Right before Christmas, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, into law.  This new tax bill permanently lowers corporate tax rates and temporarily reduces individual tax rates. Will the new tax reform impact fundraising? Yes, without a ...


Merry, Merry or Quite Contrary?

Right before Christmas, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, into law.  This new tax bill permanently lowers corporate tax rates and temporarily reduces individual tax rates. (It also allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but I digress.)

Will the new tax reform impact fundraising? Yes, without a doubt. While some pundits are less cynical about the tax reform’s effect, your organization should absolutely be reevaluating its upcoming fundraising goals—especially in its mid-level, major donor and planned giving programs.

Let’s review how the new bill could impact fundraising and what you can do about it.

1.     Uncertainty. Any major tax overhaul (and this one is being compared to the scale of Reagan’s 1986 tax reform) breeds uncertainty. Because of the increased standard deduction for tax filers and the reduction in deductible write-offs (mainly related to real estate and state and local taxes, many taxpayers will no longer itemize their deductions when they file their returns. This uncertainty will lead many potential donors to reduce or eliminate their giving because they are not sure of the tax benefit they will receive, if any at all.

And uncertainty can depress giving. Whether a donor gives altruistically or for the tax-deduction, most individuals will be nervous about how this law will impact them personally.

Organizations will have to brace for the unknown because many people won’t know how this law will affect them until they actually file their 2018 taxes in early 2019. That’s a long time to deal with doubt.

What you can do now: Show donors the true value of belonging to a community of like-minded people. Nearly two years ago, futurist J. Walker Smith predicted the country’s desire for “longing for belonging”.

Walker Smith talked about VUCA—a cold war military term that describes a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Walker Smith said, “VUCA is the turbulent, crazy world consumers find outside their front door every day.” Sound familiar?

Add onto this the ever-widening partisanship and inherent mistrust in our society and Americans—our donors—are angry, fearful, disillusioned and confused. Non-profits are perfectly positioned to give donors a place to belong—to bring together people who identify with your values, your work, your mission. Create a community for your donors and the world will be less uncertain.

2.     Increased standard deduction. The increased standard deduction will nearly double for both married couples (up to $24,000) and single filers (up to $12,000). The Tax Policy Center estimates that nearly 30 million filers will no longer have to itemize. Why is this a big deal? Because taxpayers won’t have as much of an incentive to itemize their deductions to reduce their taxable income.

Although surveys indicate that smaller-dollar donors don’t give because of a tax deduction, research also shows that 87% of donors do itemize on their tax returns. So, tax-deductibility can be a motivating factor, and tax-deductibility is certainly part of our country’s giving DNA.

The National Council of Nonprofits and the Indiana School of Philanthropy is estimating that the changes in the new tax bill could depress philanthropic giving between $13 billion and $20 billion per year.

What you can do now: Retool your fundraising program to ensure it’s giving a tangible value to each philanthropic gift. While that advice is easier for institutions that can give items like free admission, it’s also possible to illustrate value of donations that don’t have tangible benefits. Do you keep donors apprised of global news? Do you offer them guides to enjoying our national parks?

Prove to donors that your organization is doing more with each dollar. It is estimated that the after-tax price of giving will increase by 8%. How can you illustrate to donors that you are increasing the benefit amount of their donation to cover the (real or not) increased tax-burden?

Ask for larger donations. Giving larger donations may help taxpayers reach the threshold of needing to itemize—which will lead to a larger tax-deduction. Note that some financial planners are suggesting that taxpayers double their giving every other year, to ensure that they don’t lose the tax-deduction from their charitable giving.

3.     Lowered Estate Taxes. While not as dire as in earlier versions of the bill, the estate tax threshold has increased significantly—from $5.6 million to $11.2 million for individuals and, if properly managed, $22.4 million for couples.

The law is expected to sunset in 2025, so major donors are likely to make familial gifts now, rather than wait. Far fewer estates will be subject to the levy — the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the number of taxable estates would drop from 5,000 under current law to 1,800 under the new law in 2018. Of course, planned giving programs have soared in the last few years—and even as the number of taxable estates fell (in 2000, when the exemption was $675,000, 52,000 estates paid the tax).

What you can do now: Don’t stop marketing your planned giving vehicles! Just make sure you’re focused on the philanthropic benefits and the legacy donors are leaving. In addition, savvy donors may be looking more at vehicles like charitable lead trusts, so make sure you understand all your planned giving opportunities. In addition, donors may be using money to fund life insurance policies, so be sure to talk with donors about the opportunity to name your organization as a beneficiary.

