We begin this edition of Nonprofit Knowledge Monthly with gratitude for everyone who was a part of the election process – a process that ran the way it was supposed to and resulted in a record number of votes being cast. In the face of unprecedented challenges, thousands of nonprofits were part of nonpartisan efforts to register voters and help ensure that people were aware of the rules and deadlines for early voting, mail-in voting, and regular Election Day voting. We are most thankful for the poll workers, ballot counters, and election observers who helped ensure the process ran properly – including our Board Chair, Donna Murray-Brown (pictured at right, wearing the double masks of poll workers in Michigan). And we are thankful to the public officials of both parties who kept us updated on their states’ vote totals, all with the mission of counting every vote, just as our democracy intended. Whether the candidates that you supported at each level – federal, state, and local – won or lost, your vote mattered. Thank you.
In this issue, you’ll find an analysis of available data on how the pandemic is affecting nonprofits, a look forward at this giving season and what your nonprofit can do at a time when we know every dollar counts, and why nonprofits should be reaching out to newly-elected (or re-elected) officials at all levels.
Warning Signs About the Fragility of Nonprofits in the Pandemic Era
Since March, when COVID-19 exploded in the United States, tens of millions of additional people have been turning to and relying on charitable nonprofits for basic human services. With demands increasing and resources declining, all stakeholders – nonprofits board members, government policymakers, business leaders, and the public – need to understand how charitable nonprofits are faring. That’s why we extend special thanks to all the nonprofit leaders who have responded to surveys sent out by their state associations of nonprofits seeking information about how the pandemic and economic crises are affecting the capacity, and even the viability, of the nonprofit community. For instance, from nonprofits in Pennsylvania, we’ve learned that during the first six months of the crisis, human services providers there have suffered, on average, a negative financial impact of $1.1 million per organization ($879,300 in lost revenues and $220,600 in higher operational costs to keep people safe). That’s just one of the many facts from multiple states explored in our article exploring the myriad challenges nonprofits face right now and how many are faring.
Help us better tell the story of how nonprofits and the people we all serve are being affected by the pandemic by sharing your nonprofit's story with us.
A Giving Season Unlike Any Other
The holiday season is around the corner (or maybe, given all of the decorations that showed up in stores even before Halloween, it’s already here). Giving Tuesday is only a few weeks away. While fundraising is a year-round effort, the holiday season is when many people focus on their giving. The challenges this year are new, but the keys to fundraising this season are the same as always: start with why and be transparent.
Potential donors need to know why they should support your work. Messaging this giving season needs to focus, as always, on what difference every donation will make in the lives of others. As you describe that impact, be mindful of how you are speaking about the people your nonprofit serves and works with. As Trabian Shorters of BMe Community shares, “You can’t lift people up by putting them down.” Leave behind terms like “at-risk” or “disadvantaged.” Talk, instead, about their aspirations and goals.
This year brings a special opportunity with two caveats. Thanks to nonprofit advocacy, your nonprofit’s messaging can reference the new Universal Charitable Deduction, which allows everyone, even people who don’t itemize on their taxes, to deduct up to the first $300 that they donate to nonprofits this year. But please be sure to frame your message that way – can “deduct up to the first $300 of donations” – so people see it as an added bonus for giving at least $300, not as a cap on the total amount they can give. While it makes sense to mention this new opportunity, don’t make it your subject line or focus, because studies show that people give to support the work of nonprofits, not just for a tax deduction. Leave the focus on the "why."
One of the biggest challenges for nonprofits this year has been the new, unanticipated expenses to keep your staff, volunteers, and people you serve safe. There have been extra costs for plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer, extra cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment. Some have also needed to reconfigure their space to provide for proper physical distancing. Be transparent with your supporters about these costs. If your organization needs additional resources this year to keep people safe, let donors know. This is an opportunity to bust the “overhead myth” once and for all, as people will have a greater understanding of the importance of the core operational costs that nonprofits must incur to deliver services. Don’t be afraid to tell people why you need them to dig a little deeper this year and, more importantly, why they should be providing general support, not just support for a specific program.
Looking Forward Together
There’s another group your nonprofit should also be sending messages to right now: elected officials. The time you invest in sending just a few messages to these decision-makers can have an even more significant impact on your nonprofit than fundraising appeals.
In January, in addition to a new President, there will be more than one thousand new elected officials at the federal and state levels, not to mention the several thousand who were re-elected last week. These individuals, in addition to appointed and career officials, will be making decisions in the weeks and months ahead that will affect your nonprofit’s ability to serve the community. The decisions are countless. Will there be another COVID relief package? Will it include #Relief4Charities? What regulations might be changed that impose new costs? What changes might be coming to charitable giving incentives at the federal and state levels? What about federal, state, and local budgets? Some states are already implementing major budget cuts and we have seen time and time again that, when budgets are cut, nonprofits are among the first on the chopping block.
Our VP of Public Policy, David L. Thompson, shares this anecdote from a lobbyist he once knew, “You never want to have to ask a stranger for a favor; so get on out there and make friends with the lawmakers before you want something.” Now is the time to reach out and introduce or re-introduce your nonprofit and the work it does. Let these officials know about the people your nonprofit serves every day. Make sure they understand the consequences of the decisions they will be making. Building those relationships now is the best investment your nonprofit can make in its future – and it takes only a few minutes.
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