Doubling Down on Philanthropy in the New Politics

You’ve probably heard the phrase often said ironically, “May you live in interesting times.” Without a doubt, there hasn’t been a more interesting time than the last two weeks.  Like at least half of the country, I’ve been thinking and reflecting a lot since last Tuesday.  I’m not going to blog about my personal feelings because, frankly, they are irrelevant to the bigger issue of our work as fundraisers.  There have already been some good perspectives offered by Gail Perry, Roger Craver, and Vu Le. What I will say is that in my twenty-five years in fundraising, I’ve never felt such strong reverberations of uncertainty and fear in the nonprofit sector like I have since November 8. Allow me to share this thought...

No matter how you voted, a change on this scale at both the executive and legislative levels will likely affect federal support for nonprofits and could also impact in some way charitable giving deductions.  According to the Tax Policy Center, based on projected changes by the upcoming administration, charitable giving would fall in 2017 between 4.5-9%.  Who knows what really lies ahead in the US landscape.  This election was never about policies.  It was about values and showed us that the country is painfully divided in what many of us have felt are uniquely core American tenets of freedom of choice; freedom of expression; diversity in gender, race, and ability; and tolerance and acceptance.  For the nonprofit sector which relies on public and private sources of support, it can feel like the floor has just caved in because so much is up in the air now.

Philanthropy Drives Social Change

One of the best and most impactful sessions I attended at AFP’s International Fundraising Conference (AFP ICON) in Boston last March was the Rebels with Causes session featuring Daryl Upsall, FInstF, Roger Craver, and Jennie Thompson.  Each of the panelists started fundraising in the 1960s for some of the most important social and political movements of our generation addressing racial equity, women’s issues, environmental issues, gay rights, immigrant and refugee causes, and, honestly, just about every other value and issue that feels threatened today.  These rock star fundraisers shared their stories of raising money for causes when the headwinds seemed impossible to overcome.  Their grit and determination helped to launch or build some of the biggest names in social and political change today: Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, Planned Parenthood, NOW, Environmental Defense, the African National Congress following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, The Terrence Higgins Trust (the first professional fundraising position for HIV/AIDS issues in Europe), and the list goes on.

That was one of my favorite sessions because I saw my work as a fundraiser in a different lens.  One particular point that has stuck with me was what Roger Craver said, “outrage is the most important ingredient for social change.” So, now it’s our turn to stand on Daryl’s, Roger’s, and Jennie’s shoulders. 

Fundraising and Giving Will Sustain the Social Sector

The social sector exists exactly because of the gaps in public support for issues that create the fabric of our communities.  Your donors know that and that’s why they often put more faith in nonprofits than in the government.  Fundraisers, CEOs, and Boards must not fundraise in a panic but rather must double down their conviction to connect with the donors to their organizations and thoughtfully refocus and sharpen their case for support.  Fundraisers don’t just raise money.  We are “dream brokers” helping our donors fulfill their personal wishes for community issues and solutions that are important to them…and to us. Remember the fundamentals of relationship fundraising—it’s not about you, it’s about your donors and aligning their dreams for change with your visions. 

Reframe Your “Why”

Your story must start with gratitude for the generosity of donors who have helped you to date.  Stay close to those supporters who have donated to you loyally.  They will stick by you in tough times.  Keep those whom you serve front and center in your case.  Be honest and open about the opportunities, successes, and challenges you face in your service delivery.  What is the impact that you are having thanks to your donors?  How do you know you are making a difference?  Due to the uncertainties that lie ahead, how are you positioning yourselves to continue, change, or expand your work?  What do you need to do that?  Answer the questions: Why your organization?  Why should I, the donor, care? Why now? 

Be clear in your organizational vision. Have a plan of action that moves you toward that vision.  And track your progress with impact metrics.  Donors are going to be driven by what makes them feel they are making the biggest difference—without question—and they will need some barometer to know what is the best investment of their giving.

Reconsider Your Own Philanthropy

Finally, as donors, it’s also important to think about your own personal philanthropy.  As you make your year-end philanthropic decisions, consider adding a charity whose work and mission in women’s health, health care in general, civil rights, environmental protection, journalism, and social welfare may be under pressure like never before.  In addition to these groups and issues that were the subject of so much vitriol (a list, sadly, too long to detail), consider nonprofits that focus on strengthening our public school systems, offer job training or employment opportunities (especially transition from school to work), or even advocate for voting rights and reform, as just a few ideas of issues that are as needed and relevant.  Try, if you can, to become a sustaining donor to whatever organization(s) you end up choosing to support.  We know the challenges that surges of one-time donations can bring for long-term sustainability of programs and services to beneficiaries. 

To paraphrase something else that has stuck with me since AFP ICON, as fundraisers, we take on the responsibilities of having the long view and providing hope for donors.  Philanthropy is what we can influence and depend on.  This is how we as fundraisers and donors can turn our outrage into social change.