I’ve noted before that America has always been a country of givers. It was heartening to see five former presidents on the stage together in October calling for donations for hurricane relief. But this gratifying image doesn’t represent the state of non-profit funding in 2017. Things are getting tight.

“Giving fatigue” or “donor fatigue” is a phenomenon that many nonprofits encounter in a year where multiple natural disasters have sapped people’s charitable budgets and their emotions. Charities often get the bulk of their donations at the end of the year, and so giving fatigue is a serious concern.

As I am writing this newsletter 200,000 people have been evacuated in Southern California while wildfires rage throughout the region, mirroring the disastrous wildfires in Northern California in mid-October. This latest catastrophe pushes the U.S. into the largest recorded number of billion dollar+ disasters in a single year, 17 in total, where 11 has been the average. It’s no wonder that donors are exhausted.

In my last newsletter, I looked at the Applied Materials Foundation which manages the charitable activity at Applied Materials.

Nonprofits live in a cyclical environment. Their fortunes often are pegged to business growth and strong stock markets, which put cash in their donors’ pockets. By collecting and saving resources during strong financial cycles, during weaker cycles they, too, can be opportunistic in building the capacity to serve more people or preparing new campaigns to launch when the giving climate improves.

At Applied, we faced the elevator door in our corporate giving and planning: We contributed a portion of our pretax profits to community affairs, but established a constant level of funding by that department. In good times, we put amounts above that funding level in the Foundation. That way it could maintain a consistent level of giving to our communities even when we experienced short-term financial pressures. Odds were the community was facing similar short-term financial pressures, so our support was even more important,

How can non-profit organizations combat giving fatigue? For one thing, I think it’s important that non-profits directly acknowledge and thank their donors. I found some valuable suggestions in this article, 16 Fundraising Best Practices for Preventing Donor Fatigue.

The author makes the point that nonprofits are good at “selling” the need for donations, but often fail to show donors how their contributions are actually making an impact. Stating that you reached your funding goal doesn’t explain how many people were helped or what actually will be accomplished. Donors need to understand that their contributions are making a difference.

At the Morgan Family Foundation, we have a belief that “Generosity is contagious and should be encouraged in others.” In challenging times we counsel that “the practice of giving” is even more valuable than the amount contributed. Don’t let donor fatigue distract you from the work that still has to be done.

I’d like to hear from you on this topic, please comment below.

How does your organization acknowledge and thank your donors and combat giving fatigue?

2 replies
  1. Elizabeth K.
    Elizabeth K. says:

    As a fundraiser, these topics have been on my mind, and I really appreciate Jim’s perspective and taking the time to consider philanthropy in this way.

    The development team I lead acknowledges donors as quickly as possible after we receive a gift, and we try to do that in more than one way (a thank-you letter, a phone call, an e-mail message, a handwritten note). We also try to keep up the thanks throughout the year, in person, in communications pieces and with invitations to see what they are making possible. Jim’s message makes me think I should probably ask some folks (donors) how we are doing on this!

    To combat giving fatigue, I don’t know… I think we try to convey a sense of urgency and giving opportunity without elevating to a sense of impending disaster for the organization. We manage our budget so that we can stay the course in challenging times and we don’t need to plea with donors to help us with short-term challenges. Similar to the company budgeting/giving balance Jim references.

    Also on giving fatigue, I hope donors understand that it’s OK to pause or to re-prioritize giving when there are so many deserving recipients yet limited funds. I am grateful to donors for ALL their charitable giving, not just their gifts to my organization. Philanthropists are making the world better, and their generosity helps us all, in seen and unseen ways. I only want people to feel good about giving; my job is to help with that.


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