Donors and “Marchers”: Build an Equitable Following With Major and Small Donors

Donor Acquisition and Retention

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Ellen Bristol is renowned for her expertise in managing fundraising strategy and operations. For the past 26 years, she has contributed organizational and individual value as a thought leader, manager, author, mentor, coach and consultant throughout the United States, and in selected projects in Africa and Central America. She is a member of the governing board of the Association of Philanthropic Counsel, and belongs to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, and AASP, the Association for Advancement Services Professionals.

Back in the B.C. days – Before COVID – I was having lunch with the executive director and board chair of an advocacy organization, talking about fundraising. The executive director said,

“We really need to raise a bunch of money fast, so let’s focus only on major gifts.”

Usually, the response to such a remark is high enthusiasm. But the board chair said something surprising:

“I don’t just want donors! I want MARCHERS too!”

Let’s discuss the deeper relevance of our board chair’s remarks. Sure, we know she wanted to see large gifts flowing into her organization, but she also recognized that large gifts would only come from a small group of people. Their generosity certainly makes a difference, but what about all the other people—those with a passion for your organization’s mission, who lack the means to make gifts over $1,000, or maybe even over $500?

These small donors give at modest levels but do so year after year. They’re also the people who give time, energy, and passion, showing up to march (literally), stuff envelopes, man the registration tables, feed the babies, teach adults to read, and so on.

And they make up the largest portion of the population. The uber-wealthy, the ones making huge gifts in the millions and billions, are the infamous “1%.”  The 99%, i.e. the rest of us ordinary mortals, have traditionally been the largest source of funding for American nonprofit organizations, the reliable backbone of philanthropy ever since the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, and probably before. So how do we make sure that our funding base is balanced to represent the 99% as well as the 1%?

This dilemma has been on my mind for a long time, but it became urgent when Giving USA 2021 came out earlier this summer.  The good news about the report— which has been produced for the last sixty years— is that overall, giving to nonprofits increased significantly during the year of COVID19, reaching about $428 billion dollars overall, counting all sources of funding and all types of nonprofits. While that figure made everybody in the sector giddy for a few minutes, deeper analysis reveals disturbing trends: the numbers are skewed by ONE donor, Mackenzie Scott, who contributed five billion dollars to charitable causes. Five. Billion.

We’re Losing the “Marchers”

Recently, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published the results of a study conducted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and it’s worth highlighting some points: 

“For the first time in nearly two decades, only half of U.S. households donated to a charity in 2018,” according to a study released Tuesday. The findings confirm a trend worrying experts: Donations to charitable causes are reaching record highs, but the giving is done by a smaller and smaller slice of the population.

The study, published every other year by Indiana University’s Lilly School, comes from a survey that has been tracking the giving patterns of more than 9,000 households since 2000, when 66 percent of U.S. households donated to a charitable organization. That number dropped to 49.6 percent in 2018, the latest year with comprehensive figures from those households.”

Just in case you forgot, the Lilly study is based on information that’s already three years old. We’ve lost half of the households who formerly gave to charity, as long ago as 2018. Detailed information from the Giving USA report showed a similar drop (although you have to really search for it), with mega-donors beginning to dominate philanthropy, and with tons more money going from donors to foundations and donor-advised funds, and not directly to your organization… or yours, or yours.

Why You Should Be Concerned About These Trends

There are three major reasons you and your nonprofit need to think about, maybe even worry about, these trends. First, the smaller the number of funders you rely on, the more financially vulnerable you are if one of those major sources pulls their funding. This concern is pertinent for nonprofits who rely on government grants and reimbursement contracts, or whose funding comes from a small number of mega-donors. If your nonprofit is funded that way, what would you do if your largest funder said “no more?” It’s mighty hard to replace fifty percent of your funding in a single year.

Second, the smaller the group of major funders, the more likely it is that those funders will exert pressures on their beneficiaries, consciously or unconsciously, and may cause mission drift or worse. This is a tricky problem to deal with.

The third and most painful reason is that those with the capacity and interest to give very large gifts are typically white, highly-educated people. They simply do not represent the racial, social, and economic diversity of our population – and thus, the voices of our population are more likely not to be heard. 

What You Can Do About It

This is the right time to think about ways to ensure your team of “marchers” grows and remains healthy, active, and deeply engaged with your nonprofit. These small donors could balance out potential reliance on a small number of major funders, even though it might take some time. Some of them might even grow and become major funders themselves.

  1. Review your funding strategy.  Before you do anything else, think through the strategy, goals, and objectives you have for increasing your following, including all subscribers, and not just those who make financial investments. If your approach has been disorganized or opportunistic, try aiming for a more consistent level of marketing and outreach to the “marcher” population. Set targets for acquiring and retaining more followers every year, starting right now. Examine the methods you currently use to attract and inform your followers. Figure out which of them work best. Emphasize those.
  2. Get to know some of your “marchers.” Make a point of having a few conversations every month with selected “marchers.” (You do it, or have someone else on your team do it, including board members.) Ask them about their motivations for giving to you, what it is about your mission, cause or programs that keeps them engaged, and so on. Ask them if they’d be willing to let other like-minded people to know about your nonprofit and its programs. Check out our white paper on getting donors to give for more information.
  3. Use technology designed for “marcher”-level giving.  The techniques for recruiting and retaining low-dollar funders are quite different from those at the major or leadership levels.  Qgiv is the prime example of a donor-management platform specifically designed to handle lots of “marcher-level” donors through methods like peer-to-peer fundraising, special events, annual fund appeals, online auctions, and social giving.
  4. Analyze the data to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. If you’re using technology to manage the “marchers,” you’ve got access to the information that really matters: the data. Qgiv’s reporting tools are legendary. Learn how to produce those reports. Even more important, learn how to interpret them!

Keep Loving Your Major Funders!

Please don’t get the wrong impression from this post. The point is not to get rid of major funding sources; it is to add to the size of your following, including donors giving at modest levels, those who give in-kind gifts, contribute by volunteering, or by methods we haven’t even thought of yet. So keep on loving your major funders! Maintain robust stewardship practices. Invite major funders to conduct peer fundraising events, which often means more large gifts. Keep doing what your grant makers and government contracts expect, so those grants and contracts will be renewed.

But while you’re at it, think about the marchers. And think about how you can find more of these mission-sustaining small donors. Here are some additional resources that can help:

About Bristol Strategy Group

Bristol Strategy Group takes the mystery out of fundraising. Their flagship methodology—Fundraising the SMART Way—is a powerful approach to fundraising that combines people, processes and technology to give your nonprofit organization a competitive advantage.

Ellen Bristol is the founder of BSG, the designer of the SMART Way methodology, and the developer of the Leaky Bucket research surveys. Ellen launched BSG after a 20+year career in information technology sales. She develops our consulting solutions, handles the research, keeps clients happy, maintains quality, manages marketing, and forges business relationships with technology companies, consulting firms, foundations and others. She is the geek-in-chief on all issues related to performance management, fundraising effectiveness, sales-force productivity. and building the capacity to generate revenue.

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