Times Are Changing: How your nonprofit can keep your balance

April 30, 2023
7 minutes
A figure stands on a hill, silhouetted against a colorful sunrise in blue, magenta, and soft yellow.

You might notice that things look a little different around here lately (and we’re not just talking about wallpaper making a comeback). All across the world, there have been big changes, and they’ve left a lasting impression on all of us—and on the nonprofit landscape. The last few years have been a series of once-in-a-lifetime events, every morning a new headline that makes you pop a Motrin before beginning the day. We’re all being asked to do more, often with less. We’re fighting for systemic change while acknowledging the discrepancies in individual experiences. And we’re reevaluating our priorities and reworking our missions in the face of brutal truths.

On top of everything, we’re still internalizing … gesticulates vaguely in all directions … all of this. We’re still struggling with the aches and pains and reverberations of the last few years, even if they’ve faded slightly.

So, where do we go from here? First, we acknowledge what’s different, accept it, and then shift our mindset and mission to meet our new normal where it is. Next, we let everyone know that this is damn hard. And together, we move forward, knowing that there are no shortcuts and no easy answers—but plenty of good.

The wealth gap is getting ever wider

Our forefathers told us that with a lot of hard work and a little luck, anyone could be a success. Unfortunately, in 2021, income inequality increased for the first time in a decade (US Census), and the wealth gap shows no signs of closing. In 2022, nearly 70% of the total wealth in the US was owned by the top 10% of earners, while the lowest 50% of earners owned just over 3% of it (Statista. And don’t get us started on gender and racial wealth disparities. Or how the US is only second to China in its number of billionaires (Statista).

What this means for nonprofits

Let’s just say it: Widening economic inequality is bad news for nonprofits. As the rich get richer, we’re increasingly dependent on major donations from a wealthy few rather than smaller donations from across the larger community. And while some super-wealthy donors are super generous, many prefer to give to two main causes: their own foundations and donor-advised funds. That means nonprofits need to get back to basics to ensure every aspect of the organization, fundraising included, reflects that core mission.

Wealth inequality has hit social services organizations the hardest, straining shelters already short on resources and staff. In San Diego, nearly 80% of nonprofit leaders reported increased demand for human services in 2022 as many struggle to make rent and afford basic necessities (Digital USD). Why? In 2019, the median rent was $909; in 2021, it was $1,015. That’s a 12% increase in rent while overall inflation was about 6% during this time (Pew Research). A 2020 study found that a median rent increase of $100 led to a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate (US Government Accountability Office). So … you do the math.

How this affects your fundraising

Your client base is growing and your donor base is shrinking. Competition for those dollars is increasing—if you’re trying to catch the attention of new supporters. Our suggestion? Focus on retaining and upgrading your existing supporters.

The workplace—and the world—looks different for women

We’re sure you’ve already read up on how the pandemic affected women in the workforce differently (and that’s bad differently, not good differently) than men. More women left their jobs to stay home with their families, and as they stayed home, domestic violence against women increased. In Canada, almost 350,000 women who lost their jobs in the pandemic hadn’t returned by February 2021, leading to the lowest women’s employment rate in two decades  (Gender & COVID-19). In addition to the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on women’s careers, 2022 has thrown plenty of other curveballs that continue to hit us square in the nose. In the US, Roe v. Wade was reversed, while in Iran and Afghanistan, women were stripped of their most basic rights.

What this means for nonprofits

All those hard-won gains for pay parity and women’s rights have rolled back a bit, and that means double time for nonprofits working in women’s and reproductive rights. But across almost every sector, nonprofits are being called on to center the female experience and acknowledge the additional hurdles women face. Compared to men, more women have had their livelihoods, mental health, and physical safety negatively affected by the compound crises of the last few years (CARE). These issues have been getting plenty of news coverage, and plenty of verbal support, with about 50% of Americans who’ve heard of #metoo supporting the movement—and a scant 20% opposing it (Pew Research). Despite this, giving to women’s organizations represents less than 2% of total charitable giving (IUPUI). That means a lot of work to do on a limited budget.

How this affects your fundraising

Women have traditionally donated both money and time at higher rates than men. And even though the majority of donations to women’s organizations come… from… women… (of course), reaching new audiences is key to bringing both funding and awareness to organizations supporting women. Try partnering with other organizations, branching out into traditionally non-female spaces, or jumping on any of these women-focused fundraising ideas.

IDBEA takes center stage

That’s inclusion, diversity, belonging, equity, and accessibility, FYI (for your information). Yes, the acronyms keep getting longer, but that’s because we’re actually improving when it comes to acknowledging our various privileges and taking an intersectional approach to social and racial justice. When the definition of a genuine ally is more complex than ever before, being an ally is of paramount importance.

