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Andrea McManus, ViTreo Group Inc
October 30th 2018

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Galas, year-end appeals, yearly campaigns, programs and events that are repeated annually. What are your sacred cows? In a time of accelerating change such as we are experiencing now in just about every sector, including philanthropy, should you be holding on for dear life to the sacred cows of fundraising?

If your nonprofit is concerned about results it’s been achieving, by its very definition —

A Sacred Cow: someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question. Source: Definition of Sacred Cow by Merriam Webster


— it may be something to which you want to give some thought. Many organizations are struggling today; they’re strapped for money and time. And in today’s noisy, chaotic, online world it is so much easier for donors and potential donors to be distracted so sticking to what you have always known may mean you do not even achieve past results.


 If your organization is struggling, your sacred cows may also fall under another definition —

Einstein Quote

I love this sacred cow analogy that I came across a long time ago:

Riding a Dead Horse

Dakota tribal wisdom says that when you discover the horse you are riding is dead the best strategy is to dismount. 

However, in organizations, we often try other strategies with dead horses, including the following:

  • Change riders

  • Say things like “This is the way we have always ridden this horse”

  • Appoint a committee to study the horse

  • Arrange to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses

  • Change the requirements, declaring that ‘This horse is not dead”

  • Harness several dead horses together for increased speed


Organizations may be relying on outdated ways of doing things — of what ‘works’ in fundraising, but it’s time to start asking the hard questions and to consider new ways and a different approach.

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 According to Joining in Vision And Action, an American organization that bring its strengths and skills in community engagement, research, organizational development and change management, advocacy and policy, strategy development and more for profit and nonprofit organizations, there is .…”a growing movement to be much more thoughtful and analytical when developing your strategic fundraising approach….. This means having a clear sense of the organization’s direction and a clear sense of financing that direction.


The organizations that embrace this concept of strategic fundraising are changing what they do to finance their work, dropping long-time events, skipping grants, shrinking memberships or saying “no, thanks” to donors. Sounds hard, right? It is, because change is hard. The roadblocks are plenty:

  • Lack of strategic direction at the organizational level and/or missing clear sense of defined priorities and needs—not knowing or being confident in what you want to do and what you do best

  • Limited cash on hand

  • Short-term vision and impatience

  • Sentimentality, fear of the unknown and uncertainty

  • High turnover in development/fundraising team

  • “Raising awareness” as false measurement of loose concept; fundraising is ultimately about raising money

  • “More as better” philosophy versus the importance of quality for the measurement of return on investment

Source: 7 Roadblocks to Strategic Fundraising

Have a listen to our BrainTrust Philanthropy Podcast Season 2, Episode 18 which talks about one sacred cow:

Is in-person fundraising dead? How does relationship fundraising change as more and more people give online?

And some of the results of the conversation were:

  • Developing a high touch strategy is just as important in a high tech world

  • Peer to peer fundraising is powerful

  • Follow-up and following through are just as critical in online giving as they are in face-to-face giving

  • Relationships still matter; online and offline

  • We need to always be preparing for emerging technologies and continuous disruption

What are your organization’s sacred cows? And which if any, or all of them — need tipping? We’d love to hear from you — send us your comments.

Make sure to tune in again next week again as we talk about the BIG Sacred Cows – the gift chart and the Donor Pyramid…and some thoughts on new types of strategy for moving into the future and adapting to this time of change and disruption.

In the BrainTrust Philanthropy Podcast, Season 2 Episode 18, Vincent Duckworth chats with Christine McIver, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta; Marina Glogovac, President & CEO of CanadaHelps; and Tanya Koshowski, Executive Director of Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids about online giving and how it disrupts the sacred cow of in-person giving.



Andrea McManus, Chair, Board of Directors, Partner
ViTreo Group Inc

Andrea McManus is a Partner with ViTreo with over 30 years’ experience in fund development, marketing, sponsorship and nonprofit management. A highly strategic thinker and change maker, Andrea has worked with organizations that span the nonprofit sector with particular focus on building long-term and sustainable capacity. 

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