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December 3, 2021
Conversing with Donors in a Recession
By Tina Cincotti

Tina Cincotti (new)
Tina Cincotti
In spite of an economy that is constantly shifting, your approaches to individual donors—current, past, and potential—don’t change, even if the size or frequency of their gifts do. The donor’s ability to have real impact remains the core of the conversation.

But should fundraisers and their boards continue to focus on individuals gifts as a critical revenue source? Let’s explore the issue.

Should we be relying on donors more or less right now?
Giving by individuals is much less affected by the economy than giving by foundations and corporations. Yes, times are tough. But, more than 90% of people are still gainfully employed and have money to give. Some are even giving more because they know others are not as fortunate right now.

Consider lowering your threshold of what you think of as a “major” donor to $250, $500, or $750. These donors often don’t receive the level of personalized attention that could increase their connection and investment in your cause. While they might not be your largest donations, they are significant sums for the donor that show a tremendous belief in your mission. Time spent building closer ties with donors at this level will pay off.

Should I give up on finding new donors and focus on current supporters?
No. Even organizations with the most loyal donors lose some supporters each year. Cutting back on donor acquisition might seem like a good money-saving strategy now, but you will pay dearly in the long run. The new supporters you bring in today are your core supporters of the future.

If you’re worried that no one will give to a new group in this economy, consider this recent statistic from Cygnus Applied Research: 40.3% of donors polled said they would give for the first time if the organization was directly helping people hurt by the recession.

How should I talk to my donors about the economy? Is it okay to talk about how hard things are right now?
Here’s what not to say: Don’t talk about how desperate things are at your organization; don’t talk about all the staff you’ve had to lay off; don’t talk about the huge foundation grants that haven’t come through. Donors want to feel needed, but that doesn’t mean they want to hear about the internal struggles of your organization. Instead, talk about how the economy is making your organization’s work even more important.

Tell your supporters how you are meeting the increased need for services. Share the stories of real people who are benefiting from their support. Communicate the ways in which you are streamlining to become more efficient and to make their donations go further. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room, but make sure people feel good about what they are supporting.

What contact should I have with my donors who can’t give this year or have had to scale back?
Keep in touch just as you normally would. Make sure they know that they’re important to you, even if they aren’t in a position to give right now. Over coffee or lunch, update them on the incredible accomplishments made possible by their past support.

Talk about your plans for the future and how they can stay involved. Make sure they continue to get your newsletters and invitations to cultivation events. Thank them for all they do. Let them know how important they are as a person, not just as someone who writes checks to your organization.

My board is more hesitant than ever about asking people to give. How can I respond to that?
Board members and other lead volunteers have always played a critical role in an organization’s fundraising efforts. This is even more true now. In the Cygnus poll, 42.5% of people said they would give to a new charity if someone they knew asked them to. Even more telling is this: 78.6% will give the same or more than they did last year if they are personally asked by a volunteer (i.e., a board member) or someone they know. And people said they’d be more likely to double their gift if it were for an organization where they had volunteered.

The only thing that’s going to be achieved by not asking people to give is the same as always ”“ you’ll raise less money.

Tina Cincotti is the owner and principal consultant of Funding Change, a training and consulting service. She can be reached at or 617-710-3130.
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