Giving in the age of Trump

I don’t usually wait with bated breath for annual giving trends and studies. But this year was different. Many fundraisers (including me) were eager to understand how the emergence of the Trump Presidency last year may be affecting the giving landscape, particularly at the individual giving level.

Like many people, I was intrigued and delighted at the news of big giving surges that occurred in the wake of Trump’s victory. Planned Parenthood reported receiving over 80,000 donations within days of the election. The American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million in online donations in the weekend that followed the news of Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban.

The nonprofit Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to families in need across the country, took in more than $100,000 in donations after Trump proposed federal budget cuts. Were these giving surges one-time events or a presage of an enduring phenomenon with lasting impact?

The Giving USA Report: Documenting Increases in Gifts to Nonprofits

The annual Giving USA report is the longest-running report of charitable giving in the United States. The latest report, covering the year 2016, sheds some interesting light on philanthropy trends that may continue to affect nonprofits during the Trump era.

The Giving USA study reports that for 2016, all giving rose to $390.1 billion, which is a 1.4 percent growth over 2015 (adjusted for inflation). Individual donors really helped drive giving in 2016, and continue to represent the biggest piece of the charitable giving pie (72 percent). Individual giving alone had a 3.9 percent increase over the previous year!

Meanwhile, charitable giving from foundations and corporations also increased in 2016. However, gifts by estates decreased sharply (-10 percent).

In the individual donor category, it appears that all categories of recipient organizations saw an increase in giving in 2016, meaning that giving wasn’t isolated to so-called “resistance-oriented” groups. The greatest year-over-year increases were seen in environment and animals (7.2 percent); arts, culture, and humanities (6.4 percent); and international affairs (5.8 percent). Even religious groups saw a 3 percent increase.

Towards the Democratization of Philanthropy

Numerous commentators in the nonprofit philanthropy community seized upon this growth in the individual donor category as an important bellwether of changing giving trends in the Trump era.

Ruth McCambridge writes in The Nonprofit Quarterly: “Amid great political uncertainty, and probably even because of it, people without enormous wealth gave in larger numbers than they have in the recent past. The highest increases among recipient groups were […] front and center in public and political discourse toward the end of 2016 as areas that might be targeted for policy changes and defunding by the new administration.”

McCambridge continues: “All of this should come as little surprise to nonprofits, since we already knew that volunteering and giving are relatively closely linked behaviors. Thus, the massive number of people who volunteered to show up for protests on climate policy, immigration, science, and women’s rights over the past six or seven months should have been something of a predictor of what we could expect in giving trends. That makes this an exciting moment for fundraisers and organizers […] and you get a sense of the potential of this moment.”

Quoted in that same article is Patrick M. Rooney, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which researched the Giving USA report.

He suggests that “we saw something of a democratization of philanthropy. The strong growth in individual giving may be less attributable to the largest of the large gifts, which were not as robust as we have seen in some prior years, suggesting that more of that growth in 2016 may have come from giving by donors among the general population compared to recent years.”

Making the Most of This New Era of Civic Engagement

Let’s return for a moment to our initial mention of Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and Meals on Wheels, who saw a literal deluge of donations from existing and new donors. Can these — and many other organizations who aren’t mentioned here — take full advantage of this opportunity to cultivate and deepen relationships with donors, volunteers, and subscribers, eager for action?

If current trends and news reports are to be believed, we are well on our way to a new era of civic engagement. Says McCambridge: “It may be time to concentrate on making the most of this period of multi-faceted activism and our very rich landscape of mobilizable human and cash capital.”

Jay Love, writing in the Bloomerang blog, concurs. He believes that “if a strong base of individual supporters can be built via top-notch relationship building, which takes time, they can be retained at well above average retention levels.” He calls for a resurgence in individual donor cultivation.

As Steve MacLaughlin notes in Huffington Post: “Nonprofits are taking more risks, engaging supporters in new ways, and using more science to aid the art of fundraising. The future of fundraising will require risk, innovation, and a drive to move beyond the status quo.”

I, for one, will be watching nonprofit innovation blossom in the Trump era as a sign that we are embracing new strategies and tactics to engage and cultivate supporters.

Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist for progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and educators, with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. Find Michael on Twitter at @mstein63.

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