The philanthropic landscape is evolving — and tightening. According to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, our nation has seen “continued attrition in the percent of households who give to charity, from about two-thirds in 2000 to just over half in 2016.” At the same time, a CASE study documented the continued slide of philanthropy toward the wealthiest in our society, with the top one percent of donors now responsible for 78% of giving.

In other words, there are fewer donors out there. And at the same time, heightened attention to COVID, systemic injustice, and climate change is making the competition for donor dollars steeper.

These factors make urgent the need for a new approach to prospect engagement and donor relationships. This evolution has been underway for some time, but many organizations and their fundraisers have chosen to ignore it. However, for advancement shops to continue securing the funds needed to move forward their causes, change must occur.

I am often asked about favorite blogs or writers. Jim Langley, Lynne Wester, Jason McNeal, and Jason Lewis all have a sincere and authentic approach to fundraising. No gimmicks, just honest approaches to listening and building authentic relationships, and a sincere desire to thank in meaningful ways.

This may sound pretty simple, and yet many shops expect donors to simply meet the organization’s needs without cultivating relationships that will produce true partnerships. With so many worthwhile causes to support, why would a donor fund yours if they’re not engaged, listened to, and consulted?

If there was ever a time for our profession to evolve our thinking, it’s now. Rarely have our nation’s challenges appeared more pressing, and donors want to be a part of solving them. If we meet this opportunity, what can we make fundraising look like in a year, five years, ten years? What steps will we take to truly engage donors in meaningful ways?

In the past few weeks, two books have expanded my thinking about additional changes needed for the future of philanthropy to thrive.

The first, “Philanthropy Revolution,” is by Lisa Greer, a self-described entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist. Lisa’s blog, Philanthropy 451, holds no punches. Her story of how she and her husband “found themselves in the 1% virtually overnight” is a must-read for all advancement professionals. While I did not agree with everything in her book, her experiences with “fake friends” (fundraisers) and several organizations provide a cautionary tale about how donors interpret our work — and us.

The other is “The Future of Fundraising” by advancement professional Jim Langley. His examples, especially “Cherry Picking versus Cultivating Cherry Orchards,” provides a great forum for discussion amongst our teams. Jim’s insight about how much our future will be centered around donor relations and donor engagement is spot on (and yes, that’s me cheering the more formal recognition of why donor relations teams should be the anchor in every fundraising shop!).

Many of us have chosen this profession for the opportunity to bring change to missions we believe in. To meet that opportunity, we as a profession and as individuals need to do better. That will require meeting donors where they are and taking the time to listen, get to know them, understand what drives them, and treat them as partners in our work. This, ultimately, is the theme of Lisa and Jim’s books — and an important wake up call for us all.

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