Don’t Raise Money. Sell a Dream.

Woman sitting on bench in front of a lake contemplating and dreaming

There’s something that some fundraisers don’t get that good marketers know instinctively: You’re not selling a product, gift plan, or naming rights. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, “You’re selling a dream.”  

It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a Ferrari or Ford, a Rolex or a Timex, diamond earrings or cubic zirconia, a villa on a lake or a weekend at an Airbnb: You’re buying a dream of something bigger, better, shinier, or easier. 

The same goes for donors. Your donors are buying a painting visualized in their minds. They’re not “buying” your mission. They’re buying a dream of lasting legacies; philanthropic hopes; and transformative outcomes.

Objects are a commodity. Whether it’s a Ferrari Testarossa or a Ford Focus, it’s just a car. But a dream is something different. It’s a very personal thing, and you — the fundraiser or “salesperson” — cannot put a price tag on it. That’s for the dreamer to do.

Selling the Sizzle

This concept of selling a dream fits neatly with our mantra of, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Think about it: If you’re craving a steak, you’re not dreaming about the method in which the cow was raised. “Mmmm. Grass-fed, all organic, free-range, ethically raised beef.”    

You’re dreaming about the taste, and your expectations for the experience. “Mmmm. Sixteen ounces of still-sizzling, flame-grilled tender beef served au jus with a loaded baked potato on the side.”

Likewise, donors don’t dream about the mechanics of how a charitable gift annuity or donor-advised fund works. “I’ve always wanted to make a gift of cash that is set aside in a reserve account and invested for the betterment of a nonprofit!”

Instead, they dream about all the good they can do by making a gift.  “I’ve always wanted to help orphaned children find loving homes!”

Big difference, no?

Donor-Centric Isn’t Just a Catchphrase

“Selling the dream” is why we use donor-centric language. It takes the focus off the product (your nonprofit and its mission) and puts it on the donor instead. It’s also why we avoid using death language in our donor communications and gift descriptions. After all, saying “Mr. Jones, we’re looking forward to your death so we can use your money for our mission!” isn’t likely to inspire a gift — or put you in anyone’s good graces.  

But too many think a donor-centric approach simply means inserting variations of the word “you” as often as possible in donor communications. They think “selling” planned gifts requires extensive knowledge of tax laws and gift details. And they believe a one-size-fits-all approach is the best way to reach their audience and capture donor interest. Since you’re likely one of our clients already, I don’t have to tell you they’re wrong. You know that donor-centric messaging requires you to consider your donors’ interests, motivations, and yes, dreams. You understand that it requires building a culture of philanthropy and focusing on stewardship. You realize it requires being a good listener, so you can learn what’s important to your prospects.

And you recognize that it means helping your prospects clearly see their vision, their dream, so that you can help them to bring it to life.


Smart fundraisers know that raising money isn’t about selling donors on a particular gift vehicle, or even on a mission. It’s about selling them their dreams, and finding a way to facilitate those dreams in a manner that benefits both the donor and the nonprofit. It takes good stewardship, active listening, and a focus on donor-centric fundraising.

Stop trying to sell your nonprofit’s mission. Sell your prospects their dreams of philanthropy instead.

In fact, maybe it’s time to stop calling yourself a fundraiser, or even a friendraiser, and start calling yourself a dreamraiser instead.

All of our blogs, products and services are proudly conceived, created, reviewed, and disseminated by real humans — not A.I. (artificial “intelligence.”)

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