Bright Spots in Dark Days

Bright Spots Webinar

Virtually any discussion about short or long-term ministry strategy without recognition of the current black swan event – perhaps the most atypical environment of our lifetimes – inevitably circles back to this question: “But what do we do now?”

It’s the right question. If only we knew with certainty the timing and boundaries of this crisis in order to build our plans, whatever the conditions. Alas, this season is still highly volatile and fluid. That said, in the absence of a reliable crystal ball, we believe the past can be the best predictor of the future. And – it’s all we have.

Brewer Direct has partnered with our colleague Bill Jacobs of Analytical Ones to study the longitudinal giving trends of all of our valued clients collectively, with particular attention to the seasons of significant crisis and the few quarters that follow each. With that, I’m excited to share some key Bright Spots that can and should inform our expectations, our perspectives, and our plans. I hope you find them as encouraging and motivating as we do!

Bright Spot: They’re with you.

Crisis doesn’t necessarily bring with it a significant drop in financial support by donors. Considering the periods during and immediately following the bust, Y2K scare, 9/11 and Anthrax scare, and the Great Recession of 2008-2010, most organizations experienced a modest short-term decline of just 2% – 5%. However, those nonprofit organizations that cut back sending appeals in anticipation or fear of greater declines virtually guaranteed that result, feeling the pain of a 20% or more shortfall of support.

You may reasonably ask, “So, MT, what are the bright spots there?”

The upside is that minor support variations over times of major crisis is manageable. In each case, donor support rebounded and momentum returned in less than six months. Multi-year donors, your most engaged and loyal friends, did not pause their support during the acute phase of crisis and in most cases, gave more frequently to help your organization through rough waters and into smooth seas.

What We Do Now: We press forward, faithful and undeterred! In fact, we anticipate unique additional opportunities through the summer and fall to invite our friends to be a vital part of our commitment to serve even more people who are hurting and hopeless. More, not less.

Bright Spot: Q4 2020 will NOT present the perfect fundraising storm.

Every four years, nonprofits debate with great energy the anticipated effect of the coming presidential election, especially as it applies to giving.

Independent of the health and economic crisis brought by COVID-19, should we count on the upcoming presidential election to suppress giving?

Answer: No.

We evaluated individual donor giving trends across 33 clients with data back to 2010. The conclusions are encouraging, particularly for those concerned that vital Q4 2020 giving from current donors will be cannibalized by the presidential election.

On average, during the critical fourth quarter of presidential election years:

6.9% Increase Year-over-year total giving
22.8% Increase
Revenue from Major Donors ($10K+ donors)
3.7% Increase
– Revenue from General Donors (under $10K)
1.7% Increase
– Active donor counts
2.1% Increase
– Average gift size

11.7% Decrease The trend anomaly: New donor acquisition, declining consistently across philanthropy in America throughout the past decade, tends to perform more poorly in the Q4 of presidential election years.

What We Do Now: We recognize our supporters’ deep desire to lean-in and champion our causes, especially during the season where presidential leadership may change. The exception, of course, is with new donor acquisition campaigns. But we can’t abandon the discipline of growing our new supporter base.

In addition, we must be laser focused and present a particularly timely and compelling case if we’re to transcend the additional media and advertorial deluge. Themes of trust, commitment, real outcomes and results of your ministry, and the potential opportunity for donors to influence positive change in their community should be emphasized in new donor acquisition messaging.

Bright Spot: You’ve got their attention.

Perhaps more than ever in recent history, your donor audience is both disrupted and “plugged in” during their daily lives. In recent years, we’ve all recognized the challenges of breaking through with our messaging online and in the mailbox. Not now.

This crisis has the attention of everyone, everywhere. And even in the midst of fear and trepidation, generosity of spirit abounds. Both our current supporters and those in your community have the time, the desire and the motivation to provide practical help – prayers and financial gifts.

When presented with the opportunity, it is a gift to them to play an important role in the triage and restoration of their community while meeting the physical and spiritual needs of others.

What We Do Now: It may sound perverse to say, “Never waste a crisis,” but when the context is your pure and righteous motivation – it is absolutely true. Don’t waste the opportunity to invite your supporting constituency to safely and securely fuel your ministry’s outreach now, when it’s especially critical.

Are there tremendous needs for assistance throughout the community? Yes. But don’t fall victim to sheepishness or low fundraising self-esteem. Presume your audience is ready and able to join you in the fight for restoration.

Bright Spot: It’s an opportunity to shine

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! In terms of psychology, we can look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, which attempts to prioritize human needs in order of their most fundamental importance. In other words, times of crisis tend to amplify the value and desire of prioritizing these needs for oneself and others.

The greatest and most broad category, often illustrated as the base of the needs pyramid, is physiological or “basic” needs: food, water, warmth, rest. Not only does your ministry excel in this category, but it also serves psychological and self-fulfillment needs such as safety, belongingness and love, esteem, self-actualization – all presented with the spiritual covering and a focus on faith with an eternal perspective.

What We Do Now: Emphasize the front lines aspect of your work. Show as well as tell. Share the joys and the sorrows. Speak not of us and you, but of “we.” Confidently convey the good news of the work that’s being accomplished as well as the challenges that can be addressed by increasing generosity.

Sincerely thank your donors for being the broad, sustaining and fundamental base of your ministry’s victory pyramid.

Bright Spot: You have the tools to “be there.”

This season of crisis is a unique opportunity to connect with greater frequency and heart. You have the technology tools at your disposal to be right in your supporter’s daily feed. And today, unlike times of many crises past, most of your supporters are already using communications technologies to connect wherever they are, however isolated.

What We Do Now: These are the days your integrated fundraising and communications platforms shine in presenting needs and opportunities for donor engagement across your website, social media, video, email, mobile apps and mail. Be present. Be pervasive. And be personal.

While it’s more anecdotal than historical, we’re thrilled by reports from many BDI partners that fear is not winning and their supporters are showing greater interest, greater online engagement, greater expressions of solidarity and prayer, and a greater release of generosity.

You can be sure that we are closely monitoring the results of all fundraising campaigns. We’re prepared for whatever comes next. I’m also grateful for the available optics and trend analysis through my involvement in several leading industry groups, an important one being The Giving Institute.

In fact, a few months from now, we’ll have the insight available in the 2020 edition of Giving USA, a seminal annual study of philanthropic trends in all sectors. I’m looking forward to sharing additional actionable intelligence from that.

Bright Spot: This storm will pass.

Clichés abound in times of strife: “It’s darkest before the dawn.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

It’s natural that we seek to bolster our hope for better days when we’re holding on by our fingernails in the middle of a storm. As a data-focused organization at BDI, it really helps when the facts affirm our hope. It’s our hope that these Bright Spots provide evidence that will encourage you today.

Each informs our confidence that during this volatile time and in the recovery that will follow, your donors are committed. They’re likely to vote for you and the good work you do. They’re paying attention and value the way you meet the most important needs of others. And you have the tools and faith to ride out the storm.

What We Do Now: We believe. We show up. We look, listen, plan and execute. We lock arms with great solidarity to stand for the hurting and marginalized. And we rejoice in the opportunity to invest in work and ministry that changes lives today and for eternity.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Deuteronomy 31:6 (NIV)

  • Michael Tomlinson, BDI CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, better known as “MT,” is an accomplished marketing and media executive who has developed highly successful fundraising programs for faith-first charities and organizations across the U.S. and abroad. He brings more than 30 years of executive leadership in business and holds a master’s degree in Organizational Management and Marketing.

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