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by Woodrow Rosenbaum
This year’s compounding crises — the pandemic, economic recession, racial injustice, a contentious U.S. election, and more — have forced the nonprofit world to take a hard look at its assumptions and beliefs and to challenge outdated thinking that prevents progress. As we continue that difficult journey, I’d like to suggest at least one easy step: doing away with the popular but misguided myth of donor fatigue.
While charitable giving was down in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2019, the latest 2020 giving trends show that people are perhaps more motivated to give now than at any other time in history and to a broad range of causes. Still, we hear of many nonprofits scaling back their outreach or worrying about oversaturation and competing messages. As GivingTuesday approaches on December 1, my organization, which coordinates that global generosity movement, strongly discourages such defeatist thinking.
Let’s start by considering how this myth of donor fatigue became part of fundraising folklore in the first place.
For decades, long-term donation trends in the United States and Canada were either flat or declining. Even in years that saw an uptick in total giving by individuals, most funds came from fewer and fewer donors. The donor pool appeared to be shrinking, while long-term consumer spending continued to increase. Some believed this was indicative of a less generous society.
With charitable donations at roughly 2 percent of GDP for so long, fundraisers have come to view this as a hard limit. Like the speed of light, it could never be exceeded — someone who gave to one cause would give less to another. Nonprofits in search of answers have tried to understand why so few people give and why it’s so hard to retain donors. When they asked constituents, many, especially nongivers, said they received too many charitable solicitations. Lapsed donors also reported that they were solicited too frequently. This led fundraisers to believe donors were tapped out, over-asked, and had nothing more to give.
But if donors were truly tapped out, it would be impossible to motivate them to give more. Yet we repeatedly see examples of people doing exactly that, most often in times of crisis. During disaster-relief campaigns, for example, a large rise in donations does not result in a corresponding drop in giving afterward.
During eight years of GivingTuesday, we have seen this phenomenon firsthand. In the early years, some assumed that if people gave more on one day, they would necessarily give less on subsequent days. But an analysis of more than 10 years of individual transaction data tells a different story: Much like during disaster-relief efforts, donors respond with a large increase in donations and then return to baseline afterward.
GivingTuesday is driving a net increase in giving. In 2019, at least $1.97 billion was donated in 24 hours in the United States alone, with a record 13 percent of the adult population participating in some way. Moreover, 75 percent of GivingTuesday donors give to an organization they previously supported. In other words, it’s possible to motivate people to give again and to give more, directly refuting the donor-fatigue myth.
The GivingTuesday movement continues to grow in year-over-year donation volume, reach, and impact — driving increased donations and behavior change. On May 5, as the pandemic crisis unfolded, communities around the world rallied to give as part of #GivingTuesdayNow, contributing $503 million online in the United States alone in 24 hours. Against the backdrop of Covid-19, charitable giving in 2020 is significantly higher in every donation category than in 2019.
What’s working during these crisis moments that isn’t activated at other times? Research on donor intention by Sector3Insights indicates that most charities do not take advantage of factors that drive successful fundraising, including a sense of urgency, emotional connection, and familiarity with supporters or those benefiting from an organization’s work. It’s clear how disaster relief connects to the first factor — urgency. But urgency doesn’t have to mean an emergency. It just has to be a compelling reason to act now.
Large-scale global efforts, such as GivingTuesday, tap into this by providing the incentive to act in order to be part of a shared experience. Research, however, indicates that most nonprofits do not effectively communicate the urgency behind their missions. Worse still, some fundraisers hesitate to ask or avoid engaging more frequently, leaving dollars on the table and would-be supporters unengaged.
Millard Fuller, the co-founder of Habitat for Humanity, famously said, “I have tried raising money by asking for it and by not asking for it. I always got more by asking for it.” Rather than a demand problem, we have an untapped demand problem. This reveals enormous opportunities to increase giving, even in a year of economic uncertainty and crisis. To overcome the myth of donor fatigue, here are a few strategies to keep in mind to achieve greater fundraising success:
Diversify whom you ask and what you ask for. While some constituents may have more limited means this year, their motivation and desire to give is still very high. Small-dollar gifts are growing so let supporters at all levels know their contributions matter. And whether or not they are currently giving, invite them to stay connected through other activities, such as virtual events and volunteer opportunities. Engaging supporters through challenging times reinforces the idea that your organization is a steady and valuable part of their world.
Acknowledge the impact of current events on your organization. Share how demand for your services has increased and how a donor’s actions can ensure that more people are helped. Be specific about how concrete actions such as giving online, donating goods, or raising money on behalf of your organization bolster the ways your work can continue during the pandemic and economic crisis.
Tell a meaningful story. Tap into your supporters’ emotional connections to your cause or community. Illustrate the need in human terms, and offer a clear, direct way for supporters to create positive change.
Give donors a reason to act now. That might involve focusing on a deadline, highlighting the opportunity to be a part of an experience or event (such as GivingTuesday), securing a match, or underscoring what’s at risk by not taking action. There are many ways to drive a sense of urgency and motivate supporters to give sooner rather than later — or not at all.
Always remember that the world is full of generous people who want to give, especially in turbulent times. By embracing a mind-set of abundant generosity over the myth of donor fatigue, nonprofits can tap into this innate desire to give and create a legacy of increased giving during this time of crisis.