Also, if you can, focus more of your marketing efforts to donors without children, long-time donors who have proven to be mission-focused and higher-rated major donors, who may not qualify for the estate tax exemption.

4.     Increased use of alternative giving vehicles. While this didn’t change, making gifts from retirement accounts will certainly become more of a focus during year-end planning. For donors who make a qualified charitable donation (QCD), the money is subtracted from their taxable income and often lower a taxpayer’s income enough to have them avoid paying Medicare premiums.

Also, Donor Advised Funds (DAF) will become a more popular giving vehicle. DAFs are like personal charitable savings accounts. Taxpayers can add cash or securities to a DAF, take the deduction now, and distribute the money at a later time. DAFs are also a good way to unload appreciated securities without paying capital gains taxes. When taxpayers put their appreciated securities into a DAF, they get to deduct the full appreciated value of those securities from their taxable income that year.

What you can do now: Increase your organization’s marketing of these alternative vehicles. Prominently highlight DAFs on your website (there’s an easy widget that most nonprofits can add to their website). And, make sure you have age appended to your database, so you can target donors who qualify for making QCDs from their retirement accounts.

5.     Increased 2017 Year-End Giving. With all the publicity about tax-reform, financial advisors, nonprofits and even the media are encouraging donors to give in 2017 to benefit from the tax-deduction.

What does this mean for your organization? This year-end is probably not a barometer for next year-end. While giving will certainly increase next December, the “tax-deductibility” technique won’t be as effective.

What you can do now: Right-size expectations. We can’t say for certain how much giving could drop next December, but preparing leadership that there could be an impact is a conversation to start having early in the year.

Don’t forget, too, that year-end creates a natural deadline and urgency all on its own. While experts are split as to whether or not a fiscal-year end push is effective for motivating fundraising, we have seen great success using deadlines to motivate giving. December 31, 2018 will be here before you know it—and your organization should have a marketing plan to tackle it.

No matter what you do, remember to make your organization a donor priority. This tax reform and its consequences could have a significant impact on your mission and who you serve. There has never been a more important time for increased funding.

(Note: This article is not intended for legal or accounting advice. Please check with the appropriate people in your organization to ensure you are in full compliance with the new law.)



Worth the Risk

The first week of May, down in New Orleans, I crashed the Email Evolution Conference (EEC), a conference typically reserved for our friends in the commercial space. Adobe, Microsoft, IBM, and a heap of smaller firms specializing in email-centric solutions were there, all offering strategies, tactics, and tools that are lightyears ahead of the nonprofit world. I’ll be writing a few pieces on my time spent there, covering everything from emerging trends to great restaurants, so let’s get started!

As I touched down in the Big Easy, I knew something was amiss right off the bat. The humidity was low, the temperature was comfortable, and the vendors were working together: co-hosting parties, sharing their strategies, and most interestingly, not competing against each other. Vendor alley wasn’t a gauntlet to be survived, it was a cornucopia of valuable knowledge and insight. The cooperation went so far that I even saw a vendor introduce a potential client to a different vendor because they were a better fit!

I thought about letting them know that they had it all wrong. They were the cutthroat capitalists, and I was the nonprofit do-gooder. Then it dawned on me, and I understood how far behind we really are. There are no secrets anymore—everything can be reverse engineered and competitive advantage is a thing of the past. Their ecosystem looks like a rainforest where the key to survival is diversification, not direct competition. Niche markets exist for everything from email list hygiene, to real-time a/b content testing tools. There still is some competition, of course, it’s not a utopia. But why do our offerings feel so anemic in comparison?

Risk tolerance.

The commercial marketplace is risk tolerant and commercial clients are willing to pilot new products and platforms.  Nonprofits? Not so much….

So what does it take to be risk tolerant, so we can take advantage of all these new tools and strategies? To be risk tolerant an organization must be two things:

1)      Prepared and Informed. There is a strong misconception that taking a risk means being reckless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Backing every risk a commercial client takes is deep analytics, strong strategic thinking, and an amortization of ROI—and a way to measure it. KPIs are set that indicate if the test is meeting the expected long-term goal and those KPIs are tracked and reported on regularly. The final critical point in being prepared? Leadership recognizes the short-term investment and long-term ROI.

