Nonprofit Strategy: Responding to Rage and Crisis Giving
I have been arguing in this series on nonprofit courage that your nonprofit’s strategy (written of course) must serve as the basis for leadership and decision-making. Change is coming, and those nonprofit organizations who are actively planning will be better prepared to adapt and respond to the shifting environment. The early signs suggest that rapid shifts in individual and institutional philanthropy may become a new norm. Among the philanthropic changes is the increasing role of rage and crisis in giving. Let’s start with some definitions.
Shortly after the last election, we began to see a new idea labeled as “rage giving” start showing up in the media (here, here, and here). The idea is simple. Show your anger by supporting causes that oppose who or what you are raging against. For example, according to a Boston Globe article, “Immediately following Trump’s election, the number of contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts jumped by 500 percent, according to the group. The Conservation Law Foundation in Boston says it enjoyed a 222 percent surge. California-based Muslim Advocates and the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League reported a 50-fold increase in donations.” This trend was not isolated to Massachusetts but rage giving is rippling across the nation (see here and here).
Concurrently, we have a growing number of examples that might be called “political crisis giving.” For example, when President Trump signed the first executive order banning Muslims traveling from seven countries, the ACLU reportedly raised 24.2 million dollars over that single weekend (see here). When President Trump included cuts to Meals on Wheels in his announced budget, donations to the nonprofit surged from their $1,000 daily average to as high $100,000 (see here).
Rage and Crisis are not just limited to individual giving. Here in Portland Oregon, within days of the President Trump’s travel ban, the Meyer Memorial Trust awarded $100,000 to “five community-based organizations on the front lines of ensuring the security, safety and civil rights of all people in our community” (see here). Meyer is not alone. According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy article, (see here), the Rockefeller, Open Society, California Wellness and other Foundations rapidly deployed millions of dollars in response to rage and crisis.
While these two emerging trends are overlapping and perhaps a bit overgeneralized, it is worth stopping to ask the question, “Okay, this is a significant trend, but I am a small nonprofit leader, so what does this have to do with me?” I think that there are three reasons that giving based on rage and crisis should cause nonprofit leaders to pay attention and think strategically.
1. Rage or Crisis giving might be a zero or negative sum game: In one recent online conversation I was part of, a development director shared an optimistic view stating, “I would bet that these donors are not cutting back on donations to their regular charities.” Perhaps this is true but it is way too early to tell. What we do know is that while Meals on Wheels was the early “poster child “of social service cuts, that the budget blueprint of the President contains hundreds if not thousands of programs to be eliminated, scaled back, or redirected. Virtually every domain of our social service, education, health, environment, and arts and culture infrastructure will be impacted. This pressure to compensate for federal budget cuts will create (at best) a zero-sum game and more likely, a negative-sum game. The trend of rage and crisis giving should drive your nonprofit to invest in the closer tracking of your donor data and paying attention to your giving trends. If donations begin to decline, how will you compensate for the decreases?
2. Rage or Crisis giving might become one of the anchors of your fundraising strategy: A second reason to consider the pattern of anger and crisis in giving is that you might end up using the strategy as a fundraising tool . Rage and compassionate response to a crisis has strong emotional appeal. Humanitarian and disaster relief organizations have historically leveraged emotion and immediacy as fundraising models. Who isn’t pulled to donate to a cause when a disaster strikes? Today, however, we see rage connected to a variety of political crises. I suspect the surge in donations to Meals on Wheels was primarily driven by reactionary giving. When politics drive the crisis, a nonprofit must be thoughtful about using rage or urgency as a giving appeal. Is your nonprofit willing to take sides in a political fight? Will choosing sides in a political battle damage or strengthen your brand? Does your appeal have the potential of alienating other stakeholders supporting your organization? Do you have a strategy to convert a reactionary donor to an engaged donor? Do you have staff members (or consulting partners) who are equipped to rapidly respond to a crisis and “seize the moment?”
3. Rage or Crisis giving forces you to sharpen your communications: If rage and crisis giving do become a zero-sum or negative-sum game and if rage or crisis fundraising are not aligned with your fundraising strategy, your nonprofit will need to invest in sharpening your communications. Those of us with siblings remember as kids that the loudest voice often got the most attention. When it comes to a crisis or a rage response, it can work the same way. Remember the ALS Ice Bucket challenge a couple of years ago (see here, and here)? Great fundraising campaign but it sucked the oxygen out of the room for a while. Now let’s string together a crisis or rage event, to another crisis, and crisis again, and rage event…. and it becomes like one sibling yelling for a while, then another sibling screams a while, and then another, and eventually, parents get fatigued of screaming kids. Meanwhile, the quiet siblings are busy doing their homework and those kids can be ignored. So, if you are not in the sweet spot of rage and crisis, your nonprofit needs to be investing in telling your story to donors. Why your nonprofit matters. Why donor support matters. Why (foundations) it is important to invest in the entire social sector infrastructure.
As always, I am not suggesting that a 1,000-word essay presents a fully thought out solution. My point is that nonprofits need to deepen their commitment to thinking and acting strategically. On one end of the spectrum, institutional philanthropy is moving towards consolidation –bigger bets on narrower issues, and now we are now faced with crisis and rage giving that threatens to fragment the discretionary end of philanthropy. These twin challenges can threaten the long-term revenue model of many nonprofits. What nonprofits can’t afford to do, is simply to let these trends pass by without a thought. If nonprofits leaders do not think critically, then they place their nonprofit at risk of being marginalized for lack of strategy.
As always, your thoughts are welcome
Photo credit: Niek Verlaan