Macro-trends, future-telling, and sector reports have their place. But they aren’t nearly as important as the fundamentals—and just cultivating donors.
There are a few high holy days in the fundraising industry’s liturgical calendar. Fundraisers have their own Advent, of course, as they eagerly await that transformative year-end gift that is surely just around the corner. Perhaps the apex of the calendar for “professional” fundraisers is the annual publication of the Giving USA report, accompanied as it is by breathless analyses of the new data and a growing cottage industry of complementary resources. (Complementary but certainly not complimentary.)
This report is undoubtedly a useful resource for those researching the philanthropic sector, but the excitement stirred up among fundraisers—as if the report could suddenly change the daily work of a fundraiser—is strange indeed. Even in a year of global pandemic, the actual work of fundraising is not fundamentally changed.
For most fundraisers, any time spent reviewing the Giving USA report findings would be better spent talking to their donors. Nevertheless, I do believe that fundraisers should keep tabs on macro-trends (including, but not limited to, philanthropic sector analyses like the Giving USA report) for three main reasons.
ONE: It can help you know and cultivate your donors better.
All good fundraisers recognize the importance of knowing one’s donors. What excites them about your organization? What is their current personal, professional, and financial situation? What hesitations might they have?
Most of this knowledge comes from developing authentic relationships with your donors. In some cases, though, knowing macro-trends can prove a useful supplement. If you know, for instance, that Joe Donor is an executive within the hospitality industry, common sense would indicate that now—when his industry is suffering massive losses—is not the time to ask for a big upgrade or to solicit, say, a multiyear campaign gift. Moreover, your continued cultivation of Joe despite the slim prospects of a near-term major gift will likely deepen your relationship in the long run—especially if others invest their time elsewhere knowing his current situation.
TWO: It can help you anticipate future opportunities and challenges within your sector.
In the latest issue of First Things, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat examines four intellectual strains in contemporary Catholic thought, and he sets this examination against the backdrop of what he sees as new material realities in store for the Catholic Church.
Douthat suggests that both charitable giving to the Church and the demographic profile of those who will give are poised to fundamentally change. One key change is that the affluent, generous, Catholic-in-name-only is probably going away—or, at least his support of Catholic institutions is. That means the number of Catholic givers will shrink, and the profile of a Catholic giver will change. And that means that who wields influence in the Church will change.
If Douthat is correct, then Catholic organizations would be wise to recognize these shifts and begin preparing now in order to weather—or even thrive—in this new Catholic donor environment.
In a similar manner, it is worth examining what the future holds for your sector and how charitable giving demographics may shift. Keep in mind that whatever trends you recognize are unlikely to massively affect your day-to-day (and they certainly won’t change the fundamentals!).
THREE: It can inform your long-term programmatic and financial planning.
Pursuant to my prior point: if your core demographics and revenue potential are poised to change considerably in the future, it would be wise to begin mapping out your programmatic and financial vision for that future now. It bears mentioning that macro-trends should not dictate programmatic or financial priorities. Chasing easy dollars is a recipe for mission drift. Rather, understanding trends can facilitate prudent decision-making in your organization: keeping mission first, you can plan for how best to advance that mission in a changing social, cultural, or political landscape.
After evaluating macro-trends, you might conclude that now is not the time to undertake that ambitious new capital project or to start the flashy new program, and that’s okay. You might also realize which programs should take on more or less significance—and it may not be what you expected! What you might lose in terms of near-term excitement and engagement you will more than regain in the mid- and long-term when your programs are still mission-driven, and your budget reflects a realistic assessment of your revenue potential.
EXERCISE CAUTION—STICK TO FUNDAMENTALS
For the most part, these macro-trends have little bearing on an individual fundraiser’s day-to-day responsibilities. It can be easy to extrapolate too much from descriptive data and prognostications or to place undue confidence in how your findings will bear upon your organization’s specific situation.
Some changes and some trends may significantly affect some nonprofits—but these are the exception. For the vast majority of organizations, the correlation is not strong enough to invest significant time considering the particular impact of broad trends. We saw this clearly during the pandemic, when massive social and cultural changes did not upend the fundamentals of fundraising. The only correlation we can count on is this: time spent cultivating and recruiting donors will lead to good relationships and increased revenue.
Macro-trend research may have some utility in the board room and in strategic planning, where leadership teams and boards consider an organization’s vision and long-term strategic priorities. Better for fundraisers to spend their time “doing the right things, the right way, consistently and over time.”