fundraising frontier

A confluence of a global pandemic, growing social unrest and a totally bifurcated economy is testing the capacity and potential of American philanthropy as never before. The stark reality is that already huge gaps between the haves (primarily the affluent and those who can adapt seamlessly to the contact-free economy) and have-nots (who are lucky to survive paycheck to paycheck) in wealth, health, education, technology and every other way are growing alarmingly deeper and deeper. America’s non-profits are purposely designed to address these gaps and provide much-needed help to those in jeopardy. Their impact depends on the better angels of our nature and generous nature of the American people to share precious gifts of time and money to fuel their noble missions. 

But the practice of fundraising must adapt like everything else in a world vastly different than it was before March 2020. As a fundraising trainer/consultant I have the benefit of working with and learning daily from those who donate, solicit and benefit from the loop of philanthropy. I see a hybrid model emerging in which we blend time-tested principles, strategies and best practices that have worked in the past with new realities.

My favorite approach in addressing complex situations is coming up with lists of 10 prime elements. Here’s my list for non-profit leaders, both professionals and volunteers, to move forward with their essential tasks of discovering, cultivating, soliciting and stewarding gifts of time and money to improve the world when their roles have never been more essential.

1. It starts and ends with mission. There are more than 1.5 million registered non-profits in the U.S., more than 100,000 in Texas and more than 6,000 in the San Antonio area alone. It is time for their leaders to honestly and, perhaps painfully, revisit their reasons for being. How do their missions address current crises of health and racism? They must have compelling and timely responses to compete in the fiercely competitive philanthropic marketplace.

2. Fundraising mechanics remain unchanged. The gifting cycle can be described simply in four distinct phases:

  • Discovery — Identification of those most likely to provide support
  • Cultivation — Forging a personal and emotional alignment between donor and non-profit
  • Solicitation — The who, when, where, how much and for what purpose we ask for
  • Stewardship — The acknowledgment, gratitude and reporting on gift impact so next year we can ask again and ask for an even more generous gift

The strong stock market is a powerful reminder that there is plenty of wealth available for philanthropy for those non-profits who strategically embrace all four phases.

3. Handshakes are history. Social distancing necessitates dramatic changes in moving forward in the four phases. For as long as we can remember, face-to-face meetings served as the gold standard in fundraising, especially in securing major gifts. We now must substitute virtual communication and interactions with commitment, persistence and especially creativity.

4. Friendships rule over relationships. I once heard relationships described as something you have until something better comes along. Our goal in fundraising is to earn something much more sustaining — a lifelong friendship based on shared values, interests and priorities that are nurtured and deepened over time, not single philanthropic transactions. We should never lose sight of the awesome reality that donors are forced to choose not between the good the bad, but to allocate finite resources among the good and the good.

5. Collaborate like your life depends on it. Our overarching goals are to touch, improve and save more lives, not perpetuate organizations. As never before, leaders in the sector need to come together find ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate to advance their good works in the most effective and efficient ways possible and maximize impact.

6. It’s simply harder to spend money. Extravagances like travel, fancy dining, parties, designer clothes and other expenditures are less likely, and we’re spending less money as a result. How about sharing these forced savings with those less fortunate during their time of profound need?

7. Donor Advised Funds (DAF)s have deep pockets. It’s reassuring to watch a historic explosion in the grants being made through donor advised funds. But the truth is there is so much more potential to tap these funds. It’s been estimated that’s there over $120 billion is sitting in DAFs and community foundations that can be put to work. David and Jennifer Risher from San Francisco have created the #HalfMyDAF challenge to move money out of “parking lots” and speed them to charities in need. To encourage people to give more freely from their donor advised funds in response, the couple is offering to give up to $1 million to donors’ favorite non-profits. But there was a catch: The contributions will be made only if the donors pledge to empty half of their donor advised fund account and direct that money to charity by September 30, 2020.

8. Computer screen fatigue is going viral. This might sound like a contradiction, but at the same time that we make it a goal to step up the number of virtual hugs we give our donors and friends, we must also find a way to respect their need to take a break from a non-stop barrage of virtual communication, whether it be videoconferencing, e-mail, phone calls or text. It is part of our job to find an appropriate balance of virtual communication and respectful space that fits each recipient.

9. There are no board seats to waste. Too many non-profits have given board members the option of not worrying about fundraising responsibilities. Those days are over. Every board member has a role to play in advancing the mission of their organization. Remember, board members can contribute mightily to resource development success by breaking the ice and simply introducing people they know from their personal, business or civic networks to the good works of their organization. When the time is right, staff or other board members can step in and ask for gifts.

10. We’re in this together. While we’re endowed with different capacities and abilities there is no single group by itself that can elevate American philanthropy to seize its vast potential. Certainly, the wealthiest among us can and should play leadership roles. Non-profit management and staff will be challenged to do more with less, board members will need to lead with courage and conviction, but each of us can contribute in our own way and make a difference. Let’s face it, every person who circulates unmasked or violates the safety of social distancing presents a threat to the rest of us. In the finest American tradition of defeating evil enemies and winning World Wars, we come together in the interest of others and ourselves. And, within the beautiful realm of American philanthropy, whether you can give $1 million or $100, or volunteer 40 hours a week, or just one hour a week, we’re all brothers and sisters in the family of philanthropy, and now is the time to share.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Jim Eskin
Jim Eskin's leadership roles span more than 30 years in fundraising, public affairs and communications in the San Antonio area. During his career, he established records for gifts from individuals at three South Texas institutions of higher learning. He enjoys training non-profit boards on fundraising best practices and overcoming the fear of asking for gifts. His consulting practice Eskin Fundraising Training builds on the success of his fundraising workshops and webinars and provides the training, coaching and support services that non-profits need to compete for and secure private gifts. He has authored more than 100 guest columns that have appeared in daily newspapers and business journals across the country, and publishes Stratagems, a monthly e-newsletter exploring timely issues and trends in philanthropy. Sign up here for a free subscription. He is author of 10 Simple Fundraising Lessons, which was recently released and can be purchased here.
Jim Eskin