Fundraising is an infinite game - are we playing it wrong?


I took time over the holiday season to reduce my stack of unread books. One of these was ‘The Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek, who you may know through his TED talks (his 2009 TEDx on ‘How great leaders inspire action’ talk has been watched by just short of 48m people to date) and his previous books, ‘Start with Why’ and ‘Leaders eat last’ are serious best sellers.  

His latest book focuses on how we all lose if we continue to look at life (personal and business, indeed everything that happens) as he believes we currently do - as a finite game. An example of this would be striving to be the ‘best’, or to make the ‘number 1 product in x field’, or to ‘win’ at something. Unless the activity is indeed a game, with two clear teams, rules and an agreed end point, then there is no ultimate winning. Thinking of business this would be aiming to ‘beat’ your competitors results by year end, but then what happens? The next year starts, the game continues, and you are on the same treadmill.

This argument resonated with me, and I could see a lot of relevance to fundraising, and the chasing of the philanthropic dollar. We have a tendency to play the game in a finite way, constrained by short or at best medium term goals, and our methods of measuring, reporting and framing ‘success’ in a way that could be considered unhelpful for achieving the ultimate mission of our organization, be it ending homelessness, finding a cure for x cancer, protecting areas of natural beauty, or whatever your vision of a problem solved is.

Fundraisers, as with most of our colleagues around the organization, are given in-year targets to meet. And these are broken down into campaign targets within the year, often based on predicted giving from donors, hopefully using past data and insights on giving patterns and return on investment. This is understandable, as the overarching multi-year strategy that you work to (assuming that one is in place, as it should be) has to be measured in some way against progress, and for fundraising the best thing to measure is $$ raised in year. Or is it?

If we look at fundraising in an infinite way (although not too infinite, as we aim to solve the problems we address, and ideally put ourselves out of business), then we should stop the in-year focus. Perhaps celebrate the last ‘Annual Fund’ year-end push, which uses the end of the tax year as the motivation for donors to give as a key driver. And instead step back and look at the bigger picture – ensuring that the ‘why’ and the ‘just cause’ are front and centre, for communication and for measuring.

‘Starting with why’ is the title of Sinek’s first book, and the basis of his hugely popular TEDx talk. The basic premise to his ‘Golden Circle’ approach is that most companies (and I readily include non-profits here) know what they do, and some even know how they do it, but most cannot tell you why. Charities should absolutely know why they do things – this is their stated mission – and so have an advantage here. This tallies with ‘just cause’ that Sinek requires to be present if we are to play the game in an infinite way, a much bigger picture that we strive for, know is right, but will likely take years, perhaps decades to achieve.

Thinking back to how you communicated with your donors in the last year or two, did you engage them in the why? Did you remind them of the longer-term just cause? Or did you present them simply with immediate need, including the end of the tax year deadline? To get the most out of our time here and now, as fundraisers, as individuals, and in terms of return on investment measured by both $$ and continued engagement, we need to ensure we play the game in an infinite way. Goals, targets can still be a part, but in a longer-term, bigger picture, and more committed way. Could your ask be one to build a relationship over time, rather than achieve a transaction before year end?

Changing our mindset (and critically the mindsets of senior leaders) won’t be easy, but the problems we seek to solve can be reframed, and tactics to achieve strategy changed – or at least tested if resistance is met. This may mean challenging established ways of approaching fundraising targets, building campaigns, and measuring results, but if we’re clear on why then it all makes sense. Some food for thought for the new year, that’s for sure.

You can see Simon Sinek’s full talk on ‘The Infinite Game’ from the ‘How to Academy’ recording from a seminar he did in London, UK, last year here.

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Dawn Varley is THINK Canada's Client Development Consultant.
To meet her, click here.