2)      Nimble and Responsive. Organizations that aren’t responsive must be risk averse. Otherwise, any misstep could endanger the entire operation. But being responsive allows an organization to pivot from mistakes, learn from experiments, and create a culture that thrives on testing and abhors the status quo.

Risk tolerant clients. They are the nutrients that power the entire system. Without them an ecosystem is instead monopolized by a few key predators that aren’t incentivized to innovate or evolve.

There was a lot to see and do in New Orleans. It’s a city full of music and history. It’s the birthplace of jazz. But these days those are hard to find in the French Quarter. “NOLA” today is dominated by the lazy clichés of Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. Its visitors don’t demand more, so it doesn’t offer it. Which is a shame, because going to one of America’s most culturally diverse cities and coming back with beads made in China and a hangover made under the glow of neon lights seems like a real disservice. Shouldn’t you demand more from a city that can, and should, offer so much more? Shouldn’t your nonprofit follow suit?

PS New Orleans has glimpsed the future and realized it is not a pretty one. So they’re doing something about it, according to its Mayor. Hopefully we will heed their lesson.


Fundraising During Uncertainty

It doesn’t matter what organization you are working for these days. If you’re a fundraiser, you are facing relentless ambiguity and unpredictability. Americans are incredibly polarized. Public trust in institutions is waning. The online world has created an insatiable appetite for information. And the direct marketing programs we inherited were built for a vanishing generation. Now what?

Be bold.

Stop manipulating your message to appeal to every donor and every potential donor. Now more than ever, people are yearning to belong to communities that reflect their core values and beliefs. Use your campaigns to preach your organization’s vision and mission. Be confident in your organization’s point of view and defend its position. Stop labeling your issues as red state and blue state.

Take risks.

Innovation has all but disappeared from the fundraising landscape. But innovation is the only way for an organization to remain competitive – not just with other nonprofits, but for the scarce resources of the donor’s wallet.

For years, our industry has been rewarding itself with improvements to the status quo. Whether it’s because our fundraising programs are now measured in ways that discourage fundraisers from taking risks, or the industry is dominated by a limited number of influential and insider perspectives and service providers, true experimentation is nearly gone.

Invest in infrastructure.

If our industry has failed to keep pace, it’s because we lack the data to understand donor habits and preferences, don’t have the platforms to give a personalized and optimized experience, and haven’t changed the metrics by which we measure our success. Now is the time to invest in your digital tool sets, install Google Analytics and e-commerce, overhaul your reporting, clean your data, and evaluate the data you collect, where you store it, and how you use it.

And, through it all, remain authentic.

Today’s donors interact with commercial brands, local stores, and nonprofits in the same way they do with their families and friends. That means they expect the same level of trust and transparency.

Organizations can no longer take a “wait and see” approach to new ideas, channels, strategies, and tactics. Use this time of uncertainty to transform your fundraising program – highlight the failures of status quo, take risks, and innovate.

More to come…


“Make America Great Again” … And What This Means to Fundraising

Recently, The Agitator shared its thoughts on some of the “by-products” of the 2016 election, noting we all have learned about the “emolument clause” and what it means to have standing in-court cases. The other result of the election? The unprecedented growth in new donors for many nonprofits.

We have all heard about ACLU’s $24 million weekend. Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) added 55,519 new online donors in November and December compared to 4,050 in 2015; Sierra Club acquired 26,000 new monthly donors in November and December – a 16-fold increase over last year; Planned Parenthood experienced a 40-fold increase in new donors in December … and the list goes on.

The Agitator called this flood of new donors “rage” donors. I like to use the term “outrage donors.” The last time we experienced outrage giving was 9/11, but the number of organizations who were impacted was limited. Of course, we have had dozens of disasters, triggering millions of dollars pouring into relief organizations. We all know that, for the most part, those donors did not become long term donors and supporters. 

These new outrage donors don’t look and behave like former disaster donors. So now what? I believe that nonprofits will need to have some serious pow wows with all key members of their senior leadership together with their fundraising and communications teams to strategize very carefully on how to treat and care for these new donors. 

Where to start? For online donors, start with a customized online acknowledgment along with a mailed thank you that is specifically matched to the campaign, online ad, or donation page the donor responded to. Then, move to an online welcome series tailored to what engaged them in the first place.  Remember, these new donors are looking to you to for praise and recognition for their gift to the specific request they responded to.  Which means that emailing them an evergreen welcome series is simply not good enough.