What this means for nonprofits

Social and racial justice nonprofits have a lot of work to do to maintain the momentum of the past few years. And it’s a tightrope, wanting to aggressively pursue change while facing a deeply divided reality. At the same time, accessibility is top of mind for the first time… well, ever. We now know that working from home works fine, and that means digital accessibility is a must-face. Yet only 22% of nonprofits had accessible websites in 2021 (Nonprofit Tech for Good).

Furthermore, every nonprofit is under renewed pressure to diversify their board and staff in terms of race, age, gender, and wealth. That’s awesome, because 16% of nonprofits serving people of color have boards that are entirely white. You can’t make this stuff up! When it comes to organizations focusing on other issues, that number jumps to 38% (Urban Institute). Diversifying and cultivating a more inclusive environment is a lot of work, and additional hours equal additional expenses. This is yet another big ask of all nonprofits in a society that’s already asking a heck of a lot.

How this affects your fundraising

Diversify your board, programming, and supporters; diversify your fundraising strategies. Now’s the time to expand your appeal and awareness by branching out into new fundraising tactics: social media, peer-to-peer, and recurring programs. Keep it simple and authentic and base your appeal in your nonprofit’s story.

Everyone’s mental health is anything but healthy

The past few years have been tough on our mental health. We’re just guessing, but it might have something to do with political upheaval, rampant inflation, global wars, deteriorating freedoms, and not hugging anyone outside our house for 14 months. We’re all stressed and anxious, but on the bright side, at least we’re all acknowledging it. At the end of 2022, 37% of Americans rated their mental health as fair to poor, up from 31% the year before (APA). Yep, adults’ mental health is suffering, kids’ mental health is in crisis, and we’re all just hanging on for dear life.

What this means for nonprofits

For many nonprofits, mental health is now front and center, and that means adjusting accordingly. This is particularly true for organizations working with marginalized populations who’ve been impacted by recent events and laws, like LGBTQ+ and BIPOC clients. And make no mistake: the numbers are dire. In 2022, 82% of LGBTQ youth wanted mental health care services, but 60% of those didn’t receive them (The Trevor Project).

And while putting mental health front and center is a very good thing, it complicates many nonprofits’ already complicated work. For example, healthcare nonprofits have to widen their definition of necessary and preventative care as the call to increase access to mental healthcare services at work, at home, and in school grows louder. Social justice nonprofits need to take into account the emotional burden of their work, balancing action with emotional well-being. And education nonprofits need to make room for mental health services as a key component of children’s future success.

How this affects your fundraising

Just like any health initiative, the key is taking it bit by bit. Every fundraising channel means more coppers in your coffer, and choosing passive income streams is a way to bring in the bucks without burning yourself out. Try free and effective plans like having your donors cover your fees, upgrading one-time donors to recurring, and reminding donors about corporate donation matching.

How to get the message across

Now that we’ve gotten the acceptance stage out of the way, it’s time to move to action. No matter what type of work your nonprofit does, you’re doing a lot more than you used to, and folks need to know that. So, how can you highlight the additional work you've taken on—and how can you ensure that you have the expertise and resources necessary to keep moving forward? Here’s where to start:

  • Annual report. Your annual report is all about showing supporters your impact over the past year, clearly and transparently. But transparency means showing the challenges along with the successes, so devote a page to highlighting how you’ve addressed the additional burden of the past few years. How has your client base changed? How have you adjusted your mission and offerings?
  • Social media. While it’s often all about a carefully curated image, social media is also a prime place to vlog your truth on Instagram or TikTok. Walk your supporters through a typical day in 2018 compared to 2023 to really stress what’s changed.
  • Op-ed in the local paper. Reach a new audience by publishing an op-ed in your local paper. You can use the opportunity to both introduce new folks to your cause and provide context around how you’ve changed things up in the face of a shifting societal landscape.
  • Infographics. Data visualizations are an accessible way to share information across donor demographics. You can publish them on social media, in newsletters, in marketing outreach, and on your website. Provide periodic updates to keep everyone informed about how things are changing—and how you’re changing course.
  • Chatbot. With so many changes, people are bound to have questions, and a chatbot (done well) can answer them. Consider including prompts about how your services have changed and expanded to fulfill additional needs in the past few years.
  • Statement on your website. A changed world means a changed mission, and that’s something everyone should know about. Work across the organization and with your board to craft a(n updated) statement for your website, explaining exactly what you’re doing with those fundraising dollars to meet additional needs and ensure continued impact.
  • Public collaboration with other nonprofits or agencies. In a deeply divided society, we prefer collaboration over competition. By partnering with other nonprofits or external agencies, you can expand your reach, grow your services, and amplify your message.

Nobody said this was easy, but also, no one said things would change this much. As you plan for what lies ahead, remember that staying true to your mission requires you to rise and meet the times, whatever they may bring.

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