how we give

Trust the process? Maybe not

In Short

This year’s Giving USA report shows a changing, challenging philanthropic landscape. How can your nonprofit respond to it?

As Philadelphians, we have been encouraged for the past decade by one of our local professional sports franchises to “Trust the Process”; that there was a plan in place that, implemented over time, would somehow advance the team from worst to first. While the team in question has markedly improved over the years, it has been hobbled by questionable decision-making, and it has not (yet) been able to reach that touted point of excellence.

The question is, if we wait for the plan to kick in, do we make every effort to influence or redirect the plan, or do we move on to other options?

As fundraising professionals who operate in an ever-evolving and hyper-competitive environment, we do not have many choices. We must act. We must stay connected to and aware of the trends and changes in the philanthropic marketplace. And we must stay proactive and contemporary in our project and campaign design, planning, and implementation. So, where does that leave us?

What it means is that to succeed in today’s charitable arena, an organization and its leadership must be smart, innovative, ethical, transparent, and entrepreneurial. The old mode of saying how great you are without entering the fray is over; and organizations that hewed to that way of working are paying the price.

And let me be direct and unambiguous…COVID only reinforced trends and accelerated transition and change, whether it was operating remotely; enhanced and more widespread use of and reliance on technology; and the focus on involvement and participation in addition to giving; among others. It may have changed the way that many of us and our nonprofits work, but not the direction of the marketplace.

These factors were all borne out by GivingUSA’s most recent Annual Report on Philanthropy, which was released in June 2023, reporting on giving in 2022. It stressed the transforming nature of giving in the ever-evolving philanthropic landscape. And it presented the important changes in giving sources and destinations. As a board member of The Giving Institute, and as one who sat for several years on GivingUSA’s Editorial Review Board, these are not new and have manifested and grown over time.

One imperative is knowing how to ask. Philanthropy is changing, with personal goals expressed through redirected charitable priorities and through the ever-expanding use of Family Foundations and Donor Advised Funds as platforms for personal giving. Giving directly from individuals, as reported in the GivingUSA, is steadily decreasing – 67% in 2022 v. 76% in 2002 and 81% in 1983 – so knowing how to approach a donor, and being equipped with the right knowledge about what is moving a donor, and the tools that they are using, is increasingly important – more so every day.

Also, understand the changes not only in the giving sources, but in the scope of recipients or philanthropic destinations. For instance, GivingUSA reported that giving to Religion continued its significant drop – from 58% in 1983 to 29% in 2022 – with human services and education growing steadily over that time. That tells you what donors are thinking, what is motivating giving, and it should educate you as to how you engage the marketplace. You do not abandon your efforts, but you might need to align the messaging that positions them, and adjust your strategy for cultivating and stewarding prospects and donors.

Given the changes, what should a successful nonprofit do to position itself for success? 

  1. Clarity of Purpose

Without the ability to communicate your value and selling propositions clearly and succinctly to existing and prospective donors, you are in a bind. Attention spans are short, and expectations for delivering information are for it to be concise, motivational and to the point. If you have to say it and then explain it, you are on defense and might never recover. Plan your communications and messaging strategy carefully, with the involvement of leaders and stakeholders.

  1. Demonstrate that you have done your Due Diligence

The selling proposition (Case for Giving) must be accompanied by a Business Case that provides transparency and assures the donor or funder that you will steward them and their funds correctly and well, and (most importantly) that the funds will be used for the purposes for which they were intended. In today’s world, if you cannot illustrate this clearly, you will have difficulty.

  1. Do your Research

Make sure you know everything that you can possibly know about a prospect or a donor before you meet them. Do not wing it. Use the research tools that are accessible today – they generate and provide valuable information that you cannot assemble otherwise. While they are not, and do not pretend to be, infallible, wealth research tools do provide invaluable information and guidance. While your anecdotal information is a critical partner, the empirical data – their assets and revenue streams; financial capacity; community leadership; and their philanthropic history and inclination – is essential.

  1. Check Facts and Keep an Open Mind

Be ready to learn what you can about the role of the nonprofit in its community and in its ecosystem. What has been accepted wisdom may no longer be the case and the decision-making environment may have shifted or changed. Professional and Board Leadership must be open to counsel and guidance to ensure that all factors – especially those that you may never have thought of before – are considered.

  1. Plan Soundly

Do not plan a major undertaking, such as a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign, by the proverbial “seat of the pants.” Given the competitiveness of the marketplace, all planning must be done with eyes totally open, and with full consideration of the opportunities and potential downsides. While nothing is ever 100%, make sure that all avoidable obstacles – internal or external threats; communications, or marketing issues – are neutralized or removed, or at least well understood. Strategies and plans must be detailed and thoughtful and rely on accessible resources, and stay away from challenging an organization to stop and hire a department on the spot.

  1. Seek out and Accept Help

Seeking out and securing professional direction and guidance is a sign of strength and not weakness. It is bolstering and not wasteful. Volunteers do not have the time, bandwidth, or capacity to offer a full service to a major campaign. Your nonprofit relies on major gifts for ultimate success, but at the same time requires participation across the breadth of giving – from the largest to the most modest. This necessitates a unique and thoughtful approach that integrates innovation with roots in your organization’s culture and core selling proposition. Your nonprofit’s professional leadership is fully engaged in operating the organization. They are seldom able to offer the hands-on direction that is required to guide colleagues, Board members, donors and others.

And throughout this entire endeavor, as we said at the outset, you must remain proactive and do not rely upon and use (cut and paste) work that was done earlier by other people for different reasons in very different venues.

It is also essential to remember throughout the conversation that people still give to people – that the personal touch is still the greatest motivator for major giving. Further, prospects, donors, and funders must always be able to discern and understand the positive impact that their actions, and their dollars, are having on the lives of others. Let that guide you and your leadership through the design, planning, and implementation of your important fundraising activity, and carry you through the steps to success.

So do we just “Trust the Process?” Probably not. Do we embrace, engage, and maybe even redirect the process…perhaps. And you achieve that by always being smart, vigilant, agile, and well-informed.

Avrum Lapin is President at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising, and management consulting firm for leading nonprofits, and is a member of the Board of The Giving Institute. For a full bio, please visit the TLG website here.