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December 3, 2021
Fundraising in Uncertain Economic Times
By Karyn Wilson

Karyn Wilson
Karyn Wilson
Nonprofits shouldn’t overestimate the negative impact that economic uncertainty could have on their fundraising potential, and, most importantly, need to stay true to their fundraising programs through good as well as trying times.

Fact: Charitable giving in the United States has nearly doubled since 1990 despite significant economic downturns.

Fact: Individual giving dwarfs giving by corporations and foundations and are much more sensitive to economic upturns than to downturns.

This means that individuals will do all they can to maintain their level of giving to a particular nonprofit as long as you deliver what you promise.

Corporate and foundation funders are important, to be sure, and need to factor in to all fundraising programs. It is individual donors, however, who have the greatest capacity for giving and who also are the most recession-resilient. That’s why your fundraising efforts should include significant individual giving programs.

That said, there are some common truths that apply to all funders.
  • If a funder has never heard of you, for example, you will not receive funding.
  • If you don’t deliver on what you said you would, it is unlikely that a funder will give again.
  • If you take the relationship for granted, the funder will build one with another group and eventually stop funding you.
In this spirit, nonprofits should focus on making connections and then work hard at building and sustaining relationships. You need to build your boards with people who believe in your mission and are enthusiastic about sharing it with others. And you need to be clear before bringing on a new board member that fundraising is a responsibility of the board and that expanding networks is critical to this function.

Here are specific actions you can take to help ensure a successful fundraising program.

1. Ask supporters to host small gatherings for you.
Held at private home dinners, industry breakfasts, on-site meetings with those you serve, etc., they can go a long way in introducing you to others who are unfamiliar with your work or to reinforce the importance of your work with those who are just getting to know you.

2. Engage your supporters in meaningful ways in your work.
This can be done many ways. If you have a significant internal project on the horizon like the development of a strategic plan, think about involving someone in your external universe who might enjoy working on such a project. If you need to hire a key member of the team, put a donor on the search committee. If you have donors with particular areas of expertise that could be meaningfully shared and helpful to your staff, invite that person in to present on what they do. Most importantly, find a way to connect your prospects and donors to those your nonprofit serves.

3. Read the local newspapers.
Chances are you will find some mention of at least one of your donors. When you do, send them a quick email commenting on the news, even if it is not good news. A simple touch can go a long way.

4. Do your homework.
Before approaching a prospective donor for a first conversation find out as much as you can about that individual #147; who they know, who they like, who they have funded before and why - and bring that information to bear in deciding how you will make your approach. This first meeting is one of the most important moments in determining whether you will ever receive funding from that person.

5. Always have an “ask” ready.
Even if you are having a first meeting with a new prospect to introduce your work, have a specific request to put on the table. It doesn’t have to be for money, but you have to ask for something: Will you come and see our work in action? Will you join me as my guest at our annual dinner? If you leave this introductory meeting without a defined next step, chances are there won’t be one.

The bottom line is that philanthropists are people who want to support worthy causes and Massachusetts is fortunate to have a significant funding community. If you treat your current funders well, consistently engage your board and closest supporters in your work, efficiently deliver on your mission, keep building your network, and always have a next step ready, your fundraising programs will remain strong no matter the economic times.

Karyn Wilson is principal of KWConsulting, a nonprofit management, public affairs and development consultancy based in Charlestown. Contact her at or call 617-242-2463.

March 2012
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