Fundraising in the Age of Trump

Protesters shortly after the election of Trump

Did the ACLU take your donors after the election?

One question asked of me more and more in the recent months is how the election is shaping charity. How can we, the local nonprofit doing what might be considered “non-essential” work—arts organizations, independent schools, small service organizations—compete with established national organizations that have a renewed relevance? How do we go toe to toe with the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the International Rescue Committee?

The 2016 US President Election changed the landscape for charitable contributions. That’s an undeniable fact. It overturned established order in the United States across the board. In particular, it mobilized a groundswell of grassroots efforts. More than ever, people are putting their money into third sector solutions, looking for help in applying pressure to the public and private sectors.

So, yes, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the International Rescue Committee and others saw an uptick in donations in the last quarter. Often a huge increase as many donors went into emergency spending. I would not expect that to persist at quite this level for the next four years. I do think they’ll continue to have a prominent place in many donors’ minds (and their checkbooks) for that time.

You, the smaller nonprofit with a local or regional focus, may well have seen a decrease in donations at the same time those national organizations were seeing record contributions.

But did the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the International Rescue Committee take your donors away from you? The answer to that is, unless you provide the same services as those organizations, probably not.

Because they weren’t your donors.

A donor who, when faced with an emergency, chose to redirect their charity from a local organization they have a giving history with to a national organization they had no history with was not that local organization’s donor. Not in real, practical, terms. They were not a partner in the work. They were unconvinced by the case for support that the organization’s mission was worth funding.

It’s a mistake to view that as the success of the ACLU, or Planned Parenthood, or the International Rescue Committee in attracting those donors away.

That’s a failure in not convincing those donors to stay.

This election, and many of the donors who have been most called to action by it, put a high premium on grassroots efforts. If that’s the narrative takeaway, then how can it be that large national and international nonprofits hoovered up those donor dollars from grassroots nonprofits? If you’re a nonprofit, your job is to effect change. Your job is to overthrow the established order, to take people’s complacency with the way things are and blow it up.

The question you should ask yourself is not, “how do we compete with huge nonprofits?” The question should be, “Why is it that our donors didn’t perceive our work as vital, even in an emergency?”

Then go and tell them that you’re vital.

Because you are.

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