Are you a fundraiser who works on commission???  Do you know any fundraisers who do?  I don’t work on commission personally, nor do I know any fundraisers who do, but I’m asking because of a conversation I had with a friend last month.

My friend works for a non-profit in more of an administrative capacity and has no direct involvement in fundraising.  We were talking about the occasionally difficult dynamic between fundraisers and other staff working for the same non-profit organization; how fundraisers are sometimes thought to be sleazy.  My friend mentioned that it had something to do with fundraisers earning commission off of what they raise.

My jaw dropped.  Commission?!?  Oh no no no… I don’t earn commission based on what I raise, and I don’t know anyone who does.  I have heard of commission-based fundraising, but I’ve never seen it in practice.

My opinion is that it’s unethical.  It leads to fundraisers motivated by what they will earn rather than what difference those funds will make to their organization.  It takes the heart out of the work and makes it about financial transactions.

It’s like when you go to a clothing store and can tell right away that the employees there earn commission.  They jump on you when you arrive, hound you while you’re there, and it’s all in their best interests, not yours.

Having fundraising targets you’re expected to hit makes sense to me.  Everyone has a job they’re expected to do and some work is more quantifiable than other work, but to me commission and fundraising don’t mix.

Plus, it’s considered a reason to think fundraisers are sleazy.  It creates a myth that all fundraisers make commission, and that leads to the complicated dynamic between what we do and what others at our organization do.  They make the difference and we earn commission.  But no, it’s not truly like that at all; we raise the funds to help them make the difference.  And I think that’s the way it should be.

What do you think???  Have you seen positive examples of commission-based fundraising?  Do you passionately disagree with me?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section, or engage with me on Twitter @fundraisermaeve.

Happy 50th post from What Gives Philanthropy!!!  Thanks for reading!


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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2 thoughts on “Commission

  1. I have never really understood why commission-based fundraising is considered so horrible, though I know that it is frowned on in official circles. The Canadian Centre for Philanthropy (now Imagine Canada) hated it. I think the Cdn Association of Fundraising Executives did not like it either. But for the client, it has two big advantages: (i) the client does not pay more than gets raised, as could happen with a fee-based deal when the money just doesn’t come in; (ii) the fundraiser has a keen incentive to maximize returns, which benefits the client.

    I understand the need to control the practices that fundraisers engage in, but that is needed whether they work on commission or for a fee. The effective fundraiser is going to promote the goals of the charity in a way that will appeal best to the potential donor; that’s how to succeed, however one is paid. That should be done honestly and without harassment, in either pay system.

    A commission salesperson in retail will also be most effective if polite and restrained, not pushy. I suspect that in the best shops, clients can’t tell how the salespeople are paid, because the salespeople do it right. Ditto for fundraisers.

    I don’t see why a commission is likely to make a fundraising professional any more sleazy than being paid a fixed fee, or a fee based on time spent. The more the fundraiser brings in, the better for his/her reputation, and thus the more likely he/she will get future work. So there is a personal incentive to do well, commission or no commission.

    Some people – not very subtle people, and certainly no one associated with this blog – seem to think that ‘administration costs’ are somehow a bad thing. This thinking is readily extended to believing that all really valuable work will be done by volunteers. This is clearly nonsense for most serious charities. But once one starts paying to have services rendered, I don’t think it’s morally relevant how one pays.

    The fact that some commission fundraisers have not always been models of ethics is not a matter of the commission model but a matter of poor ethics, period. The ethics and conduct of fundraisers should be overseen somehow – probably by membership in reputable organizations rather than by government intervention, though some provinces do regulate the practice. Also, the clients have to keep an eye on the fundraisers, or provide limits or controls in the contract – but that should happen in any event, not just for commission fundraisers.

    So far, I don’t find a blanket ban on commission fundraising necessary or desirable. As I said at the outset, I realize this is not the establishment view, but I wonder if the establishment is just a little too comfortable with secure sources of funding, so its members who run fundraising organizations do not face the risks of smaller charities that make commission payment attractive.

    I guess I’m willing to be persuaded, but am not yet.

  2. John: Thank you very much for your passionate response! I hear you. Commission does not in and of itself make a professional fundraiser unethical, sleazy, less-skilled, less altruistic, and on and on. I don’t know if it’s a better model, but it’s not a bad one. Plus, it makes me think of Dan Pallotta’s Ted Talk (… maybe commission would help us think of charity differently. Maybe we need that! –Maeve

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