Why Titles Matter for your Fundraising Resource

Don’t think your title can hurt charitable giving… Think again!


Russell James, Ph.D. at Texas Tech University has recently completed a study of the Effectiveness of Fundraiser Job Titles.

“His findings should give your Development or Advancement Department reason to pause and, perhaps, move away from institution-centered titles to more gift-focused titles… his research shows that titles DO matter.”

In the past, some schools may have feared using words like donor or fundraising instead opting for terms like Development or Advancement. Now, however, the beliefs, attitudes, and values that supported these obscure titles are outmoded and rapidly becoming ineffective as Christian Higher Education works to transform itself in the 21st century or risk extinction.

Philanthropy is the US has reached record levels and far exceeds pre-recession giving with the most recent research showing that charitable giving surpassed $427 billion in 2018 and giving to Education is over $58 billion, second only to giving to religious organizations which is now over $124 billion.

Most important, giving by individuals amounts to over $.68 of every $1.00 Americans donate and this does NOT occur at golf tournaments, alumni banquets or annual mail appeals. Instead, those Christian institutions who are capturing an ever-increasing slice of the ever-growing pie of philanthropy are doing so by learning how to earn the right to solicit 5, 6 and even 7 figure gifts from major donors which brings us back to job titles… titles can hurt your fundraising efforts and should be taken seriously.

Dr. James surveyed 3,188 respondents to test 63 fundraising-related job titles in four charitable scenarios:

  1. Charitable bequest gifts,
  2. Gifts of stock,
  3. Gifts of real estate,
  4. Charitable gift annuities.

Development & Advancement Titles are all about you & NOT the Donor

Measured by which person donors would be more likely to contact to discuss each of these types of donations, the worst-performing titles were the traditional institution-focused fundraiser job titles, in particular, those using “advancement,” “institutional advancement,” or “development.”

The survey shows that traditional institution-focused job titles are both the most commonly used and the worst-performing. College leadership may do well to consider the donor’s perspective when selecting job titles for fundraisers rather than following traditional higher education practices leftover from the 1950s… actually, make that the 1920s.

As Dr. James noted, “The term ‘development’ is most commonly used interchangeably with ‘fundraising’ today. However, the use of the term ‘development’ originated at Northwestern University in the 1920s and had a broad meaning that encompassed a variety of institutional objectives.”

Similar to the history of the term development, “advancement” originated from university fundraisers at the 1958 Greenbrier Conference. The original conference documents show that this conference “concerned itself with the internal mechanisms of the college or university, not its relationship with the rest of society, e.g. donors.

Although institution-focused job titles remain common, philanthropy has or should (to capture a larger slice of the chartable pie) move toward the more successful donor-driven approach to fundraising.

  1. Being Events-Driven, only, is often overused, stale and shows diminishing ROI. A major donor with the capacity to donate $100,000 might give a “go-away” gift of $100 or $1,000 because $100 is all you ask for on your mail appeal response card or $1,000 is all that is required to be a Table Host at your annual banquet.
  2. Being Institution-Driven means you have to constantly work to be heard among the noise in the marketplace and the appeal is all about you. We are great stewards of your gifts, our programs are world-class, our students are making a difference and so on.
  3. Instead, being Donor-Driven means working to earn the right to help the donor practice their Christian beliefs or fulfill their personal values or carry on a family tradition by making an investment in the mission of your institution. All philanthropic efforts are about the donor… but what is YOUR title?

Worst Performing Titles

The job title generating the lowest overall likelihood of donor contact among all 63 tested was “Director of Advancement” and ALL titles containing the words development or advancement were found in the 10 worst-performing titles.

Best Performing Titles

Gift-focused titles appeared to perform better with “Director of Donor Guidance at #10 of 63, “Director of Donor Advising” #5 of 63, and “Financial Advisor for Donors” #1 of 63. The top three performing titles included “donor” and all referenced a positive benefit for the donor, i.e. guidance, advising or financial advising. Aside from the general trends related to institution-centered, donor-centered, and gift- centered titles, a few other items of interest emerged in Dr. James research.

  • The results strongly support the relative ineffectiveness of the traditional institution-centered titles using advancement or development to encourage donor contact to discuss charitable giving.
  • His results also suggest that one effective approach to titles is to address a “donor versus institution” conflict is to, instead be “gift centered.”
  • The fundraiser focused on “gift planning” appears as one who has knowledge and experience, especially in the context of complex donor scenarios, and can thus be a valuable resource for the donor without having to make an express representation of “donor versus institution” allegiances.

The bottom line is that we now have empirical research that shows titles DO matter and changing job titles alone to more gift-centered will enhance donor perceptions. Most important, however, is that IF your fundraising function is nonexistent, underperforming or even doing well, this study might be an interesting conversation starter at your next Administration or Board meeting.


John Curtis, Ph.D

John founded IOD, Inc. in 1986 and has 30+ years experience providing a wide array of consulting services to nonprofits of all types and sizes. He also teaches fundraising, strategic planning, board development, and change management for the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy at Rollins College in Orlando, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits in Atlanta, and the Duke Nonprofit Management Program in North Carolina and Virginia.
Scroll to Top