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Andrea McManus, ViTreo Group Inc
November 6 2018

Philanthropy has typically been defined as the giving of money to nonprofit organizations.

In this time of change, that definition, like the sacred cows organizations hold near and dear to their hearts, may no longer be accurate.

In last week's The Provocateur, I talked about the need to review organizational strategy and consider whether or not established methods of fundraising are still viable. In the past, many nonprofits have relied on, for example, the Donor Pyramid and the Donor Gift Chart, as two key tools in their major strategic plan for achieving fundraising goals and campaign planning and execution respectively.


What are your BIG sacred cows?

  • The Donor Pyramid?

  • The Gift Chart

  • Galas?

  • Year-end Appeals? Direct Mail?

  • Grants (the paperwork and the time required to these never ends)?

  • In person fundraising?

  • Is your nonprofit counting on the transfer of wealth millennials are expected to receive in the coming years from their parents, the baby boomers?

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You want me to do what?

Does your organization rely on an annual $150 or $300 a plate fundraising gala where guests are expected to pull out their cheque books? When was the last time anyone spotted anyone under the age of 75 using a cheque? And while galas still exist and serve a purpose for some organizations (raising profile and money), they seem to have fallen into the same paradigm as the great divide e.g. the widening gap between large and small, wealthy and not. Witness the rise of active participation events vs. galas and you may well see a general division of age groups. Gala events may have been a staple in the past for many nonprofit organizations, but future functions will be much more diverse.

Are millennials going to fit into the traditional Donor Pyramid? And really, did donors ever really fit into its neat little slots? Certainly not in my experience.  And the gift chart?  In my mind still great in theory but we need to be more flexible in application.

And should we even be calling people ‘donors’ — is that another description that’s no longer valid? What should they be called? Investors, contributors, influencers?

An article about best practices in the field in Development from the Donor’s Perspective, states:

“In spite of our best planning and adoption of best practices in the field, our donors don't fit into the process very neatly. Why? Because the donor's definition of the best way to help them make a philanthropic gift isn't necessarily what has been captured in our systems. It's not that all of the best practices are broken: it's that we need to be more flexible, innovative, and empathetic to the donor's perspective. In this session, we'll share stories of donors that didn't quite fit the mold, provide insights on how you can examine your own development strategies for "sacred cows," and recommend ways to be more responsive to your donors' needs.” 

Source: AFP – Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter 


Millennials aren’t just a subset of your donors, they’re your organization’s future. They are your upcoming leaders, board members, and donors. Therefore, it’s important to understand their interests, desires, and capacity to get involved.

CauseVox The Fundraising Platform

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A Call to Action — Treat your nonprofit organization as a business

I believe one major sacred cow that should be disposed of immediately is that nonprofits should not be required to run themselves on basic business principles — that they are different than a for profit organization. In business, or at least in a well-run business, if management determines the company’s efforts are not adding to the bottom-line, changes are instituted. In First, We Kill All the Galas, the Chronicle of Philanthropy talks about studying the returns of each strategy and questioning long-standing efforts…“Still, some nonprofits are beginning to think that doing less can produce more. Rather than hunt for every grant or donation, they are Killing Sacred Cows..."

Source: Charities Ditch Longtime Fundraising Strategies

We can do MORE with MORE!

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To remain relevant today, not for profits must rid themselves of the notion they are exempt from following the same practices as a well-run business. They must be strategic and they need to start questioning their operations:

  1. Review programs and campaigns — compare revenue-generators and the time they take.

  2. Consistently test channels to see what initiates target audience responses.

  3. Set program/campaign benchmarks or KPIs.

  4. Ask ourselves whether what we are doing makes sense from our target audiences’ perspectives.

  5. Always being asking the question “Why” — why are we doing this?

Many books have been written giving advice on how to stop the practice of worshiping sacred cows, including:


If nonprofit organizations are going to be innovative and create a robust future for the fundraising sector, we must evolve. The Association of Fundraising Professionals states:

“But these are not the same conversations that we’ve seen in the past. Canada has, yet again, taken the lead in recognizing that there are no sacred cows and that the model in which AFP Canada has so successfully practiced in the past now needs to evolve. We are looking at ways to build on the past and welcome the future. Along with conversations about the model for AFP International is an even-more wide-ranging and robust dialogue about the very future of our sector. ….AFP is encouraging and supporting us in taking an active role in political advocacy, community engagement and building partnerships not considered in the past. This is a call to action; a time for fundraisers to consider how they might play a role in the growth of the profession and the expansion of philanthropy.”

Wow!  If our professional association can do it our nonprofits, and the profession, should be walking in lockstep.

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Bold steps

It takes strong leadership to change and to recognize your sacred cows and be willing to tip them. Sometimes it takes outside help to see them and to help you to ‘kill off your darlings’. A fresh set of eyes and newly developed strategy backed by research and analysis is sometimes what’s needed to move beyond what you’ve always done and adapt to the new paradigm of constant change we now see.

It’s time to take action or words like ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ just become buzzwords. The Chronicle of Philanthropy states that ‘doing away with sacred cows sometimes yields a better return on investment.’

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What’s next?

The path to successful fundraising is changing. Today, effective fundraising means we can no longer rely on what’s worked in the past, theory perhaps, application not — we need to be strategic, we need to nimble, and we need to be innovative.

I would love to hear your thoughts on whether you agree with me or not — and if you do, what is your organization doing to change things up?

Check out ViTreo's Braintrust as we bring you additional insights into what is and what will be important in philanthropy through our Weekly News Recap and our Podcast.



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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