Conventional wisdom or self-fulfilling prophecy

What is the toughest sell these days for fundraisers? If your answer is unrestricted support, join the chorus. Conventional wisdom among 21st century fundraisers points away from support of administrative and other infrastructure functions and in the direction of special projects.

You know the storyline. Today’s donors aren’t as interested in preserving organizations as were earlier generations. Modern day givers could give two hoots about the day-to-day stuff. Long ago, requests for unrestricted gifts may have tugged at hearts, but no more.

We’ve repeated the mantra so often, it’s no surprise that donors respond exactly as we predict.


But was there really a golden time when donors supported general operations without a little nudging? My reading of organizational histories points in the direction of no. In fact, there’s evidence that the giving public of yore was no more likely to give to “wherever most needed” than are present day donors.

Case in point — an excerpt from a letter dated June 16, 1835, from Lucius Bolles to Jesse Mercer. The men were early leaders in what is now American Baptist International Ministries.

You understand perfectly that the Convention cannot conduct its business without giving to its agents the means of support. They must do this, or cease from their operations; justice and expediency require it. Yet so limited are the views of many good people, that they seem to consider such an application of monies to be a pervession (sic), and hence utter objections to it, rendering themselves and others unhappy.

The American Board are harassed with similar objections and to take away occasion from such as seek it, they instituted means several years since to raise a fund, which now amounts to more than $40,000.00 and which they will continue to augment, till the income is sufficient to pay all the expenses at their Rooms. With a view to the same, Mr. Rice commenced raising a fund, which the Convention approved, but no pains have been taken to increase it till of late. Were this filled up, it would, in our judgment, be a great blessing to the cause of Missions, and as good an appropriation as could be made. It would take away a fruitful source of complaint from persons who say that their donations are consumed before they reach their destination.

I’m betting it’s possible to find similar exchanges in the files of almost any ministry organization. That so many faith-based nonprofits survived through time is a testament to persistence in spite of naysayers.


Strong organizations are the beneficiaries of generations of leaders who’ve bucked conventional wisdom.

  • Leaders who ignore the word on the street about what donors will or will not do.
  • Leaders who refuse to kowtow to constituents who “render themselves and others unhappy” over the need to fund infrastructure.
  • Leaders who are able and willing to make a winsome case for the need to support operations.
  • Leaders who change their own assumptions about donor preferences and in so doing, change the way donors give to the organization.

What about the organizations that are near and dear to your heart? What if the leadership teams really believed that gifts in support of ongoing operations were “as good an appropriation as could be made?”  What if the conventional wisdom is wrong?


  1. Hoot! Hoot! Two from me.

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