No nonprofit can afford to be an island.
As tempting as it may be to stay in your comfort zone, wearing blinders that enable you to forge straight ahead without noticing what’s going on around you, this is a dangerous practice.
Because sometimes the landscape changes dramatically. And when it does, your nonprofit could get left behind. Unless you’re paying close attention.
This has been happening a lot over the past six years or so, as news and social media has been filling our brains, stoking our fears and tugging at our heartstrings as if from a firehose. People who care, when they see devastation and misery, want to help.
This happens, for instance, when emergencies arise. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Floods. Fires. Drought. War. Over the course of my four decades in fundraising, there have been years I’ve had donors tell me “This year we’re giving all our extra resources to respond to… Hurricane Katrina… Haiti relief… the Fukushima disaster… the refugee crisis… anti-hate organizations… .” The list goes on an on.
In the face of such natural human impulses, what can you do?
When things outside your nonprofit’s doors portend impact for your ability to fulfill your mission, you need to be prepared.
Throwing up your hands in despair is not your best response.
I’ve seen too many nonprofits settle into this hunkering down in the bunker mindset. It happened during the 2008 recession. It happened during the Covid pandemic. And it’s happening now in the face of looming inflation and potential recession. Too many nonprofit leaders exclaiming: “What can we do? This is just not going to be a good year; we’ll need to tighten our belts.”
What about opening your arms wide to welcome the newly-awakened impulse to do good?
Five years ago I wrote about this after reading an article by Tom Belford, one of the Agitator editors, floating the idea this might be The Year for Acquisition.
At first I wondered if they’d completely changed their tune, because many of us in the sector have been talking for a good number of years about prioritizing retention. After all, research by Dr. Adrian Sargeant clearly demonstrates if you can increase donor retention by just 10% you can increase the lifetime value of your donor base by 200%. So that seems like a no-brainer.
And while I still heartily believe most nonprofits could raise significantly more money just by diving into their own database and actively building stronger relationships with their current donors – even if they didn’t recruit a single new donor – I agree that exceptional times call for exceptional strategies.
Don’t neglect donor retention. But don’t ignore annual giving basics – and this means acquisition.
When opportunity knocks, open the door.
First, look for opportunity. You’ll find it inside your donors’ hearts and minds. Which is why you must be clairaudient.
This means developing the ability to hear what is in people’s hearts and minds.
It’s always critical to think from your donors’ perspectives. What are they thinking about right now? What keeps them up at night? And how can what you do help them to sleep better and feel better about themselves?
You don’t have to be a political or advocacy or justice-focused or environmental organization to key into what is first and foremost in people’s hearts and minds.
When I last shared these thoughts, I was working with two arts organizations, and I told them both the same thing. Emphasize empathy. That’s what you do. That’s what art makes possible. Empathy is what brings people together, and today folks are concerned about how polarized we’ve become. You can help them with that.
Let me show you how each of them proceeded to present their missions as relevant:
EXAMPLE: Visual Arts
Making beautiful art is one way to reach people. This art creates spiritual connection, hope, and healing by uniting people though religious and ritual art.
Appeal letter excerpt:
This project is not about demonizing others. It is about honoring our commonalities and celebrating our differences. It offers a way forward, using some of the most powerful tools I know—art and beauty.
Empathy through art. We are more alike, than different.
Art touches people on a deeply personal level, bringing with it the potential to raise awareness about our humanity, our relationship to others and our bond with each other.
Will you please join me with your sympathetic and thoughtful donation?
EXAMPLE: Performing Arts
Our theatre is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion.
E–News/Letter from Artistic Director excerpt:
We are amazed by the power religious belief exerts in our world. So much good—and so much bad—has been done in the name of religion; and at home and abroad, we are dumbfounded by the power of fundamentalism to wreak havoc on our social and political institutions. What is belief? Why is it such a powerful force?
What happens to us when our beliefs are challenged? When a prophet comes to say, “What you are believing is wrong”? When laws change that affect our beliefs? Or when we doubt that our beliefs are true? We are beset with fear. It seems to us as if our entire reason for being has been negated, the ground we stand on taken away, our lives deprived of meaning. And of course, we humans are not at our best when we’re afraid. Fear makes us react in anger; we hate, we strike out, we withdraw, we mourn. We can become destructive, to ourselves and others. Our communities and families can be torn apart.
We feel deeply honored to present The Christians in our empathy gym. We humans are always challenged—perhaps, at this time, more than usual—to bring compassion rather than fear to conflict and misunderstanding, to try to understand those with whom we disagree, and to look deeply and fiercely at our own beliefs. The Christians takes us on a journey into belief, doubt, fear, and prophecy so that we may learn and grow.
I have spoken to many people, on different sides of the political spectrum, and they are upset, angry and afraid. They want to take action, but don’t know quite what to do. They want to accomplish something, but don’t know quite how.
People are today, more than ever, looking for guides to facilitate their tentative next steps along the road towards enacting their values.
“Smart fundraisers should seize the opportunity and be preparing to channel and harness their deep alarm … offering them a way to connect and respond.”
– Tom Belford
This is the way you can guide folks along the pathway to passionate philanthropy that I so often talk about. Philanthropy = “love of humankind.”
Smart fundraisers will show people how to translate their anger and fear into loving actions.
These are the very same actions that will further your mission and align with your donor’s deep-seated need to be one of the good guys.
Smart fundraisers will see this need and fill it.
This is the very human need we all share to find purpose and meaning in our lives by making a positive impact in areas dear to our hearts.
Smart fundraisers will tie their initiatives to pressing social problems.
What will you do this year to become a smart philanthropy facilitator?
I suggest you begin by taking a look at your opportunity. What do you do that aligns with what is in the news today? What will people likely consider relevant? What stories can you tell that will break people’s hearts, and restore their hope?
If you’re curious as to what’s on people’s minds, here is a graph from the World Economic Forum, and some resources to peruse:
- Top 20 Current Global Issues We Must Address
- Global Risks Report 2022 World Economic Forum
- Global Issues Overview: United Nations
- Issues That Matter Most to Millennial and Gen-Z Leaders
- Most Popular Social Issues of 2022 U.S.: isidewith.com
Help your donors to feel hopeful, not fearful.
Put them to work making the world a better, more caring place.
If you’ve had success acquiring new donors by opening the door to opportunity, please share in the comments below.
Photo, with permission, of Magritte painting as part of a series: The Art of Philanthropy – ‘Love of Humankind’ – as Seen Through the Prism of the World’s Art Museums