If you’re in the mission-driven sector, fundraising is an intimidating base to cover even in the best of times. The Covid-19 pandemic made it even more challenging and 2021 is not going to get easier. Nonetheless, a sound and agile fundraising strategy is imperative to an organization’s long-term sustainability, as well as its ability to weather tumultuous times.
The past several months have wrought uncertainty and outright economic precarity on the lives of most individuals and organizations. And going about courting donors as usual might feel tone-deaf in the wake of it all. Rhett Wilson who currently serves as vice president and chief development officer at the White House Historical Association, as well as the CEO of Teapot Mountain Advisory, a consulting firm he founded last year following a 20-year fundraising career in charities and universities, believes that “fundraising is all about the future as our efforts to raise money are intended to support future projects and actions”. That made us think about all the aspects we need and should consider as we are making a last push for the end of the year giving but also plan our strategy for 2021. Rhett who is also one of the Caravanserai Project co-founders and currently serves on the board shared some of the current trends that define the fundraising sector during these challenging times.
“Fundraising is all about the future as our efforts to raise money are intended to support future projects and actions”
We asked Rhett to break down some of the nuances of today’s fundraising landscape. What stands out from his analysis is that even as individuals and charities have struggled in a year that has upended so many lives, there’s plenty of reason to see the months and years ahead as fertile ones for meaningful and effective fundraising that can translate into transformational impact.
He also reminded us of the evergreen caveats: fundraising is more relational than transactional. And because it’s about relationships, it resembles a process more than an event. In essence, fundraising is not about conning a potential donor into underwriting a vision they don’t have a sincere stake in.
“It’s first of all a process where you are trying to identify common priorities and values,” says Rhett. “And in this process of conversing and identifying those principles you’re able to point to objectives you have in your charity that might align well with the donor’s values and objectives.”
“If you’re passionate about the organization, you must also believe that your mission will change lives. And if that’s the case, it is totally possible that you’re going to change the lives of the donors that you encounter, and you’re going to have some shared experiences that will bring you closer as well.”
Once this connection is established, fundraising is carried out authentically and the central anxiety everyone feels around asking people for money starts to diminish.
What’s different or progressing?
Between a one-on-one conversation and a recent webinar for Caravanserai Project, Rhett offered up a number of insights on how to ensure we are on the right track.
The rich have gotten richer. The defining trend of the current donor landscape is not simply that the rich have gotten richer. And that’s an important thing to keep in mind for a reason that Rhett stresses repeatedly when he presents on fundraising.
“A common misconception is this thinking around, ‘I know somebody who’s got a lot of money. If only we can get a meeting with X wealthy person, then we’d be set.’ That’s probably the most common misconception I’ve run into through my consulting, and my advising capacities,” says Rhett.
Returning to the importance of the process and relationships, the relative wealth of a prospect does not make them any more likely to give. Besides, there are a number of factors suggesting a broader base of engaged donors is preferable, and will remain more sustainable for the foreseeable future.
Individuals still account for the largest portion of all donors. Along with the myth that targeting the wealthiest prospects is always going to have the biggest pay-off, Rhett also notes that there is often a misguided urgency around going after corporate dollars.
While there’s nothing innately wrong with prospecting in that sector, the reality is that proportionally little charitable giving comes from it. Giving USA’s breakdown on the sources of charitable giving in 2019 estimated that only 5% came from corporations. For comparison, in the same year, 10% came from bequests, 17% from foundations, and 69% from individuals.
2020 saw an increase in planned giving. The frequency of people using the Google search term “writing a will” had doubled since 2010. Why? 2020 made people think about their mortality, so planned giving grew. And Rhett encourages fundraisers to take that as a cue to have conversations with donors on estate planning.
“Those might not be who you’re considering when you’re looking for transformational gifts,” says Rhett. “But estate gifts might be the most transformational gift your organization will ever get.”
Text-to-give has taken off. Rhett credits modern political campaigns for the rise of carrier-based mobile fundraising that allows supporters to give via text message. The grassroots approach has since spread to nonprofits, and while Rhett thinks there will always be a place for the traditional direct-mail appeal, he says it’s important to not overlook innovations in the space as you think about your fundraising future.
“A small chunk of money starts as a single gift, then becomes a monthly gift,” says Rhett. “That has basically created an environment where the small-dollar donors have become more important than the folks who had a small number of major donors.”
What can you do?
Rhett will continue to reiterate that there’s no substitute for a relationship between human beings. It’s as true in fundraising as it is in life in general. But even so, there are a number of practical things your organization can do to maintain relationships with current or prospective donors and open the door for new ones altogether.
Develop planned giving collateral. As more people are thinking about it, it’s not a bad idea to note that planned giving is among the kinds of gifts your organization accepts, either on your organization’s website or in materials you typically provide donors and prospects. As a resource to help you get started, Rhett points to PlannedGiving.com.
Some of those estate giving conversations that might feel awkward to initiate may come up organically if a donor knows that your organization has the capacity to accept estate gifts. That said, Rhett notes that not all planned giving vehicles may be great for your charity. Not every nonprofit may have the expertise to assess those different gift types within their staff, which is where his next recommendation comes into play.
Create a gift acceptance committee. For some organizations, this can be an ideal way to enlist the expertise of folks with the legal and financial know-how to establish a protocol for assessing which gifts your organization can accept, and who will be responsible for following up with donors about gift decisions.
As with any other volunteer engagement, Rhett notes that committee participation is also a great way to cultivate relationships that can lead to new donors.
Create one-pager for accepting gifts of stock. Without getting too in the weeds about the stock market, suffice to say that people with big securities investments have made money in 2020 despite widespread economic hardship. Rhett highlights that datapoint because those investors are the ones who are in a position to make transformational gifts in 2020.
If your organization has a pitch for a gift of considerable scale (and Rhett would argue that if you don’t, you’re not thinking big enough), a simple PDF one-pager with your broker’s information at the ready will make it easy to respond quickly to donors who inquire about gifts of stock.
Don’t forget that you’re changing lives. Sizing up the current donor landscape can go a long way in defusing the stress of getting an effective fundraising strategy in motion. But at the end of the day, no matter what’s going on in the wider world, your most important source of inspiration and clarity is your mission, and your belief in it.
“If you’re passionate about the organization, you must also believe that your mission will change lives,” says Rhett. “And if that’s the case, it is totally possible that you’re going to change the lives of the donors that you encounter, and you’re going to have some shared experiences that will bring you closer as well.”
Rhett serves as the Vice President of Development at The White House Historical Association, the privately funded, non profit partner to the White House. Previously, Rhett served as the chief development officer for several business schools and held associate and assistant dean appointments at Johns Hopkins University and George Mason University, respectively. In 2020, he founded Teapot Mountain Advisory, a consulting firm in the field of fundraising. Mr. Wilson is one of the Caravanserai Project co-founders and is currently a board member.
Rhett holds a bachelors degree in justice studies from Arizona State University. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership and previously served on the advisory board for Alaris, a signature verification technology firm launched in partnership with Rolls Royce, Inc. He is a former member of the Town Council in Kearny, Arizona.
The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Over the next 12 months, Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.