Two century-old fundraising wisdom from the second Mrs. Judson

Donor-centered fundraising has never been as important as it is now. Or so goes the buzz among development gurus. I’ve said as much myself – first in Growing Givers’ Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry and then again (and again and again) in my interaction with clients. When it comes to nurturing loyal giving, nothing beats meeting donors where their hearts are.

And truth be told, that is how it has always been.

We modern-day fundraisers may think we’ve happened upon a “new truth,” but the best of our tribe have been at this donor-centered thing for years. Centuries in fact, as I was reminded via a most unlikely of sources – the 1872 biography of Sarah B. Judson, the second wife of Adoniram Judson.

Burma poster


Growing up in the home of an American Baptist pastor, the Judsons’ pioneering missionary work in Burma was well known to me. Although Adoniram was the lead character in the usual telling of the story, to me, the three Mrs. Judsons were far more interesting. For sheer spunkiness and bravery, Ann, Sarah, and Emily ranked up there with Nancy Drew, Nurse Cherry Ames, and other similar fictional heroes of my youth.

Knowing my affection for the Judson women, Reid Trulson, executive director of American Baptist International Ministries, alerted me to the following nugget of fundraising insight from Sarah’s memoirs:

Perhaps something ought to be said of the general character of [Sarah’s] letters . . . She says but little in them of herself — her doings and feelings ; but she seems full of interest in those she addresses, sympathizing in their minutest concerns, with that unselfish kindness which is sweet to the recipient, though to a stranger uninteresting. They must have been delicious indeed to those she loved . . . Every member of her father’s large family is thanked by name for having written her ; and each allusion is accompanied by some affectionate comment, or word of praise or encouragement, suited to the age of her correspondent.

Two hundred years before “donor-centric” showed up in the fundraisers’ lexicon, Sarah Judson got it. Like the Apostle Paul, she wrote to supporters not just because she was hoping for a gift (although the support of American Christians made the Judsons’ work possible) but because she was “looking for what could be credited to the other’s account.”

Sarah’s donor-centered communication with the folks back home helped establish a network of mission-minded donors in the United States that persists to the present. Her pioneering example of growing givers’ hearts gives me (and you) yet another reason to admire this remarkable woman.

For more on putting donors at the center of your work, see:

Three reasons for focusing on givers’ hearts

Tips for perfecting your thank you

Worldview, theology, and the way we ask



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