71: Mobilize Your Mission: Data-Driven Decision Making in a Recession with Woodrow Rosenbaum

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“I think that it’s fair to say that there are a number of pervasive myths in the nonprofit sector about how people respond. In fact, effective fundraising and effective marketing share a lot of commonality.”

– Woodrow Rosenbaum
Episode #71


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

Your head will spin with the data-driven insights and post-pandemic strategies my guest has to share on this jam-packed episode of What the Fundraising. Woodrow Rosenbaum, Chief Data Officer at GivingTuesday, brings a powerful lens on fundraising based on his previous career in commercial marketing as well as the detailed metrics he’s constantly scanning for clues to donor behavior. In large part because of the COVID-19 global impact and response, many of the nonprofit world’s old-school models, false assumptions, and self-limiting strategies are up for re-evaluation. 

From his viewpoint at GivingTuesday, the donor movement unleashing radical generosity around the world, Woodrow has a unique and broad-based understanding of the dynamics at play in today’s fluid giving environment. We’re all being called upon to break old models, be brave and shift from a scarcity mindset into one of abundance! 

Among the many things Woodrow shares thoughts about: 

  • Abandoning zero-sum competitiveness in favor of helping all boats rise together
  • Why many fundraising truisms no longer hold
  • What makes for the most resilient nonprofits, especially in recessionary times
  • Why fundraising that exclusively emphasizes the transactional leaves money – as well as goodwill and long-term engagement – on the table
  • Why Donor Fatigue actually isn’t a thing 
  • How recurring donations are a boon and why they’re sticky

Woodrow unpacks what it means to approach nonprofit work holistically, aligning fundraising with story-led marketing activities that expand nonprofit missions, build community, drive social movements and inspire donors to get on board with giving, again and again. You won’t want to miss the surprising research insights or leading-edge practical advice inside this episode.


sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable sustainable 

Woodrow Rosenbaum


  • The Fundraising Effectiveness Project, a partnership that Woodrow helps manage between the Association of Nonprofit Professionals and the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.
  • The Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University has a Generosity for Life interactive map of giving that tracks American families’ donor behaviors over time.
  • Want to know how to make the most of your GivingTuesday? Check out these resources on how to strengthen your fundraising activities from our sponsor NationBuilder, the software that builds movements. With everything in one integrated system, NationBuilder tools are designed to power nonprofits, movements, and dynamic campaigns.

Brought To
you By:




The Fundraising Effectiveness Project, a partnership that Woodrow helps manage between the Association of Nonprofit Professionals and the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.

The Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University has a Generosity for Life interactive map of giving that tracks American families’ donor behaviors over time.

Want to know how to make the most of your GivingTuesday? Check out these resources on how to strengthen your fundraising activities from our sponsor NationBuilder, the software that builds movements. With everything in one integrated system, NationBuilder tools are designed to power nonprofits, movements, and dynamic campaigns.

Get to know GivingTuesday!

GivingTuesday is a global generosity movement unleashing the power of radical generosity. GivingTuesday was created in 2012 as a simple idea: a day that encourages people to do good. Since then, it has grown into a year-round global movement that inspires hundreds of millions of people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity.

Get to know Woodrow:

As Chief Data Officer for GivingTuesday, Woodrow has been instrumental in shaping the global generosity movement and has led ground-breaking research and analysis of individual giving behaviors. He leads the GivingTuesday Data Commons, bringing together a coalition of more than 100 collaborators coordinated through eight working groups as well as data teams in 50 countries to understand the drivers and impacts of generosity to inspire more giving of all types. Woodrow brings expertise in moving markets and transforming audiences from passive participants to active and vocal ambassadors. Woodrow is also the Founder of With Intent Strategies, an international agency specializing in brand reimagination. Woodrow is a member of the Generosity Commission Research Task Force, serves as a Co-Chair for Global Impact Canada’s Board of Directors, and was recently named a Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School with the Technology and Public Purpose project.


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episode transcript

Mallory Erickson: Welcome everyone. I am so excited to be here today with Woodrow Rosenbaum, from Giving Tuesday. Woodrow, welcome to What The Fundraising. 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Hi Mallory. Thanks for having me. 

