the best of your ability.

Accountability = Compassion

The term “accountability” seems to worry some people, who think it sounds punitive. Well, I don’t agree with them. If you have raised children, or you were ever a child yourself, you may remember some standard “accountabilities” like:

  • Bedtime is at XX o’clock.
  • No playing in the snow in your bathing suit.
  • Do not bite your [sibling, dog, cat, cousin].
  • You just produced one note on the school’s trombone. Yay! Let’s see if you really enjoy playing it before we buy you a new one.

Although some readers may feel their families went too far, or not far enough, in the childhood accountability game, the fact is that children feel safer and more cared for when the parent is clear about the rules, i.e. the child’s performance expectations. 

The same is true for employees. A major gift officer will likely be more productive if they:

  • Understand what motivates your ideal donor to give;
  • Has a reasonable portfolio to manage (neither three people nor three thousand);
  • Understands how to use your technology platforms;
  • And isn’t interrupted constantly with demands to do things not related to the major gift program;
  • Know you’re going to have their back if a donor is behaving inappropriately.

We could give you many other examples, but I hope this one is enough.

Fundraising staff who understand performance expectations, and know they can trust you, will stick around longer, and perform better.

How Compassion and Accountability Drive Donor Engagement

A happy fundraising team becomes more and more deeply engaged with your organization’s mission, the clients you serve, and the donors whose investments make your work possible. Your compassion for your team includes giving them clear performance expectations, and providing training, tools, resources and other forms of support. They know you have their backs if they ever have a personal challenge or emergency, and that you’ll do your best to support them.

Thus, fundraising professionals are ready, willing, and able to acquire, retain, and engage your donors and other funders for a common cause, namely achieving your mission.

The way you hold your team accountable also contributes to the success and engagement of your fundraising team. They know what they are expected to do, they know how to do it, they know how their efforts impact client service delivery, the board is better able to understand what they do and how they do it, and donors appreciate their clarity.

Treat your fundraising team well, and they will become ever more deeply engaged in your work and committed to your mission. Deeper employee engagement slows down turnover, an expensive, disruptive phenomenon. And deeper employee engagement translates directly to deeper, longer-term donor engagement.

Compassion + Accountability for the Fundraising Team = Better Donor Retention at Higher Giving Levels

Share on your socials