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5 ways to raise money when donors are consumed by non-stop news

Almost every day, it seems, there's more breaking news -- "Can you believe this?!" -- that one just has to hear, read, and share. Faced with that reality, how can we keep our message in front of our most valuable donors? Here are five great suggestions from the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Rebecca Koenig.

5 Ways to Raise Money When Donors Are Consumed by Nonstop News

By Rebecca Koenig

During its 2016 year-end fundraising campaign, leaders at Congressional Hunger Center noticed a disheartening trend.

Alumni of the nonprofit’s fellowship program, usually very reliable supporters, were using social media to post lists of causes to support in the wake of the presidential election — but Congressional Hunger Center wasn’t included.

Sure enough, fewer donors than usual gave to the campaign.

"It wasn’t a significant loss, but it was noticeable," says Shannon Maynard, executive director.

Charities always find it difficult to capture attention, but some nonprofits fear that their donors are distracted by President Trump’s policies. "Backlash philanthropy," the trend of donating money to express frustration with the new administration, has benefited select organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union but not necessarily nonprofits as a whole.

Charities that don’t work on behalf of refugees, the environment, immigrants, or women’s rights need not lose heart, however.

"The most important advice I could give an organization not directly impacted by the current political environment is to embrace fundamental practice and keep moving forward," says Michael Rosen, president of consulting firm ML Innovations.

Here are a few ways to prevent your donors from getting distracted by current events:

1. Avoid obvious attempts to connect your organization to causes that don’t relate to your mission.

It can be tempting to try to capitalize on the outrage a lot of groups are experiencing to snag attention for your charity, but that could backfire.

"If it’s a stretch, then the recipient of the appeal is going to see through it and see it as a gimmick," Mr. Rosen says. "It’s not going to be particularly effective."

Instead, think about what motivates donors to give, and tap into that, he advises.

For example, to make up for the lackluster year-end campaign results, Congressional Hunger Center will contact its alumni fellows throughout 2017 with sentimental appeals that prompt them to reflect fondly about the positive effects the program has had on their lives.

"That’s a shift in strategy that we’ve taken to try to connect with people personally and not necessarily be competing on an issue level" with other charities, Ms. Maynard says.

2. Maintain good relationships with current donors.

"At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships and building relationships with donors that endure changing times, disasters, whatever particular issue is in the spotlight," Ms. Maynard says.

Ms. Maynard is planning more follow-up calls and coffee dates than usual with her charity’s corporate donors to signal to them that "we don’t take their donations from past years for granted."

It also means reporting back how donations are being used, Mr. Rosen says.

"The more specific an organization can be with a donor, the more that donor will feel like they’re making a difference," he says. If a donor feels he or she is bringing about change, this "will help drive further philanthropy to that organization."

3. Keep asking for money, even if your cause isn’t currently in the spotlight.

Nonprofits that are intentionally refraining from responding to headlines should explain to donors, "we believe we can be most effective with this particular work and stay the course," says Oran Hesterman, chief executive of Fair Food Network, a Michigan nonprofit that connects produce from local farmers to families who struggle with food scarcity.

It’s important to remind supporters that "the challenges we’re working on are not going away even if the spotlight may not be on us," he says. "It’s important for us to constantly explore where we can have the greatest impact considering our particular strengths."

Just because some charities are experiencing a windfall doesn’t mean your organization can’t keep attracting dollars.

"The worst thing an organization can do is say, ‘Oh my, everybody’s distracted by what’s going on in the political environment. All our donors are going to give to environmental groups, Planned Parenthood, and ACLU. Nobody is going to want to give money to us,’ " Mr. Rosen says.

To fundraisers tempted to give up, Mr. Rosen offers tough-love advice: "Stop making excuses and do the hard work required to raise money."

4. Prepare for the day when your work will get more attention.

Over the past 40 years, "I’ve seen the interest and sources of funding ebb and flow," says Mr. Hesterman. That means that even though hunger isn’t top of mind for many donors at the moment, it could be soon. This lull in national attention is a good opportunity to think about how to take advantage of relevant news when it does arrive.

"We’re preparing for the day our issues might be in the headlines," Ms. Maynard says. "We’re doing everything we can to make sure folks know these programs work, what they do, and who they’re serving. When the day comes that they’re under the microscope, we’ll fight to preserve what’s working."

5. Look at the big picture to build relationships with other groups and find new donors.

Whatever your charity’s primary focus, its work does not happen in a vacuum. The problems your organization tackles are connected to larger systems. If you start to think about how your nonprofit’s work connects to broader issues, you’ll be better prepared to tap into a wider array of news and bigger pool of donors in the future.

For example, Ms. Maynard says, a community health foundation might use an economic-justice lens to focus its work on health problems that affect poor families and therefore be able to attract support from donors concerned more explicitly about poverty than about health.

Similarly, in recognizing the unique hunger problems immigrants face, a charity that provides access to healthy food might build a relationship with an immigrants-rights nonprofit and tap into its base of support.

Programs at Fair Food Network are designed to address many causes: food security, sustainability, economic development, health, and education, Mr. Hesterman says. The nonprofit shows donors that "the work we do in food really touches everything."

Those efforts have helped Fair Food Network stay "relevant to a whole variety of partners and donors," Mr. Hesterman says, even as interest in food issues "ebbs and flows over many years."

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