Why Are Your Donors Not Participating?

by Barbara Barron | Posted December 6th, 2023 | Subscribe to this newsletter

Right now, I have a few school clients struggling with lower giving numbers compared to this time in previous years. Participation has been on a bit of a downward trend for the past couple of years — but this fall, it feels especially troubling.

Schools who are used to 100% participation in their giving campaigns are behind. Others are noticing a general lack of attention among their families. There’s a level of chatter about this among seasoned professionals in some of the advancement circles I play in.

Everyone is asking: “Is it just us? What’s going on?”

I believe the answers are: “No.” And “A lot.”

In one painfully vivid case, a major donor family is so angry with the school for what she believed was an inadequate response to the Israel-Hamas war that she is refusing to speak to them. She has indicated their family giving may be over.

Another school is reworking their capital campaign schedule to allow more time for families to participate. Even as it means extending time and stretching precious resources.

Many other schools have families living in fear because they are Jewish. Or Muslim.

We see plenty of high schools with students protesting. While their parents and teachers likely applaud their social action, it is still highly distracting. Many of these students need their averages to stay solid right now for the college applications they are submitting in days.

Here’s the point…

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We are in a very challenging fundraising climate. Just barely through a pandemic, we now see two wars and a presidential political contest ramping up that has many frozen with fear or blazing with outrage. Add climate worries and the economy and… whoo-wee! It’s rough.

In my experience, when people are uncertain or fearful, they tend to hold still. We saw it in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And at the start of the 2008 financial crisis. And in those early dark days of Covid. Everyone was asking: “What’s happening? Is it just us? Are you experiencing what we’re experiencing?”

But the truth is, that stasis didn’t last. People took action. Giving to many organizations bloomed. As long-time readers will remember I wrote about this in 2020.

I said, in effect, that if you stop asking your supporters, you will regret it later. Those that kept going, kept in touch with their families, kept asking in a respectful way, survived — and even thrived!

The same holds true now. We need to be especially sensitive, to be sure! Your donors who are worried about friends and family need your understanding. They don’t need a deadline that is, frankly, arbitrary anyway. We may want 100% participation before year-end or by a certain date, and we may believe this motivates giving (and it often does) even if it can depress gift amounts. But we and our fine schools will be far better off if we speak and behave in ways that are consistent with our community values: inclusive, understanding, caring.

Time to embody that.

We all hope this period of fear and worry, violence and destruction ends soon. We all want peace and justice. As we work and wait for those, let’s remain the faces and voices our supporters know and trust. Let’s keep them at the center of our work.

And if you are worried or scared right now, I hope you are asking for support from your personal and professional networks. Take care of yourself.

I send you my warmest wishes. Thank you for everything you’re doing.

Barbara Barron
[email protected]

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BARBARA BARRON is one of the most respected and highly sought-after independent advancement professionals in the country, having worked with dozens of schools in every corner of the United States.

She has raised over $20 million for schools where she served as the Director of Development. Barbara is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and presenter who currently advises dozens of schools in various capacities. She is considered a thought leader in the world of advancement, with her writing widely shared by professionals in development offices worldwide.

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