Mallory Erickson: Why don’t we start with you telling everyone a little bit about yourself and your journey into the work that you’re doing today.  

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Sure. So I am Chief Data Officer at Giving Tuesday, not a role I ever would’ve expected myself to be in. I come from a commercial marketing background and really ended up doing this work by accident. And just like Giving Tuesday has really grown beyond anybody’s expectations and become many things that it was never envisioned to be, this role and the work that we’ve been doing around data and insights in the sector has really evolved unexpectedly.

Mallory Erickson: Interesting. For folks who are coming to the show who are wondering what commercial marketing really is, can you tell us just a little bit about that?

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Yeah. Many of my clients in my previous work were large beverage alcohol clients. So we would build strategies and execute campaigns to sell more whiskey, get more market share for whiskey brands, worked with really the industry leaders in whiskey and vodka and some beer brands, but then also a bunch of other stuff. So we worked in technology and fashion but really consumer brands helping them achieve their market ambitions.

Mallory Erickson: Okay. So I know we’re gonna talk really specifically about fundraising, but I’m just curious, something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the difference and similarities between fundraising and sales, and fundraising and marketing. So could you speak to just for a minute, how do you think about the relationship between the marketing and the sales of the company? 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Sure. All the time and that marketing and sales were enemies, all the time. I think about the issues that we would see often had to do with disconnected incentives between brand marketing and sales teams. And uncovering those and getting better alignment is really key to success for a lot of big brands. And it’s not easy to do. We would roll out a program to introduce a new brand. If the sales team is making their year on the flagship brand, it’s not always in their interest to introduce a new brand. It’s not always in their interest to develop new accounts. It’s definitely not in their interest to share their territory. So those misaligned incentives often got in the way of a really good strategy getting executed. 

Mallory Erickson: And what are some of the similarities or the differences between marketing and fundraising in the nonprofit landscape?

Woodrow Rosenbaum: That’s been an interesting journey, when I started doing this, I really wanted to avoid coming in and being this kind of, we know how to business and you nonprofit people. And I did a lot of listening initially, and some of the things I was hearing in the sector really surprised me. And I thought none of this aligns with my expectation of how consumers respond to messaging or how markets work. And so I was really interested to discover whether this was because fundraising was a really very unique situation or whether some of the received wisdom in the nonprofit sector and particularly with respect to fundraising, whether maybe some of that are myths. And yeah, it’s turned out I think that it’s fair to say that there are a number of pervasive myths in the nonprofit sector about how people respond. In fact, effective fundraising and effective marketing share a lot of commonalities. 

Mallory Erickson: What are some of those misses?

Woodrow Rosenbaum: When we started doing this work, one of the classic things was just this expectation of a zero-sum game. And this work, understanding generosity started fairly modestly. Giving Tuesdays is this distributed event and it’s co-created by people all over the world. And that has led to enormous growth for the movement, and for the day itself.

But it also makes it difficult to measure because you’re deliberately not driving people through a single funnel. And because the activity’s happening all over the place, it’s not easy to capture everything that’s going on. And we certainly didn’t wanna do anything that would restrict its growth just to make it more measurable. And so we asked online donation processors to just share their daily volume on the day of Giving Tuesday. So we had metrics, some benchmarks that we could compare year over year. And it turned out that what we ended up with was an asset, a data asset that hadn’t been collected before of individual online donation transactions.

And initially, the thought was well good maybe we can learn a little bit more about what’s happening on Giving Tuesday and in particular with emergent at the time, emergent online giving behaviors. And so we partnered with DataKind and The Gates Foundation. This was really the genesis of the work that we’re doing.

Just to look at that single day, what can we learn from that? And so we started some consultations to ask the sector, what is it that you would like to learn? And I was really surprised that many people in the nonprofit sector, I would even maybe say most were convinced that it was impossible, literally impossible to get people to give more. That the 2% of GDP is like the speed of light, but you can’t exceed it. And that therefore, if you get someone to give today by definition, they have to give less tomorrow. And I was really surprised to hear that was widely believed that this sort of flat giving is just a reality, a natural law. It wasn’t my experience with commercial marketing at all. 

