Book Review | The Zen of Fundraising by Ken Burnett

Book Review | The Zen of Fundraising by Ken Burnett

I am not a calm person. I function entirely through my task management software, personal and professional calendars, and the series of handwritten and orated to-do lists that populate my car, iphone, and desks. In high school, I was voted most-stressed, and that was well before the pressures of a fast-paced career were tossed on top of my existing commitments.

Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to feel at peace with donor stewardship and fundraising after reading the Ken Burnett’s The Zen of Fundraising, but I was pleasantly surprised.


The title reflects Burnett’s desire to share what he calls “nuggets of information” and “thoughtful wisdom and insights.” Very specifically, he identifies 89 tid-bits of experiences, best-practices, and advice that cumulate for a quick read full of great suggestions for a new fundraiser, or someone in a small organization struggling to raise funds and keep funds simultaneously. Representing the later group, I constantly find myself devoting time to initial donor outreach and communication, with little remaining time left over to provide them with the warm and gooey feeling that will keep them around. We all know that donor stewardship is vital to the success of any organization, but Burnett weeds through the brush of fundraising to share what to avoid and what to embrace in donor development.


My first take away – “Be Savvy.” With only 2% of donors saying they welcome nonprofit direct mail, times are a-changing. Potential donors will stray from boring, repetitive and expected fundraising practices. Sites like donors choose expose the high costs of fundraising and can affect confidence in an organization, particularly larger ones.

Another great take away – "Be a donor." When you put your money into an organization and the roles are reversed, it becomes easy to identify holes in your organization. A colleague of mine was the major donor at a local fundraising event. Not only did the organization not recognize major sponsors of the event, but there was little food, no entertainment, and the event lasted well beyond 4 hours. My colleague felt unrecognized, unappreciated, bored, and ultimately left the event with a bad taste in her mouth before it had officially ended. Her experience changed how we plan and develop events, and I guarantee donating money yourself will change how you see fundraisers and donor stewardship.

Burnett spends some time discussing what he would do if he were the head of donor development. I thought to myself, “I’m the head of donor development and I’d still consider myself relatively new to the position, so let’s compare notes.”

Aspire to be the most learned fundraiser of my generation. Check. I read, I blog, I survey donors, and I keep up on the happenings of my peers. I meet and mingle with people who are more successful in this profession than myself, and then I steal as many of their ideas as possible (insert menacing grin here).

Teach fundraising colleagues to be fifteen minutes ahead, aka implementing small and significant fundraising ideas. Probably not checking this one off just yet. I find that development directors in small shops are open to creative projects and new fundraising systems, but we aren’t equipped with the time or resources to implement them. We just can’t take a chance on a failure if what we’re doing still seems to work.

Develop a culture of high quality donor service in our organization. Check. I know how to say thank you and I’m so glad I do. Kissing ass is an important part of my job, and thankfully I’ve had plenty of practice.

Be choosy. Check. Seeking out the real donors and building relationships will do worlds more than blanketed solicitations. While some of us are making lasagna, others are throwing the noodles against the wall to see what sticks.

Cut out short term thinking. Right here, ladies and gentlemen, is where I begin to feel like I’m reading a book by a consultant. Any fundraiser who touts ideological theories on long term fundraising plans obviously hasn’t had their nose in a budget lately. Sometimes the short term will dictate the long term.

Switch from Marketing to Communication. This point won me back. Nonprofits should be communicating with donors and stakeholders; we are sharing a story, not advertising a product. Big check in my box for this one.

I won’t keep going and spoil the tidbits of the entire book, but Burnett brings up some great ideas and some points that I think are too far removed from the daily fundraising practices of a development head. I will say that he is easy to agree to when you read his justifications, but once you think about how implementation would work in your organization, some commentary seems too foreign.

One of his best points is his fundraising mantra. Burnett posits that the three most important words in fundraising are  MAY CHANGE MIND.

He’s right. At any moment, at any time, a donor can and will change their mind for a variety of reasons. Part of our responsibility as fundraisers is to keep that from happening. Burnett also reminds us of what put us in the nonprofit sector in the first place – to INSPIRE. We aren’t salesmen. Fundraisers are showcasing life transformations at our organizations, and we need to inspire potential donors rather than make a sales pitch and ask for the sale. We need to be creative, sincere, and truthful. We need to need to believe in our cause, otherwise how can we expect someone to support it?

This is a wonderful read for anyone who is new to the fundraising field or may have forgotten how we got here in the first place. While it definitely hovers on the intellectual level of fundraising, it does provide some practical advice we can use immediately. Do I feel the zen? A little, but like most aspects of fundraising, I'll take what I can get.

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