I’ve admired Ken Burnett’s work since the mid 1990s when I first encountered a copy of Relationship Fundraising, which has since become required reading for anyone truly serious about fundraising. He is one of the most lucid, accessible and entertaining writers on the fundraising circuit, able to blend humour with the practical knowledge gained from a career’s worth of both agency and client side experience.
The Zen of Fundraising is classic Burnett, but unlike Relationship Fundraising can sit neatly in your pocket to be thumbed on your travels or when there are a few moments to spare. The bite sized chunks that comprise this text make it ideally suited to this purpose.
An odd title though? As Ken says in his introduction, the term Zen has come to mean ‘thoughtful wisdom and insights’ and there are 89 of these ‘timeless ideas’ in this text. No more than a page and half is devoted to each so they come at the reader at quite a pace. Not all are new, extensions only of common sense, but it is always amazing how much of ‘common’ sense turns out not to be common at all. Conference speakers, for example, have stressed the importance of thanking donors appropriately for as long as I can remember, yet as a donor, I’m frequently surprised at how few organizations manage to do this well. The Zen offers a number of suggestions for improvements here.
The Zen also offers a poses a number of suggestions that are altogether more thought provoking; suggestions that will hopefully prompt readers to review the way they approach their supporters and thereby improve the quality what they do. At a number of points in the text Ken refers to a ‘90 degree shift’. Again, a simple idea but one with profound implications. Rather than managing the communications the organization sends out, Burnett argues that fundraisers should consider the relationship the donor perceives. To use Ken’s words the 90 degree shift ‘is putting yourself in your donor’s shoes, seeing your communication and even your role as a fundraiser through your donor’s eyes rather then through the eyes of your CEO or your head of finance or fundraising.’ All too often we can make entirely inappropriate assumptions about why people support us and what they want in return for this support from the organization. Understanding donor needs and thinking through how best to respond to these needs lies at the core of securing loyalty and therefore at the core of this text.
There are precious few really first rate texts on loyalty. I’m often asked to recommend some at conferences. Resisting the temptation to recommend my own, I steer readers towards Penelope Burk ‘s Donor Centred Fundraising or the aforementioned Relationship Fundraising. The contribution of the Zen of Fundraising is really to distil this and other knowledge down into a series of bite sized chunks that can be easily digested by anyone, even if they have only a few minutes to spare at each sitting. I doubt they will regret the expenditure. The book is designed to simultaneously entertain and educate, something that Ken is able to do better than any other fundraising writer I’ve encountered.
With 89 ideas there really should be something for everyone in this text. If you find just two or three of them to be worthwhile implementing, this little book will have paid for itself many times over.
Book Review authored by:
Professor of Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Bristol Business School U.K.
Adjunct Professor of Philanthropy - Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.