Nonprofit Fundraising in an Election Year: All Systems GO!
Everyone has an opinion on nonprofit fundraising during an election year…. Does a presidential election help or hurt individual donor giving? Is fundraising more difficult? Should my organization do more or less fundraising in an election year?
For many nonprofits, there are clear opportunities to tie mission-centric messaging into the political season. For others, it can be difficult to stand out while partisanship dominates the environment. “Analysis paralysis” can also set in, elevating unfounded concerns that nonprofit fundraising just won’t be effective with so much going on.
Some common refrains we hear from nonprofits during election years:
- “It’s hard to keep people focused on our work/mission.”
- “Partisan politics is too distracting for our audience.”
- “Our donors are being flooded with political fundraising asks.”
- “We’re afraid of overwhelming our donors.”
Sound familiar? It’s understandable to worry. But let’s start with a gentle reality check….
First, the need for your nonprofit doesn’t vanish during an election year, and you must keep fundraising to support your work. Second, based on the historical data, an election year doesn’t negatively impact fundraising for most nonprofits.
Let’s explore these two points in more detail.
The Need for Your Nonprofit Doesn’t Vanish during an Election Year
Your mission matters regardless of what is happening in the fundraising environment. Issues like poverty, child abuse, social justice, animal welfare, HIV and AIDS — just to name a few — don’t go away during an election year.
Related, your donors still care about your cause. They will continue to support you as long as you make a compelling case for support and invite them to give. As we’ve discussed in previous posts on donor retention: donors don’t stop giving because they’re tired; they stop giving when they’re uninspired. Give people a vision of success combined with the opportunity to make a meaningful positive impact, and they will keep contributing because they care about what you do.
Disclaimer: Every nonprofit is different, so it’s important to look at your own historical performance data. Elections might not negatively impact your overall dollar totals, but they can impact donor behavior. Maybe big donors are slower to respond to fall appeals? Maybe presidential election cycles drive new, small-dollar donors to your organization? Check your data and see if you can spot any cyclical trends.
How Much Does a Presidential Election Impact Nonprofit Fundraising Overall?
The macro data from Giving USA shows total charitable giving increasing steadily for the past decade. In addition, election years 2012 and 2016 show no dramatic shifts up or down.
An analysis of the 2016 election’s impact on charitable giving by Classy.org concluded that the so-called “election bump” in giving was more the result of Giving Tuesday than the election itself. Overall, it seems that a presidential election does not have a significant effect on total giving.
However, whether any election — local, state, or national — affects your nonprofit’s ability to raise funds depends on the type of work you do and how much it relates to the issues that dominate the election. In fact, when your cause is in the limelight, you can use that opportunity to actually increase fundraising.
The same analysis by Classy showed that civil rights -focused organizations benefited from the 2016 election. (Remember the “Resistance” movement?) In addition, data showed a significant bump in recurring donation sign-ups across all nonprofit categories.
According to an analysis by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute of charitable giving around the 2016 election, progressive charities mentioned during the election saw donations increase significantly the week immediately following the election.
But even when issues that are important to your nonprofit are outside the election discourse and debate, it’s important that you don’t pull back reactively. You should objectively assess the messaging environment and find where you fit. Pay close attention to what’s happening and adjust your fundraising messages and calendar accordingly.
How to Fundraise in an Election Year
No matter which issues are getting attention in the months and weeks leading up to an election, here are several tips to help keep your fundraising on track:
1. Don’t Assume
In our experience as an agency focused on nonprofit fundraising, donors typically give to their favorite causes and their chosen candidates in an election year, as opposed to taking from one to give to the other. But you still have to ask, and ask in the right way. Make sure your case for support is solid. Be sure to deploy timely, relevant and compelling appeals. And make your Asks in those appeals clear and concise. (That includes using suggested dollar amounts at the end of your fundraising appeals and in postscripts.)
2. Review Best Practices
Your work matters all the time. Whether it’s a month before an election or a month after the election, the people who benefit from your organization are still counting on your programs and services. If the fundraising environment feels crowded, use it as an opportunity to identify weak spots and double down on best practices in your fundraising messaging. Are you:
- Communicating the needs/hopes/dreams of those who benefit from your work?
- Focusing on the impact of donor giving?
