A Retrospective on 25 years of Fundraising: So Many Changes!

retrospectiveBy Robert I. Evans

Twenty-five years ago, I started The Evans Consulting Group to help nonprofits propel their fundraising operations. Along the way, I had hoped my clients would be able to tackle innovative approaches to challenges facing the not-for-profit community and to find philanthropic support to make good things happen.

As I look at the list of nonprofits my team and I have served since 1991, I’m thrilled to see great diversity of agencies. The group includes a charity serving homeless male veterans; several prominent arts and cultural organizations; lots of houses of worship; numerous independent day schools; and a number of national organizations dealing with various priorities such as enhancing women’s issues, LGBTQ causes, and some impressive international projects.

In looking back, too, I noticed how much the philanthropic “marketplace” has changed in 25 years. Probably the magnitude of giving today in support of America’s 1.2 million nonprofits reflects the evolution of philanthropy: Giving USA, the “bible” that tracks charitable giving, reported that Americans gave $102.5 billion in 1990, a figure that seemed sky high then … but is dwarfed by the $358 billion reported in gifts in 2014 … more than three times the levels that were unimaginable a couple of decades ago!

What has changed in the last 25 years to effect such growth in giving? Here’s my personal appraisal of how philanthropy has grown:

  1. Americans continue to be the most generous people on our planet and as their personal wealth has increased they have responded to significant calls for support to make ours a far better society.
  2. The top one percent of earners have amassed very significant wealth and, with only a handful of exceptions, they are making proportionate contributions to impact our quality of life. Concomitantly, Baby Boomers of all income levels embrace philanthropy and are making serious commitments to volunteering their time as well as sharing their financial resources. New standards have been set every year!
  3. As a result of Wall Street having created more millionaires, we have “new rich” … people who grew up in low and middle income homes and are so appreciative that they, too, have become role models for others to emulate. They have had a desire to “give back” to entities that protected their families, educated them, and helped put them on the path that led them to professions and careers previously considered unattainable.
  4. Education – starting at the university level and cascading down to other levels – has opened the eyes and minds of so many people and as a result they are showing their gratitude in very generous ways. The “education category,” as reported by GivingUSA, has become the second most important sector for giving, having replaced health and medical concerns (the category that had routinely been the priority of donors after religion.) Today, colleges and universities have become fundraising “machines” that are setting higher and higher standards for other nonprofits to challenge.

As I look back, there are also some aspects of the fundraising world that we have embraced, either as tools or as concepts and each of these – like society in general – has had a role in propelling change:

  1. Technology has certainly altered how nonprofits conduct campaigns. Campaign management software is relatively inexpensive, easier to use, and commonplace in almost every nonprofit. Wealth screening software is within reach of almost every campaigner and the internet is the basis from which every campaign obtains critical information about donors. Social media outlets, like Facebook and Twitter, are still experimenting with ways to impact fundraising to propel the ease of giving and to open donor eyes to nonprofits and causes of all types and sizes. Witness “The Ice Bucket Challenge” and #GivingTuesday.
  2. The definition of “lead gifts” has changed dramatically. Eight, nine and ten-figure gifts are announced regularly today, and reflecting that, campaign goals have skyrocketed. In the 1990s, campaigners would dream about million dollar gifts, almost impossible to secure, and campaigns plodded along with an occasional seven-figure commitment. What a huge difference!
  3. Financial transparency has become an essential part of nonprofit vocabulary because donors, even more so today, expect the organizations they support to be good stewards of the funds raised and to report about investment policies and approaches. Sophisticated donors, too, expect nonprofits to invest funds conservatively and cautiously while following “the prudent man rules.” Too many scandals like the Madoff mess have alerted donors to demand better housekeeping of endowments and building funds and this increased sensitivity has transformed in-house record-keeping and bookkeeping systems.
  4. Different types of donors behave differently, as on-going research informs us. We are very aware that women give differently than men, that Baby Boomers give much better than Millennials, that people of faith give much more than the nonreligious, that regional behaviors impact the quality and size of gifts, and that donors are still – and always will be – motivated when their “heartstrings” are pulled.
  5. Taxes continue to motivate donors, yet we have always contended that people give mainly for other reasons. However, we do keep learning that people of all economic levels make charitable decisions that impact their personal tax situations.
  6. New vehicles to help donors be more generous have been created, especially Donor Advised Funds (DAFs), which have quietly become incredible “savings accounts.” These funds help big donors who want to be assured of privacy and want to get lower fees than those they are afforded through foundations. Watch for much more publicity about DAFs in the coming years, especially as they become more widely discussed by some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious nonprofits.
  7. Fundraising vocabulary has also changed during the last two decades, reflecting the impact of Wall Street on giving and society in general. More and more, we talk about attracting “investors” who are stakeholders in the nonprofits they support.

So what do the next 25 years hold for America’s nonprofits and the world of philanthropy? I can’t predict how much higher giving will go but I do contend that charitable giving is a way of life that is part of our lifestyle and the economy. And I’m personally thrilled to have been able to help more than 400 nonprofits over the past 25 years address their goals and aspirations and to alert hundreds of thousands of people to worthwhile causes and nonprofits everywhere.

Robert Evans is founder and president of the Evans Consulting Group, a full-service firm that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. The Evans Consulting Group leads fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. Mr. Evans is a member of the Giving USA editorial review board and is also a board member of the Giving Institute. He can be reached at revans@theevansconsultinggroup.com.