FYI Blog

Rage Against the Machine

“Lord, it is all so exhausting.”

That’s the first line of Yvonne Abraham’s terrific recent piece in the Boston Globe: It’s Important to Stay Outraged.

I’ve definitely felt that exhaustion over the past two years, with the daily news out of the White House always bringing a blow to civility, morality, the rule of law—or all three.

We march, we sign petitions, we voice our outrage—but sometimes we turn off the news and try not to think about the damage to our environment, underserved communities or low-income individuals, women, people of color, asylum seekers, our democracy… Because it’s all so overwhelming.

As fundraisers, though, we’ve got to stay in the game—which can be a nail-biter. We’ve watched the spikes of rage giving—especially for organizations like the ACLU, which, according to Fortune, grew its membership rolls from 400,000 in 2016 to 1.84 million people in the 15 months after Trump took office. And its online fundraising—at about $3-5 million pre-Trump—was an astounding $120 million in the year after he was sworn in.

The struggle is real

Of course, this isn’t the situation for most nonprofits. For many organizations,

the so-called “Trump slump” is a real thing. We can’t continually barrage our donors with “the sky is falling!” messaging and expect them to respond, and in fact those tactics are eroding trust and current retention faster than the emergencies built these files, so instead, we’re going through the regular ups and downs that all fundraising programs experience.

A museum has a natural fall-off in donations after a grand opening, or between blockbuster exhibits. Relief organizations are hot after a disaster, and then they’re not. And donors burn out from the constant urgency of political (rage) fundraising these days.

Can you sustain the outrage?

So how do we keep fundraising while staying outraged (because we can’t let this political situation in our country become the new normal!)?

By planning for the downtimes now; putting our rapid-response plans in place for when that time comes, and proactively managing our mission-based fundraising now.

Have those plans in place (with approvals lined up, production partners in the loop, and concrete staff assignments in place so everyone knows his/her role) so you can execute an emergency campaign on a moment’s notice when necessary.

But what’s underneath?

Because of the unpredictable nature of fundraising, we also know the importance of building a solid foundation that can weather the ups and downs. The key is to create a program that will provide sustainable net revenue growth that is not dependent on rapid-response—or rage—fundraising. Here’s how:

  • Create an emergency fund that you build now, before the emergency—like a capital campaign, an emergency fund is a great way to fundraise through mission-based messaging.
  • Focus on donor value and retention—budgeting for a downturn by ensuring your donor base is made up of valuable, loyal donors who are with you for the long haul.
  • Bring in the right donors whose first gifts are below $25—perhaps brought in through an emergency or rage giving—tend to be reluctant to give again. Bringing donors in through a mission-based case for support, while highlighting some of the outrage and what you’re going to do about it, can help increase retention from the start.
  • Continue the conversation. Loyal donors will be primed for the rage or emergency giving that inevitably lies ahead when they understand your mission and how you are working to make things better, so make sure to keep the lines of communication open.

A good reminder

Recently I revisited the post I wrote in January 2018, as the Trump era began, and uncertainty reigned. I emphasized how giving is a political and humanitarian act in itself—a good reminder for our supporters then and now.

And I wrote about my hopes for how the citizens of this country would find solace in the work of nonprofits amid the outrage, and find their voices. People are looking for a way to make a difference, and nonprofits have the strategy and the reach to bring MANY people together to make an impact. That’s what we do as fundraisers: connect great people to great causes.

Two years later, this is all still true.

We can rage against the machine all we want, but what really matters is what we’re doing to counter the damage while we keep our supporters engaged and giving.

All while making sure the current reality doesn’t become the new normal.