Non-profit fundraising: challenges require communications strategy before tactics

Non-profit fundraising is having trouble catching a break. And what the future holds depends on how non-profits deal with the future. And a critical element of dealing with the future is how they talk about themselves to donors, now.

An example of non-profit challenges is shown in the third-quarter 2022 fundraising report as it appears on the website, showing key findings of to-that-point non-profit fundraising trends:

  • “Total dollars fundraised are up 4.7%
  • “Smaller donors are contributing fewer dollars in 2022 than they did in 2021
  • “Donors are down -7.1% from 2022 compared to 2021.
  • “Donors being down in the third quarter is a pattern that continues from 2021.
  • “There are large decreases in overall donor counts
  • “Decreases in overall donor counts are driven by weaker acquisition rates as well as lower retention of new donors.”

While an overall 4.7% increase in dollars is a good thing, declines in donor numbers as reflected in the findings portend a longer-term difficulty of sustaining existing giving levels. It’s a somewhat akin to the issues confronting the Social Security program: a fewer number of workers is supporting an ever-growing number of Social Security recipients.

If donor numbers are indeed decreasing, then non-profits are soliciting funds from a shrinking donor universe. Reducing operational expenses can improve margins in the near term, but progress is measured in growth. So how do non-profits deal with these evolving situations?

There are of course, many should-dos: giving donors every possible option by which to donate, making continuing and corporate donations a prominent feature, fundraising events, donor recognition programs, and a great many others that can be found by a simple “Strategies to improve non-profit fundraising.”

But before the fundraising tactics, there must be a strategy. And the strategy is misplaced if it’s based on first “selling” the non-profit to the donor on the basis of the organization’s reputation, abilities, or other self-directed messaging.

Something to consider is that most donors don’t really care about a non-profit organization: they care about what the non-profit organization does, for whom, and what it means for the person making the donation. In short, a “What’s in it for me?” in terms of the results of the donation. That’s not suggesting in the least that donors are self-centered or interested only in themselves: what it means is that they want to know that the money they work for and contribute is accomplishing something meaningful, tangible – and that justifies the contributions they make.

Non-profit fundraising pitches that talk about how long the organization has been in service; how many people it has helped; how committed to, dedicated to, or how much it strives to, help people; are either of little value, or none at all because it’s the organization talking about itself. The approach must be about the donor, and what their donation means in terms of achieving making a difference – a real and specific difference – in people’s lives.

Therefore, an approach is only marginally useful if it begins with, “Our organization has been on the front lines of serving others for many years; we’re committed to helping people who are in need, who need the help we can bring to them, and we’ve been doing this in our country and the world.”

Why “marginally” useful? Because it’s about the non-profit, not about the people whose dollars are needed to motivate people to contribute. While the following paragraph isn’t applicable to every situation or organization, the gist is clear: “A child will tonight have food, have a blanket, will have an opportunity to go to school, and receive medical car, because of you. Your donations make that difference. If you’re already donating to us, your changing lives. If you’ve yet to become a member of our ream of people helping children, women, and men, around the world – we would be grateful – and thankful - for your support.”

The first example talks about the organization, and it’s only natural that people who are part of an organization would want potential donors to think well of it. But it’s more important that they understand how they individually and personally are valued, and why.

The difference may seem subtle, but it isn’t. Donors won’t be that interested in what the organization until they understand the value of donor’s contribution to improve the life in the life of a person in need. That’s because people matter when they’re receiving – and giving.

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