Individual Submission Summary

Direct link:

Making Presents: Exploring the Impact of Fundraisers’ Storytelling on NPO Practice

Mon, July 12, 6:00 to 7:00am, Virtual 2021, 6


Storytelling is widely recognised as central to effective fundraising, both in terms of attracting new, as well as establishing long-term gifting relationships with donors (e.g. Merchant et al, 2009; Burnett, 2002). This paper argues, however, that whilst we understand the effect storytelling has on donors’ giving behaviour, there remains little understanding of the processes involved in creating such stories, and the impact that these narrative constructions may have on non-profit (NPO) practice.

This paper employs a theoretical partnership utilising Krause’s (2014) concept of “projectization” through which to explore how fundraisers transform core elements of NPO strategies into commodities that can be purchased by donors. These arguments are progressed using theories of gift making employed by Mauss ([1954] 2011) & Chevalier (2014) to demonstrate how through a process of re-framing these commodities are transformed by fundraisers into the “presents” that are appropriated and given by individual donors and that are central to the ongoing gift exchange.

The paper draws on data from the secondary analysis of donors’ descriptions of their gifting, as well as 29 UK-based fundraisers’ primary accounts of their practice collected for this study. These accounts of the fundraising process are compared with those of 14 non-fundraising staff. In doing so, this paper explores the tensions that emerge within the philanthropic field between fundraisers and donors, as well as fundraisers and their non-fundraising colleagues, as fundraisers try to construct what is identified as contested reciprocal gift relationships between donor and NPO.

What emerges is a picture of fundraising not only as storytelling, but as a process where fundraisers seek to create meaning and connection where it did not previously exist between givers and distance recipients. At the heart of the process is the evocation of an object to which the language of the gift adds meaning and which the donor can be seen to appropriate on behalf of the end recipient. However, this is not an unproblematic undertaking. Whilst this gift-making process delineates meaning for the donor it does so in ways that do not align with the NPO’s wider strategy by emphasizing particular pieces of work above others. This has implications for how individual organisations may conduct their work on behalf of their beneficiaries when donors restrict funding and thus the types of work the organisation has the resources to implement. Additionally, by reframing the meaning of the gift to fit that which the fundraiser perceives the donor feels is most valuable, the solidaristic nature of the gift exchange is fundamentally altered leading to the exclusion of some beneficiaries and their stories from the gift relationship. The paper concludes by considering the implications these findings have on current understandings of the uneven distribution of funding that a reliance on philanthropic gift giving can produce (Salamon, 1987).

Given how dependent the sector is on fundraised income this study is relevant to a wider context in which fundraising and philanthropy take place. Findings can therefore be applied outside of the UK to enrich the limited knowledge currently available.