Let’s take a look at the roots of fundraising.


Did the history of professional fundraising in the U.S. begin with the Village People? Not exactly, but the YMCA played a significant role.


The origins of America were ripe with fundraising, as the wealthy came to the aid of the new colonies, according to Philanthropy in America: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (ed. Dwight Burlingame). The philanthropy gave the independent nation a boost so it could acquire strength and confidence.


However, to speak of fundraising on a national, professional scale, consideration goes to the system that Charles Sumner Ward and Frank L. Pierce developed in the early 1900s as they raised funds for a YMCA building in Washington, D.C. Per Philanthropy Roundtable, these two men were responsible for the time-limited campaign, hiring a publicist, and receiving paid advertisements from corporate sponsors.


Also around this time, Harvard University’s Bishop William Lawrence, in an attempt to increase professors’ salaries, used a “genteel” letter to encourage alumni to donate. As a result of his success, other universities came to realize that alumni would donate for more than just new buildings.


Some repercussions to the professionalism of fundraising arose. Local mom-and-pop charities that thrived on contributions in the early 1900s found it tricky to obtain recognition. When fundraising spiraled into a national movement, options for donors increased.


Between the World Wars and particularly after World War II, the need for fundraising within organizations escalated. As Burlingame’s account notes, the American people were charitable, but their feeling about fundraisers was skeptical. National fundraising standards were still not in place.


According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the National Society of Fund Raisers (NSFR) formed in the 1960s as a source of research, aid, and instruction for professional fundraisers as well as the organizations that utilized their services. New approaches to fundraising developed in the subsequent decades, including the use of telethons and door-to-door asking, reaching donors from various socioeconomic backgrounds. In the 1990s, training for the fundraising profession increased, technological methods were on the horizon, and the growing nonprofit sector became a hot commodity for fundraisers.


Nowadays, fundraisers base their ideas on widely accepted research and are invaluable members of many nonprofits. Donors are inclined to part with their money for a good cause, if ethical conditions are in place, conditions that professional fundraisers can provide.


Interestingly, the institutions that sparked the start of professional fundraising, the YMCA and Harvard University, aimed to better certain segments of the country’s population. If a powerful nation was the goal, then its people, a.k.a. its voters, must be well-educated and in good mind and body. Today’s nonprofits aim to better diverse populations. Professional fundraising standards that evolve with the times help to make positive, consistent growth throughout America feasible.


On our sister site, Third Sector Today, see this post for more resources for fundraisers:

“Feel Good” Fundraising is Ethical Fundraising


For more on fundraising ethics and related certification for professionals, visit Certified Fund Raising Executive.