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The words we use shape the way that we and our donors think about fundraising. It’s fine to borrow ideas from other industries and institutions—let’s just make sure they’re the ideas we want.

Our profession is full of figurative language. We fundraisers often talk of donor “pipelines” and prospect “pools.” We initiate capital “campaigns” and identify fundraising “vehicles.”

These are not “our” words, so to speak. These metaphors—and countless others—all have their origins in other industries and institutions. At best, these borrowed phrases provide new and helpful ways of thinking about the work we do. At worst, they might smuggle in harmful portions of another industry’s worldview.

This is arguably what has happened as foundations and nonprofits adopt the language of finance. It might be helpful, in certain respects, to think of a donation as an “investment,” but the more seriously we take such a metaphor, the further we remove ourselves from traditional notions of charity. This can have deleterious effects, many of which have been documented in this publication and elsewhere.

Somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, you can end up with a metaphor that is not particularly harmful, but one that is also devoid of meaning. We call these clichés. They’re so familiar that we just accept them, even though they constrict the way we speak and, by extension, think.

So in the interests of rejuvenating our common fundraising language, we’d like to offer a new metaphor, one that can replace the notion of “donor pipelines.” We believe it enables more fruitful and nuanced conversations about the complex work of cultivating donors. We offer it in a spirit of playful inquiry. Our metaphor happens to be drawn from the world of baseball, but you don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate it (we hope).

Whether you happen to like our particular metaphor or not, we think there’s something valuable in examining our industry’s jargon with an eye toward practicing linguistic renewal. More on that below.

For now, we’d like to introduce the donor farm system.

Baseball Farm Systems

Every major league baseball team oversees a vast “farm system,” which is a collection of minor league teams. The players on these minor league teams are under contract with the major league club, but they aren’t yet ready for the competition of the majors. They’re often younger and still mastering important skills they’ll need in order to succeed. Importantly, every farm system is divided into six or seven levels, with the talent and competition increasing at each level as players get closer and closer to the big leagues.

For players in the farm system, the ultimate goal is to make it onto the major league roster. Playing in the major leagues represents the pinnacle of a career. For the major league club, the farm system (if it’s functioning as it should) provides a constant stream of new players and fresh talent, which is crucial, since more established players are bound to become less productive over time.

Die-hard baseball fans often discuss the strength of a team’s farm system (particularly when the big league club is struggling, and the playoffs seem like a pipedream). Entire websites are dedicated to ranking the prospects in each team’s farm system. Why this obsession? Because sustained success at the major league level requires a well-run farm system.

Fundraising Farm Systems

Consider some of the ways your organization’s donors are similar to the players in a farm system:

1. In a baseball farm system, every player wants to reach the major league club and help the team win a championship. Likewise, every single one of your donors wants to see your organization succeed: to help it cure cancer, shelter the homeless, or improve literacy. In most cases, your donors are eager to “move up” and make more significant contributions. Some will take longer to reach the next level; some will be ready to progress quickly.

2. Even the most talented young baseball players must spend some time in the minor leagues (far from the bright lights and intense scrutiny of the big leagues) learning what it means to be a professional baseball player. In a similar way, donors—particularly young or newly wealthy donors—must spend time learning what it means to be a donor, particularly within the context of your organization.

3. While every player’s goal is to keep his career on an upward trajectory, the truth is that players move both up and down. Even major league players will often return to the farm system to improve some skill they’re struggling with. This is okay. It’s in everyone’s interest for each player to be playing at the level most appropriate for him. In a similar manner, your donors won’t necessarily move in a perfect line from the ranks of annual donors to major/principal gift donors to planned gift donors. And that’s okay. The goal is to make sure your donor is at a level that makes her comfortable, and that she’s contributing the overall success of the organization.

New Metaphors, New Ideas

Our primary goal here is not to convince you that fundraising and minor league baseball are perfectly analogous. As much as we love baseball, and as much as it informs the way we view other aspects of our lives, we’re not lobbying for every fundraising shop to suspend all talk of “donor pipelines” and replace it with “donor farm systems.”

Rather, our goal is to encourage fundraisers to always be on the lookout for new ways to talk about the work that we do. If we borrow language used by petroleum companies (pipelines, pools), the financial industry (investments, portfolios), and the military (campaigns, volunteer enlistment), we’re also borrowing some part of the worldview of those industries and institutions. Indeed, the very concept of a baseball farm system is itself rooted in metaphor, one which likens baseball to agriculture.

On the one hand, this is perfectly healthy. Metaphors are supposed to juxtapose two unlike things. When Shakespeare compared his lover to a summer’s day, it wasn’t to somehow assert that meteorological vocabulary is in every way suitable for describing affection. Not at all—he borrowed what useful concepts the metaphor provided, and he discarded the rest. (Aptly enough, the whole point of Sonnet 18 is to demonstrate the ways in which the “summer’s day” metaphor is inadequate).

The trouble begins when we stop understanding the figurative language as figurative. At that point, as we said earlier, we’re in the realm of clichés.

Most clichés may be harmless enough (“Let’s talk offline” or “When all is said and done”), but like cholesterol in the blood, they become harmful when they build up. We happen to think that the concept of “donor pipelines” is no longer very useful, and that it actually stifles imagination. Given that we have other, better metaphors at hand, it seems worth making a change.

Whether you agree with us or not, we’ll all be better off if we pay attention to the language we’re using—in conversation with our colleagues about fundraising strategy, in written donor appeals, in our presentations at professional conferences, and anywhere else fundraising jargon has a tendency to pop up.

The words we use shape the way that we and our donors think about fundraising. It’s fine to borrow ideas from other industries and institutions—let’s just make sure they’re the ideas we want. And that we don’t let the pipeline of new ideas run dry.

Nathan Washatka and Michael V. Griffin work in development at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. 

3 thoughts on “Fundraising and figurative language”

  1. David Szeremet says:

    Great article. I work in the insurance and financial planning space. Occasionally, I come across cases where an individual donor (or family) is interested in developing a charitable giving program. Thanks to you, I have fresh ideas on how to better communicate. Thanks again!

  2. James Cleetus says:

    Great article. Baseball plus Grammar and Shakespeare lessons thrown in makes it very interesting. I find myself asking the questions – To be, or not to be. What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? Why do the Reds suck every year?

  3. mark shugarman says:

    Great, thoughtful insights.

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