- Using storytelling to leverage emotional aspects of your work?
- Referencing logic points to strengthen your case for support?
- Creating an authentic sense of urgency in your fundraising appeals?
- Keeping your messaging consistent across platforms?
- Using a multi-channel fundraising strategy that integrates direct mail, email, social, phone, and text?
- Making the donation process as frictionless as possible?
- Thanking your donors for their support?
If your answer is “No” to any of these questions, then address these weaknesses. By making improvements to your fundraising program NOW, you will be ready for any future challenges in the fundraising environment.
3. Educate Donors about Election Issues Related to Your Cause
If there’s an issue in this election that will impact your ability to deliver on your mission, you have the right — the duty, even — to educate your donors and ask them for their support.
The key here is authenticity. Do not take an issue unrelated or tangentially related to your mission and force a connection. This can backfire and break any trust you’ve built with donors. However, if a critical election issue does in fact directly relate to your work, those who care about your cause will appreciate the information and an opportunity to make a difference.
4. Empower Your Supporters
Emphasize in your communication with donors that whatever the outcome of the election, your nonprofit’s work is crucial — and therefore, their support matters. Remind them that they can continue to make a difference through their support no matter who wins the election. In this way, your messaging can be a source of inspiration at a time when they may be feeling disillusioned or discouraged.
In addition, your messaging can help cut through a complicated landscape of information. Issues seem to shift in record time nowadays. President Trump proved he can derail a media narrative with just a single tweet, and he was very effective in refocusing the American public on the issues or angle he deemed most important in the moment.
Consistent messaging can help slow down this cycle of information (and disinformation). As the public is bombarded by negativity and so much seems out of control, your organization can be a trustworthy source of information — explaining what things mean, why they’re important, and what supporters can do in response.
5. Build Your Internal List of Prospects
Our posts on rapid response fundraising and using nonprofit advocacy to build your prospecting list discuss this topic in great detail, but here’s a quick summary:
During an election year, issues and causes that many people might not otherwise be aware of come to the foreground. In addition, the emphasis on voting in the election makes people more aware of their ability to have an impact. As a result, many seek out other ways to get more involved. If you have an inbound rapid response strategy in place, you can capture this sudden interest in your cause and turn these leads into warm fundraising prospects.
For example: a person who cares about social justice searches online for ways to help. Your organization’s keyword search ad shows up. They click on it to learn more. At this point, they might not know you well enough to donate, but they want to take some meaningful action. They sign a petition. Assuming you provide valuable follow-up information and opportunities to engage, they will be open to future fundraising messages.
6. Avoid Fundraising the Week before the Election
Much of successful nonprofit fundraising has to do with getting the biggest bang for your buck. Very few nonprofits have huge fundraising budgets, so it’s important to know when your appeals probably won’t be very effective.
Political campaigns and PACs typically spend upwards of 60% of their entire budget in the week leading up to Election Day. It is hands-down the most crowded time for fundraising. Donors are being bombarded with emails, texts, flyers, and phone calls. So, unless there is some emergency for your organization or your beneficiaries — think natural disaster or another major incident that drives episodic giving — it’s probably best to reduce your nonprofit fundraising footprint until after Election Day.
7. Whatever Happens, Leverage the Outcome
After an election, most nonprofits will have one of two great reasons to mobilize supporters: Either the candidate who aligns with/supports your cause wins, or the candidate who opposes your work wins.
As stated earlier, your mission matters regardless of who occupies the White House. When a returning incumbent or president-elect is sympathetic to your cause, that’s a great time to solicit donations to capitalize on your momentum. And if the candidate going (back) to the Oval Office stands in the way of your mission, donations are just as important to help defend the progress you’ve made so far.
Regardless of who wins the election, be sure to let donors know what the results mean to your cause and the work you do. Then give them a vision of how their support will advance your mission and make a difference in the lives of those you serve.
For most nonprofit organizations, a presidential election has little impact on individual giving fundraising. Provided your case for support is compelling and your messaging effectively engages supporters, your nonprofit might even be able to leverage the election to attract new donors, reinvigorate lapsed donors, and highlight your work. Follow the best practices in this article to ensure that your fundraising appeals are ready for any challenges in the messaging environment. And most important, remember that your mission matters just as much in the days before an election as it does in the days after.