Fundraisers and their Presidents and Boards have been very nervous for the last twenty-one months over the implications of the Great Recession of philanthropy. And for good reason. The Dow tumbled about 58 percent before it leveled off in March 2009 and began a precedent-setting rally back into 5 digits.

The rally lasted fourteen months but, though it got back to 11,000, it has sputtered over the last three months on a stagnant jobs market, a tumultuous political climate, the BP disaster, a flat housing market and a host of other technical and substantive issues. Donors–and institutions that must be sensitive to them–continue to be anxious. Confidence is wounded and many continue to wonder whether the wound is lethal.

During the recession, Bentz Whaley Flessner has been consistent in its counsel to clients:

  • Philanthropy is remarkably resilient.
  • Donors continue to give in bad times as well as in good times.
  • Institutions that sustain focus and maintain–perhaps increase–effort will be successful.

We’ve suggested some strategies for adapting the case you make, segmenting your constituencies, and shaping your general approach to your donor market. Institutions that adjust their course but continue the journey are doing well. The news of a 5.7 percent decline in American philanthropy suggested by GIVING USA 2009 report was a real blow to confidence. It was only the second time in a half century that giving not only failed to grow year over year but slid backward. (The first year was 1987 when giving declined less than 1 percent in current dollars.) The news of this decline seemed to many to suggest that we were in real trouble, and it led some to expect the worst.

Then, GIVING USA 2010 report released more bad news—there was yet another decline of 3.6 percent in 2009! What everyone seems to have missed in the GIVING USA 2010 Executive Summary which was released
earlier in June is that:

Charitable giving did NOT decline by 5.7 percent in 2008 as previously estimated. Instead it saw a small increase. “The decline previously estimated for 2008 was eliminated when extraordinarily high charitable bequests were reported on estate tax returns for that year.” (page 23).

This news does not refute the facts that there is a great deal of stress in the economic system and that fundraising will require creativity, focus, energy–and all the optimism we can muster. But this news can be a real asset to those of us who are working as hard as we can build optimism among for our Boards. Fundraising is the business of optimism. We always do much better when we are about building a bright future. We don’t do nearly as well when we’re trying to fund remediation. Get this news out!

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