The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Fundraising Epidemic

I recently talked to a ministry CEO who asked me if he should “save” his direct mail acquisition budget for next year, despite being above financial projections year-to-date. When I inquired why, he shared that a peer who led another local ministry recommended it: “You can always grow support later, but ‘wise’ leaders are exercising an abundance of caution today.” This peer also stated his organization was backing off fundraising because “our community has more important things to worry about.”

As it turns out, I have a personal connection with an executive at that other ministry and know conclusively that they are, in fact, doubling their mail plan. But this leader’s “recommendation” is being echoed in many nonprofits circles right now. It shouldn’t surprise me that when times of crisis or downturn hit, many organizations’ first instinct is to do exactly the wrong thing: “Save” precious resources by cutting back marketing and fundraising budgets and efforts, especially on donor acquisition initiatives.

It’s natural to feel anxious and to second guess your fundraising strategy during highly volatile seasons. Frankly, as the current pandemic season drags on, my biggest concern is NOT donor fatigue when it comes to giving or supporting the causes they love – it’s organizations’ tendency to allow fear to freeze their momentum.

I call it a self-fulfilling prophecy and it is not just a bad idea – it’s an epidemic.

Here are 5 proven reasons why “taking a knee” or “sitting this one out” is dangerous to both your short and long-term development success – and why this mentality is especially counter-productive for faith-first nonprofit organizations.

REASON 1: You reduce visibility.

Without question, one of the tremendous benefits of this COVID-19 season has been the vast disruption of everyone’s personal and professional lives. Metrics show that nearly every communication channel has seen double-digit engagement growth, both online and offline. Sharing the good news of your ministry’s impact and presenting partner opportunities have been vital to the growth in donor support most have experienced this year. Why would you disappear now?

REASON 2: You lose connection.

New donations are only one benefit of your marketing and fundraising outreach. Every communication also serves as a touchpoint with current and past donors, affirming their past support and confirming why they support you in the first place. Out of sight, out of mind… out of purse and wallet.

REASON 3: You interrupt your pipeline.

We’re always hoping for a direct response to our appeals for support. But the truth is, there’s a psychological continuum to developing relationships: from first introduction, to awareness, to interest, to support. By throttling your communications, especially when audience accessibility is artificially heightened, you’re not only failing to connect with new potential supporters, but missing the next touch and progression toward a gift.

REASON 4: You leave the field of competition.

Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban is fond of injecting a bit of competitive paranoia into business leaders with this reminder: “Someone is always trying to eat your lunch.” And while I’m a stout believer in perpetual abundance in philanthropy, donors in your community are making decisions every day about whom they’ll support. If you’re missing in action, you’re giving alternate players a significant advantage.

REASON 5: You miss ministry opportunities.

There’s a pervasive myth that soliciting support for ministry is distasteful, terribly difficult and a distraction. But years ago, national ministry leader Dr. James C. Dobson (Focus on the Family, Family Talk) busted that myth and taught me this incredibly profound lesson: Fundraising IS ministry.

Every invitation to promote your endeavors is powerful ministry. When your message is on point; when the Lord is at work in and through the ministry’s outreach; and when His people can respond to the biblical mandates to help the poor, feed the hungry, comfort the hurting and above all, to love one another through their giving.

To miss this vital association is to miss the fundamental difference between commerce-driven marketing and faith-first fundraising. In my view, the ministry you do in partnership with your supporters is just as important as the good work described in your mission statement.

I love how Michael Shepherd, a corporate marketing and branding expert, makes a similar case in his recent feature, “Will Marketers Pass the COVID-19 Test?” Simply replace sales with donations throughout the article, because these exact same trends and results prove true inside ministries and fundraising departments today.

“Slash and burn is well underway in corporate marketing departments worldwide, as CMOs clear out old growth initiatives and replace them with makeshift fire lines in response to COVID-19. With few exceptions… the budget axe is falling and nobody seems quite sure when the clear cutting ends.

It’s management’s classic response to a financial crisis, the go-to move in virtually every playbook. And yet, history shows that the strategy fails – often, spectacularly.

Unilateral budget reductions across the board don’t deliver long-term enterprise value. Nor do suspensions of profitable marketing programs or initiatives in order to hit near-term forecasts. It’s tempting to zero in on these line items in the P&L when sales are down – and pressure mounts from a nervous board and C-suite. They are bloodless cuts that initially produce no pain.

It’s only when the crisis passes, as they all do, that you realize the cure was worse than the cause. While you were adding by subtraction, the competition fed off your inertia and then threw salt in your wounds.

They cherry-picked initiatives that highlighted their competitive advantage and invested in them. They benefited from not having to share the spotlight with brands who chose to go dark. And with focused execution, they put considerable distance between themselves and the rest of the pack.

If you’re working in marketing right now, COVID-19 is a test. It may be the stiffest test you’ve ever faced. The investment decisions you make today will most assuredly define you and your company’s fortunes tomorrow – and for years to come.”

Amen and amen, Michael. I encourage you to check out his full article here. It also includes links to several landmark studies that prove that you typically can’t “pause” your way to sales or fundraising success.

More than likely, it’s not your (bad) idea to “take the conservative route” and trim your marketing and fundraising efforts. In my experience, that well-intended pressure is typically levied by leadership in Operations, Finance or even – gasp! – from your valued Board of Directors. Even so, my advice is to confidently and respectfully fight back!

This is a perfect time and place to not only invest your way through the crisis, but to stand firm behind your strategy, your experience and your connection with your donors – all with the support of unbiased historical research that convincingly proves the wisdom of your approach.

Visibility. Connection. Momentum. Relationship. Missionally Aligned Partnership.

It’s all there for us if we stay on the field in and through the crisis. God’s blessing and protection on you and the ministry you serve.

One last note: With more than 30 years of service to missions and nonprofits, Shellie Speer, our Senior Vice President of BDI Academy, has loads of experience working with nonprofit leadership and boards of directors. If you’d like additional help and tips for making your case to expand your fundraising outreach here in the second half of 2020, she’d be pleased to provide some coaching. Email her at

  • Michael Tomlinson, BDI CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, better known as “MT,” is the CEO and President of BDI. With more than 25 years of executive leadership in business development and media, MT’s expertise involves leading organizations like Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk and Dunham+Company in the ideation and execution of successful integrated marketing, broadcast and digital media, and fundraising strategies that fuel growth.

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