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Philanthropy can unite us, but nonprofits must adapt to the moment

Alexis De Tocqueville has always inspired me.

For those not familiar, he famously visited the United States and Canada from his native France in 1831. He then wrote, in Democracy in America, about the uniquely American phenomenon of forming all types of professional, social, civil, and political "associations”—not-for-profit, non-governmental organizations which aim to serve the public good and improve the quality of human lives.

Tocqueville observed: "The love and respect of your neighbors must be gained by a long series of small services, hidden deeds of goodness, a persistent habit of kindness, and an established reputation of selflessness. I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good, and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needs be, they almost always gave each other faithful support.”

He saw the best in us. Love. Respect. Goodness. Kindness. Selflessness.

Despite the rifts and division that we see across the United States today, I’m encouraged by Tocqueville and the prospect of us coming together and overcoming our challenges as we look to 2022 and beyond.

And there’s no better embodiment of this unity than nonprofit organizations. Charitable giving is the perfect vehicle to transcend our differences and motivate people to rally around worthy causes.

Who would disagree that it’s a good thing to feed the hungry?

Who would oppose curing childhood cancer?

Who would resist the battle against animal cruelty?

Philanthropy is in our cultural DNA. It’s been this way since our nation’s founding.

Nonprofit organizations have continued to stand up for their amazing missions. And donors have continued to support them during the difficult times we’ve faced in the last two years.

Unlike donors during natural disasters, those who have stepped up their support during the pandemic have stuck with nonprofits and have given again and again. Earlier this month, Americans donated $2.7 billion on Giving Tuesday, eclipsing the 2020 mark by 9% and the 2019 total by 37%!

This is a wonderful piece of good news that we should celebrate.

The last two years have shown us a glimpse of the future. As we enter 2022, we stand at a true inflection point for nonprofit fundraising and marketing.

Many younger donors have entered the world of philanthropy for the first time, and digital engagement has accelerated rapidly. These two observations are no coincidence, yet we’ve also seen the continued value of traditional channels, like direct mail, events, telemarketing, etc.

Nonprofits must continue to strengthen relationships with donors—both new and old. And the way that we’re communicating with donors is changing. Here are a few thoughts on how we should all adapt:

Direct mail must be done differently

Every couple of years we hear that “direct mail is dead.” Yet, it keeps thriving.

Direct mail plays a critical role in fundraising, and I don’t see that changing. What is changing, however, is the strategy and approach we use.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Direct mail must be data-driven and optimized to maximize net revenue. Advanced analytics must drive targeting and segmentation to help nonprofits become wiser stewards of limited resources.

The global supply chain crisis has shown exactly why this is critical as costs for raw materials have increased while demand has surged across the globe. The recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have further amplified this need to optimize. “Mass mailing” is—or should be—dead. Highly targeted, super-optimized mail must rise in its place.

But it’s not just about analytics and data. At the same time, we must optimize the message we’re putting in front of donors.

Nonprofits fail when they send boring, ho-hum, emotionally weak fundraising appeals. Successful organizations are authentic about their mission. They share the need and ask for help, but they also fill donors’ hearts with emotion, appreciation and gratitude for making the mission possible.

Finally, direct mail can no longer be viewed as a single-channel solution. It must be part of an omnichannel mix to reach people where they are with a multiplicity of messages.

Digital growth must be a top priority

2020 and 2021 should be a wake-up call that nonprofits must leverage every channel possible to get their message out. Digital is clearly the next in line for being a strong channel.

But digital is really multiple channels in one: email, social, website, donation form, etc. And these channels need to be optimized to work together efficiently. Nonprofits must use personalization, automation and segmentation in a way that builds a stronger connection with donors.

The pandemic has taught nearly every industry that digital advancement needs to be prioritized now. Nonprofits must invest in the entire digital ecosystem more than before—not to replace direct mail, but to run alongside it as part of an omnichannel strategy.

We can’t continue to depend on the elevated generosity we’ve seen during the pandemic. Eventually, charitable giving will return to “regular” levels. We must be prepared to meet that moment with a fully optimized omnichannel approach.

Nonprofits must connect with younger generations

When giving does return to “regular” levels, who will our primary supporters be?

Historically, older empty nesters have been the greatest responders to traditional direct mail. Those empty nesters are now part of Generation X, and the research we published this year shows that they don’t give in the same way as my generation of Baby Boomers.

The pandemic has also pushed a wave of Boomers into retirement faster than anyone expected. As they move into their next phase of life, their average household income is decreasing.

This is why every nonprofit today is trying to figure out how to attract younger donors. Our industry needs to develop new strategies to connect with younger generations and engage them in deeper relationships.

Once again, this points to the need to pursue and develop a sophisticated omnichannel strategy. And a big part of that strategy must be finding new ways to stir up the philanthropic impulses that live inside younger donors.

Remember the words of Tocqueville above. It’s in our nation’s DNA to want to make the world more humane, just, and compassionate.

Philanthropy can and should play a healing role in our national discourse. There are so many causes that Americans of all ages and backgrounds can rally around and support.

As an industry, we must continue to innovate as we encourage the philanthropic spirit that is unique to our country.

Tim Kersten

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top direct response fundraising, strategic and creative talents, Tim Kersten brings more than 40 years of experience to his role as Chairman of RKD Group. Prior to joining RKD, he served as Chief Creative Officer and Executive Creative Director at two national advertising agencies and ran his own successful direct response fundraising consultancy for nearly 25 years.

Some of the nation’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations that have benefited from Tim’s insightful and persuasive communication strategies include the Smithsonian Institution, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, National Park Foundation, Covenant House, and dozens of others. Tim’s work has been recognized by his receipt of four Direct Marketing Association Echo Awards (gold, leader and two silver from 1986 to 2010) and a prestigious International Caples Award (2010).

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