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In my work as fundraising counsel, I am often approached with curious questions about how I am paid for the work I do. Sometimes folks ask directly, “So… do you just take a cut from the grant award?” or, it may come out during conversation. For example, this past week while attending a networking event, a woman asked if I could help her secure grant funding for her house of worship. With a tip of the hip and a wink of the eye she said, “We can get some money to improve our building, and you can get a little kickback….”

I have no doubt this woman had nothing but good intentions, instead, I rolled my internal eyes, and we exchanged business cards and pleasantries. As she follows up, I will kindly educate her on why I never accept a percentage of funds awarded and why she should never offer…again.

It is a common view for novice fundraisers to view grant seeking like traditional sales. In many ways, fundraising is like sales, except the products we peddle are solutions to major societal issues. We ask the community to contribute to our programs and services which, ideally, moves us closer to achieving the charitable mission.

In traditional sales, the practice of offering a commission is commonplace. While being paid a percentage of a transaction is a great motivator for a sales team, it is never a tactic to promote the greater good and thus, this is where traditional sales and nonprofit fundraising abruptly sever ties with one another. At the heart of percentage based compensation lies personal gain.

This may be a glaring glimpse of the obvious, but personal gain and charity are diametrically opposed to one another. We can’t be full of ourselves and charitable at the same time, go figure.

For this reason, percentage based charitable compensation has been deemed unethical by charity watchdogs, professional fundraising associations, and me. This is usually the point where I hear a gasp or two…especially from the church going folks who offer me kickbacks. Many are shocked to learn this information and often follow up with, “Is this something new? Oh my goodness, I thought it was common practice!”  It is not new, in fact the Association of Fundraising Professionals officially adopted a position on the topic some 25 years ago.

To those of you who are shaking your heads in disbelief. I will illustrate why this is viewed as unethical. Let’s reminisce on a few of our past experiences with sales. There are certain industries with sales tactics that look and feel like harassment. Think telemarketing calls, flea markets or fairs where many of the sales representatives are desperate for a sale and don’t really care who we are, they just want to make their quota for the month. These sales folks have a stronger desire to overcome our objections than to know who we are or how we might be a fit (or not) for their product. We are simply a transaction- we sense it, feel it and it is offensive. They are only motivated to achieve their own goal for personal gain. Charity doesn’t usually come to mind with these experiences and it has no place in a sector where the top priority is the love of mankind.

Professional fundraisers must wholeheartedly embrace the principle that charitable purpose, not self-gain, is paramount.  So far this year, my business has helped nonprofits secure more than 2 million dollars. I am certain if I were working in a different industry with the same productivity, I would be living in my dream home on the beach buzzing around in that shiny red Mercedes-Benz roadster I always wanted. Instead, I have accepted a higher calling, the work I do supports charities who are educating, inspiring and transforming communities. Nonprofit fundraisers like me deserve fair market wages and so I am interested in working with organizations who realize it takes a commitment to invest in fundraising and will compensate me for what it takes to do the work, regardless of the amount requested from the donor.

Below are a few articles I have cherry picked for you to more fully explore this topic. Should you have any questions, please feel free to make a comment or contact me.

Nonprofit Times “Paying Commission on Grant Proposals: Don’t Do It”

AFP Position Paper: Percentage Based Compensation

Grants Professionals Association Code of Ethics

National Council of Nonprofits and Ethical Fundraising

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