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The end of fundraising as we’ve known it

Man on a cliff overlooking water

Even before the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, racial strife, economic downturn, and political maelstrom, our industry was changing. For many practitioners, we simply sensed that our equilibrium was off and something about our work was uncomfortable and changing. We just haven’t had much time to process or analyze what this is.

But in the past six months, we’ve had plenty of time to think about the end of fundraising as we’ve known it. But before I describe one vision of the end of fundraising, development, and philanthropy beyond 2020, let’s start with the trends that were already in motion before this all began.

Giving fatigue

People are tired of giving. This doesn’t include the intention or desire to give. They are tired of the act of giving—the endless solicitations, the poor quality of the solicitations, the unreciprocated gestures of generosity, and the insincerity of the messaging.

Don’t get me wrong. People want to give. People love to give. People need to give. Helping others is ingrained into our DNA.

We hold the door open for others. We do favors. We give charitable gifts. And on occasion, we jump into the water to save another. We are born altruists, and we will die altruists. It is programmed into our evolutionary biology, and we cannot survive without it. By helping others, we’re counting on that in times of personal need, others will help us.

And in good times or bad—regardless of what lies ahead in politics, health, and equality—Americans will give away $1 billion (yes, with a “b”) every day in 2021.

But donors are tired of saying no. They are tired of pledge forms—both paper and electronic. They are tired of not knowing the date and amount of their last gift to your organization, and yet, they still give.

How long do you think would last if it ran their online transaction processing like most nonprofits? There wouldn’t be a record of a last “purchase,” and there wouldn’t be a need to type in a name, address, and credit card information every single time.

But donors remain irrationally generous. They are simply not having much fun doing it, which signals the end of fundraising as we know it.

Solicitation fatigue

Fundraisers are tired. Annual fundraising has become “regular fundraising,” and it seems like we’re running out of things to say and messages to convey. We’ve run out of time to build relationships with our donors. We’re always asking (or it certainly appears this way to the donors).

In a Chronicle of Philanthropy study last year, more than half of chief development officers wanted to quit their jobs within two years, and half of those wanted to quit the profession. This is not a flattering scenario. Former New York Congressman Steve Israel said one of the reasons he quit serving in government was that he did not want to ask one more person for one more dollar. We know how he feels.

And while the response to staff burnout is either quitting the profession or switching organizations, volunteer fatigue is equally pronounced. Board members resist solicitations, and volunteers are harder to find and harder to motivate.

Attention fatigue

In many ways, this is the most devastating and insidious problem: we cannot get anyone’s attention.

Letters, emails, and phone calls get no response. Invitations are ignored (this is the first generation when couples call guests to see if they are coming to their wedding). Board members do not acknowledge receipt of information. Donors ignore appeals. People fail to show up after sending “yes” RSVPs (maybe no one knows French anymore).

We know the reasons for this—distractions.

These include over 150 emails per day, two and a half hours watching video every 24 hours, and three hours staring at smartphones. A million other organizations doing what we’re trying to do—cheaply and frequently on the “free” internet.

All of us are hopeful that our messages, posts, and videos will “go viral,” but that’s like planning on picking a royal flush out of a deck of cards: possible, rare, and nothing we can control.


And while this end of fundraising sounds discouraging, let me remind you again that people are still giving $1 billion away every day. The question is whether they’re going to gift it to you or to some other worthy organization.

So here’s the good news. There are solutions, strategies, and tactics that combat these fatigues. They are not easy. Some require an investment of money and time. Some will depend on third parties to create technology for our industry. And importantly, some simply require us to be creative and take risks.

Without going into details here, we will respond to “giving fatigue” with better technology, thoughtful user experiences, and the employ of predictive data analytics. We will respond to solicitation fatigue by applying behavioral economics and psychology to better understand the workings of the donor’s mind and the irrationality of philanthropic decision making, which makes our efforts more productive and more rewarding for all.

For now, I’ll just focus on the third fatigue, which is probably the most important and the one we can address promptly: attention fatigue.

To get attention, we’re not going to turn off our constituent’s devices. We’re going to share bold, human, and motivating messages. If every pitch and appeal sounds like the last or if the tone sounds mechanical, or worse, repetitive, we will not get anyone’s attention.

When clients ask me, “What should my next letter or message say?” I review the progression of fundraising letter writing. It started with “give them statistics”—the number of lives saved, the number of students on scholarship, and the number of people fed.

Then the trend was storytelling. People get lost in statistics. They will relate to the journey of one student, one family, one mother. The brain relates to this and subconsciously puts the donor in the position of the recipient.

But I’m suggesting that when we write to our donors, when we ask them to help, when we ask them to act generously, we need a new approach.

Write so when the reader is done, they know that you wrote the letter, not someone else. Write so the reader feels they’ve been told a personal story or that they’ve been provided with your personal perspective. Write so that when the reader is done, they know the soul of the writer.

People seek empathy, they seek fun, and they seek meaning. If you are providing these through the mission and the work of your organization and through your communications, you will succeed, and our sector will succeed.

Interested in learning more about the end of fundraising as we know it?

Join my workshop, “How to Plan for Fundraising in 2021,” on Tuesday, December 8, to get an overview of the demographics, technology, and science that are reshaping the work of fundraisers right now and in the future. Register here.


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