Post-2016 Election Tips: Surviving Trump’s America

nonprofit fundraising nonprofit strategy

November 18, 2016
By Russ Phaneuf, Managing Director & Chief Strategist – IPM Advancement

The result of the 2016 presidential election has led many progressive causes to sound the alarms. When it comes to planning for emergencies, there’s no shame or harm in nonprofit organizations hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Before I review the concerns nonprofits should consider, let us first take a step back and ask…

Does the election of Donald J. Trump count as an emergency? Has it disrupted social and political order? Is the scale of these disruptions panoptic?

If you serve or support progressive causes, I say: “Yes, yes and yes.” The only clarification needed is in how we apply the concept of self-reliance to nonprofit engagement and fundraising strategy.

In our current situation … applied to such a diverse coalition of nonprofit organizations … self-reliance doesn’t mean ignoring the very real challenges that others on the ideological Left will face. This is not a time to retreat into our bunkers and hope others are smart enough to do the same. In this case, self-reliance simply means that it’s up to us as individuals to leave our comfort zones and ask the hard questions about our own ability to survive — even if that means people label us as reactionary and alarmist.

With all that as the preface, here’s my shortlist of concerns as we consider life at the intersection of macropolitics, philanthropy and despotism — and why I’m encouraging progressive nonprofits to prepare for survival inside Trump’s America:


1. A Limited, Urgent Window for Unfettered Engagement

Over the past week, we’ve already seen many on the Left pivot from grief to action-oriented mobilizing and organizing. At this point, progressive nonprofits should be well past thinking about Kübler-Ross stages and in an all-out race to meaningfully engage donors and prospects before Inauguration Day.

Beyond the fundamental need to leverage “Resistance energy” in the post- Election Day environment, we need to take seriously the possibility that not all Americans will feel comfortable exercising their First Amendment rights after Inauguration Day. There is real concern that the divisive rhetoric and hate speech of campaign season will continue — or worse, will be encouraged — by a Trump administration under the guise of rejecting political correctness.

Regardless of how remote the possibility may be that we would see state-sponsored suppression of dissent in America, being prepared means that we need to consider the possibility and think about the window of time we have to be most effective.


2. The Quickening of Federal Actions to Inhibit Response

I’m not much of a sports guy, but I do know that the best offense is one that finds a way to score before the defense has a chance to respond. I’m concerned we will see a similar strategy applied to passing federal legislation … along with the possibility of executive actions that undermine progressive causes, organizations, and the people they serve.

While it may be anathema to think that Congress could pass questionable legislation without vigorous debate, we know it’s possible because it happened after 9/11. There’s precedent. It’s not difficult to imagine Congressional leadership colluding with the new President to prioritize speed in the name of a more streamlined federal government. If the byproduct of that is an environment in which progressive organizations and concerned citizens cannot mobilize and effectively lead opposition, all the more reason to make it standard operating procedure.

Adding to the concern is a President-elect who has vowed to exorcise all Executive Actions taken by President Obama not on principle per se, but because it serves the political interests of his supporters. While we can hope that Mr. Trump wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to use the powers of his office to usurp the democratic process, bold executive actions may prove irresistible to someone who is accustomed to being the CEO of his own business empire.


3. Movement from National to Hyperlocal (and Back)

Right now, largely due to the rapid-response capabilities of well-funded national organizations, there is a top-heavy focus on giving to already-well-funded progressive causes. Nonprofits like the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Planned Parenthood clearly had a “Plan B” in place to respond to election results, even while many left-leaning nonprofits (and Hillary Clinton’s own campaign staff) were paralyzed for hours, even days, because they failed to prepare for the possibility of a Trump win.

I expect large progressive nonprofits to continue their saturation of the space through Inauguration Day. This will present unique challenges for small and mid-size organizations that just don’t have the budgets to compete — similar to what we might see immediately after a natural disaster when large nonprofit aid agencies dominate philanthropic giving for weeks at a time.

Following the inauguration, as soft year-end and first-quarter giving begin to raise flags at smaller nonprofit organizations, we could see a shift back to local (region/state) and hyperlocal (metro city/town) engagement. Unfortunately, that may not last … nor can we count on avoiding a tiresome seesaw effect as nonprofits of all sizes compete for oxygen in a space that’s simply too small.


4. A Shift in Resources That Prompts Historic Campaigns

We need to consider the possibility that conservatives in Congress will partner with the new President to make good on their threats to successfully defund causes associated with progressive ideals.

We already know that federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program have been in GOP crosshairs for decades. Now add to these concerns fresh threats to eliminate the EPA and dismantle longstanding conservation measures.

While support for these programs represents a minuscule slice of the overall federal budget, the continuation of federal budget support for PBS and National Public Radio through Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) allocations is of particular concern.

Eliminating Congressional support for publicly funded media would be a highly symbolic victory for the Right. It would also fulfill the President-elect’s promise to punish media outlets that do not align with his agenda and worldview. If the situation were to come to this, PBS and NPR would probably survive at the national level … but we could very well see urgent (and concurrent) national and hyperlocal campaigns to help the more than 1,400 local public radio and public television stations that currently receive CPB funding.


