From Higher Ground to Common Ground


Most nonprofits have a “higher ground” understanding of their work and their cause. 

And they should!  They are experts.  They understand the cause they are working on, and they understand the complexities of what needs to be done.  They’ve built programs that are effective.  Their expertise makes them good at what they do. 

But when organizations create fundraising that invites individual donors to join the organization on its higher ground – instead of creating fundraising that meets donors on shared common ground – they put barriers between their donors and giving.

They make their fundraising exclusive.

The hallmarks of higher ground fundraising are things like:

  • Spending more time explaining the process the organization uses (your programs, or a particular approach) instead of the change in the world that the process makes possible…
  • Focusing more on the organization itself, and less on the cause or beneficiaries…
  • Sharing statistics to illustrate the size of the need or the scope of the organization’s work…
  • Educating the donor about everything that the organization does, rather than focusing on what donors tend to be most interested in…
  • All while using the organization or sector’s jargon to sound professional.

It’s like higher ground fundraising requires the donor to know about the organization in order for them to help the beneficiaries.

Two Problems

Higher Ground fundraising causes two problems.

First, it raises less money.  Every one of the bullets above, in our experience, causes individual donors to give less.  Individual donors tend to be more interested in what’s happening with the cause or beneficiaries today, and the change that the donor’s gift will make (or has made).  Individual donors tend to be less interested in the organization itself.

The bulleted points above are highly relevant to staff, organizational partners, grant-funding organizations, etc.  But they aren’t as relevant to individual donors.  Hence the old phrase, “Individual donors give through organizations, not to organizations.”

Second, the “higher ground” approach results in exclusive fundraising.  It creates a filter where the people likely to donate are the people who are willing to put in the time, the people who are willing to learn about the organization’s approach, and the people who are willing to speak the way the organization speaks.

Each of these is a barrier that some people will not cross.

From Higher Ground to Common Ground

Do the hard work to make your fundraising simple and inclusive.  Have a good offer.  Create fundraising for individual donors that any person who cares about your beneficiaries, at any level of understanding, at any reading level, will find relevant.

This means consciously deciding to leave the high ground.  It means you’ll have to defend your fundraising from internal audiences who love the high ground and want everyone to join them there.

Here’s why: there are a LOT of people out there who care about your beneficiaries and would like to give a gift to help.  There are far fewer people out there who are willing to wade through an education in your work before they can give a gift.

So if your communication and fundraising are always on the higher ground – and inviting donors to join you there – you will remain smaller than you could be.  You will remain doing less than you could be.

If your communication and fundraising are aimed at the common ground you share with donors, you will raise more money and have a larger impact.

In fundraising, the high ground is lonely.