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Jan 30, 2023

Prevailing Over the Fear of Uncertainty

There is an awful lot of uncertainty in our world right now: war in Europe, recession, inflation, layoffs, and climate change. Adding to this environment of uncertainty are the recent Congressional rumors of major tax overhauls, entitlement cuts and government shutdowns.

And while there are a few donors who include philanthropy in their family budget, for most donors giving is discretionary. And usually when there is uncertainty, donors are less inclined to give.

Notice I said usually.

We are coming up on the third anniversary of the beginning of the global pandemic. Talk about uncertainty. Yet, donors demonstrated tremendous generosity in the face of great adversity. Donors were the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

But why were donors so generous? Was it because the messages of need during the pandemic superseded the donors’ fear? Or was it because it was such a top-of-mind news story we were primed for response when asked to give? Or, with all the closures, was there just fewer places to spend money back then so it was diverted to philanthropic endeavors?

When I asked Jeff Brooks, the author of The Future of Fundraising blog, about this, he had an interesting take:
I would argue that the pandemic was NOT a time of uncertainty but of great clarity and urgency. We were all living in the same crisis together for 2+ years, and most of us were also getting first-hand experience with it.”

Steven Screen, the co-founder of The Better Fundraising Company, added: “There was MASSIVE awareness of the problems people were experiencing. The pandemic and its effects were the ‘lead story’ (and often the only stories) on the news for months. And, donors had fewer places to spend money.”

So, what can we learn from donors’ extraordinary generosity in the face of unprecedented uncertainty?

There is some great insight:

• We were all living in the same crisis together.
• Massive awareness of the problem.
• (We) were also getting first-hand experience with it.
• Donors had more money to designate toward philanthropy than usual.

Can we ever replicate the giving we experienced during the pandemic? Probably not.

My friend and mentor Jon Van Wyk suggests: “While there may be slightly fewer of them, the charitable dollars are still out there. Now is the time to sharpen your offer or “message of need” and get out there. As I’ve said in the past, start at the top of the donor pyramid. Stay close to your best donors.”

So, the more your organization can genuinely demonstrate how the need directly affects the donor, the more effective the fundraising. In addition, anything the organization can do to make your need more evident – such as leveraging the daily news cycle, should be a goal.

Fundraising in an environment of uncertainty is never easy. But neither is it impossible. Aligning your appeals into messaging that connects directly to the donors’ experience to your cause and piggybacking off of stories already on the media are two important strategies that can allow your organization to mitigate your donors’ fears of our uncertain world.


Bill is a Fundraising Economist who has over 25-years of experience studying the economics of donor behavior. The company he founded, Analytical Ones LLC, has developed the tools to help nonprofit organizations know more about their donors’ behavior.
In these challenging times, having Bill and his team on your side is critical so you can leverage your donor insights into actions that maximize your fundraising performance.
It’s time to know more.


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