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Strategic Philanthropy in the New "Normal"

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

I sat in on a webinar presentation today hosted by Guidestar. The speakers defined what they refer to as the new “normal.” 800 people actually attended the webinar as a side note. This is clearly a deserving topic for discussion.

The recession’s impact is far reaching. Institutions reliance on philanthropy will continue to increase as a result. Strategic philanthropy continues to redefine itself and the reality is that bold leaders who embrace the new normal will succeed. Those who don’t will slowly fail. Yesterday’s news of the closing of Hull House in Chicago is going through my mind as I listen to the speakers.

What were the key elements of a traditional campaign model? Campaign was driven by the organization’s strategic plan or feasibility study. Institutions put together a high level campaign committee and there was a sequential ask of donors from the top-down. There was typically a limited gift acceptance policy in place. The campaign was volunteer driven, but staff supported. The typical time frame was 5 years.

So what rocked this model? The global economy went south. Funding sources shrunk. Regional economies remain volatile. Government support contracting. Reliance on philanthropy increases. Business methods applied to grant making. Social media fundraising grows.

What are the key elements of a new normal campaign model? Recession recovery will endure for 3-5 years. Campaigns will begin and end during this period. Pressure on philanthropy is acute and needed more than ever.

There is definitely a new era of fundraising: Fundraising is strategic and mindful of the new world. Fundraising is aimed at a new type of donor. Campaigns are unannounced. No campaign chair(s). No steering committee. Donors become leaders and leaders become ambassadors. Staff driven cultivation and asks. Decentralized volunteer structure. Fundraising is continual.

From a planning perspective, organizations need to integrate strategic and philanthropic plans. Strategic and philanthropic planning NEVER stops.

Organizations must take another look at Case Statements and their purpose. Its about the parts, not the whole. Strategic plans supersede case statements. People connect to programs, not organizations. It is less about bold and more about achievable results. Sustainability is a constant issue.

A word about campaigns: They should never end. Organizations need to weave together operational and strategic initiatives into comprehensive campaigns. Strategic plans require strategic philanthropy. Gift structuring (annual, bequest, cash) changes donor relationships and stewardship. Organizations need to think about cultivation differently: Fear and uncertainty drive donor caution. Donors less willing to part with their capital. Large gifts take longer to consummate. Gift structuring reduces near term cash outlays. Gift tables bulge at the lower middle. Largest gifts come from unusual sources.

At the core of all this is that a key success factor is having givers become leaders. Old fashioned campaign committees are out! Campaigns commit donors to the parts of the mission they care about the most. Givers become philanthropic leaders in critical subsets of the organization. These subsets motivate donor enthusiasm. Boards don’t always turn to philanthropic leaders as members.

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