Fundraisers wear many hats and juggle a lot of different priorities above and beyond raising funds. Donor cultivation, organizational leadership, and how to make appeals stand out amid all the noise — these are just a few of the things we know you have to master to make an impact.
Improving your skills doesn’t have to be a chore, though. A little inspiration can go a long way.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of the top 10 books we think every fundraiser or advancement pro should read and enjoy.
1. Relationship Fundraising: A Donor-Based Approach to the Business of Raising Money, by Ken Burnett
As most seasoned non-profit professionals know, effective fundraising doesn’t start (or end) with the money — it’s all about relationships. First published in 1992, this book remains a classic for fundraising pros who understand that sustainable fundraising is rooted in longstanding, mutually-beneficial relationships with donors.
For advancement offices with long-term development goals, building lasting relationships with donors is critical to success. Use the information in this book to develop your own donor-based approach to fundraising in all of your campaigns, and especially in your stewardship activities. You’ll see higher returns in the long run.
2. Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value by Adrian Sargeant & Elaine Jay
Poor donor retention is the skeleton-in-the-closet for many fundraising organizations. We’ve all read the stats — it costs more to acquire new donors than it does to retain existing ones — yet many organizations pour the bulk of their resources into finding new donors, and expend little effort on cultivating loyalty with their existing donor base.
Based on data from more than 20,000 non-profit organizations, this book outlines simple strategies for developing sustainable giving programs and increasing donor retention. Use the information for your own donor cultivation and keep your donors committed to your institution for years to come.
3. It’s Not Just About the Money: How to Build Authentic Major Donor Relationships, by Richard Perry & Jeff Schreifels
Another great book on donor relationships, this one focuses on major gift development — a subject near and dear to the heart of every advancement pro. Although ongoing programs like annual giving are important fundraising vehicles, major gifts to a college or university can be transformational.
Perry and Schreifels outline how to identify major gift prospects — high net-worth individuals with the capacity for five- and six-figure gifts — and how to proceed when you find them. Not surprisingly, they emphasize the importance of putting donor relationships first (because like the title says, it’s not just about the money!) and get to the heart of what honest fundraising is all about.
4. Donor-Centered Leadership, by Penelope Burk
Donor retention might seem like a leaky bucket, but talent retention can be just as tricky. Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Leadership (a follow-up to her 2003 book Donor-Centered Fundraising) is a best practice guide for recruiting, hiring and retaining the right people to staff your development shop.
In her own research, Burk found that the average turnover rate for fundraisers is just 16 months. That kind of churn is unhealthy in any workplace. This book is a must-read for leaders and fundraisers at any level who care about building a sustainable development organization.
5. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, by Seth Godin
This seminal book from marketing guru Seth Godin is a call-to-action to anyone who wants to make a meaningful difference in their organization, no matter how big or small. At its core, it’s about overcoming the resistance that holds people back and challenging them to do great work.
Burnout among fundraising professionals is real. Instead of getting ground down as an interchangeable “cog” in the system, Godin urges his readers to become a “linchpin” — to make a choice to stand out instead of merely fitting in. This book is for anyone who wants to see change in their organization, and wants to be the one to make it happen.
6. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
The premise of this book — that change is hard (but not impossible) without the right motivation — is an illuminating read for anyone who has ever wanted to bring change to their organization (or their larger community) but felt stymied. The authors explore the basics of how we make decisions (spoiler alert: we’re not always rational) and lay out a path for getting people to “switch.”
Whether you need to convince your leadership team to go in a new direction, or persuade your donors that things can’t stay the way they are, this book will help you plan a strategy for bringing your stakeholders on board — and bringing about the change you’re looking for.
7. Asking Styles: Harness Your Fundraising Power, by Andrea Kihlstedt
What’s at the heart of all fundraising? The “ask.” Knowing your own asking style — and the asking style of your board members and organization — can transform your fundraising efforts, from targeted campaigns to major gifts programs. In this book, fundraising coach Andrea Kihlstedt teaches you how to leverage your personality traits to your advantage when asking for money.
For advancement offices, requests for donations are often institutional rather than personal. But any advancement office that engages individuals to fundraise on its behalf — board members, alumni, or parents — can use this book as a way to help those individuals solicit donations in a way that’s most comfortable for them.
8. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath & Dan Heath
This one might seem counter-intuitive — what do sticky ideas have to do with fundraising appeals? But this book is a fantastic read for anyone who has to influence other people. In it, Chip and Dan Heath uncover the elements of what makes an idea or story “stick,” drawing on urban legends, advertising, and personal anecdotes to explore what makes people remember some things and forget others. And the answers may surprise you.
You can use the same principles to build an unforgettable story around your cause or institution, to spark donor interest and inspire action.
9. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini
This 1984 classic has transformed the way marketers structure their messages. In it, the renowned scholar of psychology and marketing outlines the six “weapons of influence” that move people closer to saying “yes.” These principles of human psychology are most often discussed in the context of marketing efforts, but they’re equally applicable to fundraising campaigns.
Understanding human behavior will give you a definite edge in motivating your supporters to donate to your cause. You can build powerful triggers like reciprocity, commitment, scarcity and desire for consensus into your donation appeals, and see the impact in increased giving for yourself.
10. How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
We couldn’t post a list of our favorite books for fundraisers and leave this one out. After all, “influencing people” is what fundraisers (well, all of us really) have to do almost every single day. While the title may sound manipulative, the substance of the book is anything but.
As fundraisers and advancement office professionals, a big part of your job is connecting with your prospects and donors in a positive and respectful way. Whether it’s an alumni fundraiser for your school, or a professional networking event, you’re still dealing with people. Carnegie’s techniques are time-tested and true, and will help you forge long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with your donors and your peers.
So there you have it — our top 10 books for fundraising pros.
Working in advancement or any non-profit sector has many rewards — and challenges. Fundraising professionals have to know how to foster long-term relationships with donors, build sustainable effective organizations, and most importantly, frame their appeals in a way that compels their audience to act.
Whatever your priorities, we hope these books will help point you in the right direction!