A special note concerning your new donors who gave online: don’t get cheap and think you can save money by NOT mailing to them. Think about all those catalogues you get in the mail: not many of us send in a reply form, but we still enjoy the mailed catalogue.

What about the new mail donor? The same holds true for the mail: start with your acknowledgment and make sure you’re not using an evergreen thank you letter. Use this opportunity to engage and connect again. And this does NOT mean asking for a gift – find another way to engage your new donor. 

What comes next in the mail over the next 12 months is equally important. Segment these new donors and use specific language in the copy to remind them why they gave to you. And keep doing this for at least the next 12 months. Don’t assume if you have received a second gift, you have retained these outrage donors as long-term supporters.

One last note on engaging these valuable new donors: INVEST in them. Consider inviting them to a telephone Town Hall to meet the leadership and give them an opportunity to share their concerns and hopes with your organization’s leaders. If you can’t personally meet these new very special donors, talking directly to them is the next best thing!

Find the money now to start the new donor stewardship by asking a board member or special friend to invest – don’t wait. And, be careful in your FY18 budget planning. Just how long the outrage will help feed the fundraising bonfires is unclear so don’t let your new donors go up in smoke.

What is not unclear is that these new donors and, of course, your loyal supporters want to know that they are making a difference. Remember, it is not just about your organization’s good works, but what your donors have done to enable those good works. Without them, there is no “you”.


Marketing Automation: What's in it for me?

You’ve probably heard someone throw around the term Marketing Automation (MA). Most likely you nodded, agreed it’s a game-changer, but truthfully weren’t even sure what it was. Engaging Networks is about to release its first iteration of MA this Friday, so it’s time to get ready. Marketing automation is a platform that allows your organization to design tailored donor journeys, based on different user behaviors. Wow. That’s a lot of jargon.

Here’s a quick way to get your head around it – MA takes what a great salesperson does and automates it. So each customer has a unique, satisfying experience with your organization as if they were catered to by their very own salesperson. How does it do this? The secret sauce of MA lies in decision points. After each touch point (an email, text, or social media interaction), you have the option to take the segment of people that received that original communication and, using their behaviors and interactions with your organization, parse them into several different smaller segments.

Today’s systems can’t do this which means:

  • People that clicked on an email aren’t treated differently from those that didn’t open it – with MA they can be.
  • People that visited several pages on your site aren’t treated differently from people that went straight to the donation page – with MA they can be.
  • People that visit your website often aren’t treated differently from people that only engage with you on Facebook – with MA they can be.

Haven’t you always wanted to talk with each of those people differently? This is the power of MA – each action a constituent takes, each website visit they make, each social engagement they have can be used to create specific communication pathways.

Maybe someone who doesn’t open your first email should be sent a text message next, whereas someone who clicked the donate button but doesn’t complete it should be sent an email promoting a match to inspire the gift, whereas someone who donated should be sent a social message to share with their friends.

None of these people interacted with you the same way. Why are you talking to them as if they did?

When organizations build email campaigns an assumption is made that we all accept: at best only 1/4 of the list will ever go past the subject line. Think of all the time and effort put into creating the emails, donation pages, thank you pages, and confirmation emails. All that effort is for, at most, 2% of your list. A successful email campaign today gives up on 98% of the list.

These people are already on your email list and have told you they want to engage with your organization, so why do we consider that scenario an overwhelming success? MA’s ability to take into account the different choices recipients will make, ahead of time, gives you the opportunity to increase open, click, and action rates dramatically.

Unlike the email campaigns of today, MA allows you to start from a single communication and branch based on user decisions, actions and other inputs. With every branch, you create better defined segments and the chance to refine your messaging accordingly.

MA isn’t just the future of email, it’s the future of all digital communications. In the coming years there will be those that have adopted it, reaping the benefits, and those that have not, wondering what happened. The question is, which will you be?

Don’t get left behind, start today by taking a look at the current market leaders in MA. We suggest you start with SilverPop and Marketo, and this week Engaging Networks will also be releasing its first iteration of MA as well. If you’re an EN client, you don’t want to miss the release on Friday.

We’ve talked for years about personalizing each donor’s journey, but have never truly given a unique experience to each constituent based on their personal preferences—outside the few donors who fall into a major gift officer portfolio. Marketing automation, with the right platform and implemented correctly, can truly deliver on this promise.