5. A Growing Reluctance in Willingness to Engage

Most Americans who have paid attention since 9/11 understand that, with passage of the Patriot Act and the implementation of subsequent security measures, we exchanged privacy and civil liberties for the promise of a stronger defense against terrorists.

While many of us have never been comfortable with these trade-offs, I would argue that most liberals were probably relieved when President George W. Bush handed the keys to our surveillance state to President Obama. Now that these keys will be in the hands of a President Donald Trump, some progressives may reconsider their baseline willingness to engage. A leading indicator of engagement that I’ll be watching — my “canary in the coal mine,” if you will — is donor responsiveness to petitions, surveys, and other invitations to add one’s name to progressive campaigns and causes.


6. The Importance of Promises Kept

It’s vitally important to our society that progressive nonprofits stay the course on capital campaigns and long-range strategic plans. At the same time, it’s imperative that feelings of worry and uncertainty don’t become the basis for making bold but unattainable promises to donors.

Visionary promises may galvanize and focus target audiences in the short-term, but they rarely pay off when it comes to generating sustainable philanthropic support. In a situation where nonprofits end up competing for support in a very noisy and crowded environment, donors will be extremely sensitive to short-term philanthropic ROI.

If your organization wants to make a promise to supporters in response to dire circumstances, I would make sure that promise is: A.) Timely, relevant and compelling, and; B.) Quickly attainable (ideally, an objective that can be accomplished within the fiscal or calendar year).

For at least the next year, I expect that progressive nonprofit organizations that make-and-then-break promises will be dumped en masse by donors on the Left who are desperate to see their financial support transformed into tangible progress and positive impact.


7. A Return to More Traditional Fundraising and Audience Engagement

This is a tough one to write about because nonprofits have faced huge pressure from the fundraising industry — particularly from agencies specializing in digital campaigns and outreach — to abandon direct mail and other more traditional forms of audience engagement.

That said, many nonprofit professionals have long suspected that sending a tweet … or changing your Facebook status or profile picture … or even signing a petition … simply does not substitute for the hard, inconvenient work of doing all these things AND actually showing up to take part in person-to-person outreach within a community.

Web, e-mail, social and mobile engagement are very important, but they’re not everything. Post-mortem reports of how the Democratic establishment handled get-out-the-vote efforts for Election 2016 seem to confirm this observation.


8. The Frustration of No Easy Answers

Many nonprofit fundraisers I’ve talked to expect 2016 year-end giving to be down across the board with progressive audiences. I doubt it’s that simple. It’s much more likely that we’ll see a mixed response from left-leaning donors that hinges on whether nonprofits can effectively leverage post-election emotions and transform global concern into focused, individual commitment.

Planned Parenthood just passed 20,000 donations made “in honor of” Vice President-elect Mike Pence. I don’t doubt they will have a strong 4th quarter. But what they and other progressive organizations must prepare for is the possibility that pre-inauguration “Resistance energy” could fizzle after supporters see Mr. Trump take the Oath of Office and become the 45th President of the United States.

*  *  *

To be clear, I hope none of what I’ve described in this post happens. But the fact is, a lot of nonprofit organizations on the Left have been operating rather successfully in a neo-liberal bubble — willing to don the kind of blinders author Chris Hedges has been writing about for years.

So, while we can argue the degrees to which a Trump presidency, a GOP-controlled Congress, and a majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court might impact us as individuals, there’s little doubt that we’ll see progressive nonprofit organizations affected in the aftermath of Election 2016. Given this inevitability, we owe it to donors, stakeholders, and those who benefit from the work of progressive nonprofits to think through every potential threat that’s even a remote possibility inside Trump’s America.

For the foreseeable future, it’s not just about doing an honest and thorough self-assessment of our unique situation on a regular basis. It’s about adopting a mindset that will help ensure our survival no matter how grave the threat.


Final Thoughts

Like many Americans, I remain concerned about what the years ahead will bring. I’m also still working through a range of emotions around what we can do to keep moving forward. Personally, I’ve learned a lot as a result of this election. I think others on the mainstream Left have, too.

It strikes me that, amongst a host of issues, more of us are coming to the realization that there are very real consequences to the echo chambers we’ve curated for ourselves on Twitter and Facebook. We seem to be awakening to the possibility that, as a republic that thrives on lively debate, allowing social media feed algorithms to choose what we should see more of based on what we already know and like moves us away from being challenged with the different, sometimes uncomfortable perspectives that encourage us to learn and grow.

Over the past week, social media and ease-of-access to bona-fide news, opinion and analysis have fed an urgent desire to make sense of what’s happened. As a result, there seems to be a growing number of people questioning whether acceptance and normalization is an acceptable and normal response given the situation. That’s encouraging. I’m also heartened to see some of the voices ignored or written off by the mainstream — like columnist Sarah Kendzior — are now getting more attention.

The question that remains is: “Are we too late?”

I honestly don’t know. But even if we’re inclined to think so, the work must continue.


Recommended Reading (in No Particular Order)

Farewell, America” by Neil Gabler

America Elects a Bigot” by Charles M. Blow

It’s Worse Than You Think” by Chris Hedges

What a proper response to Trump’s fascism demands: a true ideological left” by Ajay Singh Chaudhary

Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency” by David Remnick

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt


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