And so I started talking to those vendors, the companies that process donations, and they said, no, that’s not what we see at all. And so that very beginning that we went into that first analysis, trying to answer that question and it turned out yeah, that’s a myth. The generosity of Americans is far more elastic than anybody had ever given it credit for. 

Mallory Erickson: Okay. I love this because this really is this question that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as well, which is what’s the chicken and what’s the egg. We see a lot of here’s what donors do. And I understand why data is being shared that way because that’s the data that we have. But what I’ve been asking a lot is what did the organization do before that behavior? Because I think looking at donor behavior disconnected from what we’re doing, and this goes into that bigger question around like how we create our own markets, is how helpful is that to us. So I’m curious, how much of what organizations ultimately see, those limiting beliefs that they hold, become then the self-fulfilling prophecies of their organizations 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: For better or for worse. When we look at donations to nonprofits as one aspect of giving, it is one very limited aspect of a measure of people’s generosity. Most donations are solicited. And so when we look at the donation record, we tend to think about it and talk about it as if it’s an expression of donor intent and behavior.

When it is at least as much a reflection of fundraiser behavior. And so we have to recognize that at a minimum, it’s about that what we’re measuring is that ecosystem. And yet we do tend to think about it in terms of this is what the donors care about and what matters. And without any look at the frequency and type of those solicitations. 

So a great example is how many fundraisers have I heard say that they ask in December because that’s when people give. No, people are giving in December because that’s when you’re asking and that’s a fairly benign example. The problem with that is that it is locking us out of opportunity because people are very giving all year round, and are prepared to support causes that they care about all year round. This is increasingly true. 

As younger adult donors have a very high trust and value in charities and charitable giving, but they’re less proactive. So our engagement becomes even more important than it was before, and it was always of paramount importance. Yeah, it’s a problem that it’s limiting, but more importantly, it’s locking us out of the opportunity to deseasonalized giving. One of the biggest opportunities in front of the nonprofit sector is depersonalized giving. And that depends 100% on the practice of fundraising. 

Mallory Erickson: Wow. Okay. I brought this up on another podcast recently, but I’m really curious what you would say about this. I have this sense that some of what holds nonprofit leaders back from changing the way that they fundraise is out of fear that, and this is subconscious that they would be to blame if something did happen if that person gave in March, but then not at the end of the year. And it ended up being a smaller amount. 

I watched nonprofit leaders a lot, pull on these outlier situations to be, see that was the wrong thing. And they hold a bigger sense of responsibility. And so they stick with these, I can’t even use the word tried and true because they’re totally mediocre or sometimes horrible processes. I’ve heard someone say they had an 11% open rate on something but they didn’t wanna change it because what if they only got 10% if they did it differently? And you think about the difference for the upside there, versus what they’re afraid of. I’m curious, how do you think about the internal barriers or organizational cultural barriers that need to change to start to do something shifting when fundraising is happening and how fundraising is happening?

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Yeah. So some of this is not on the shoulders of fundraisers. We have systems that disincentivize positive change. So for example, very common that the most successful fundraisers, most experienced fundraisers in your organization, get promoted to major gifts officer. Okay, I get that, that’s where the short-term dollars, that’s where they come in. Broad engagement, acquisition, recurring gifts, and social media engagement is either out of the fundraising team, it’s not even a development action, or it’s more junior people who are just keeping the feed going. This is optimizing our system for the result we’re getting, more dollars from fewer donors. 

Okay. If we don’t like that result, then we need to change that system. And part of that is, think about the other aspects of your fundraising machine as being equally important. And they are equally important. When we look at economic shocks, organizations with a broad base of donors, including small donors are much more resilient to recession. So this is critically important right now. We’ve got to get a broader engagement or we’re going to be less resilient. 

But this is not, I get it, it’s not easy, right? Like organizations, particularly now under a lot of stress coming through this pandemic, and the really winners and losers situation in 2020, and the high demand on services is driving this need for immediate return on investment. Where are you gonna get that, by calling up your major donor and getting them to pony up a big gift. We have this system that is not within our control, but the donors are not to blame for lower participation in 2021, right? It’s our practice is organized around that result.

Mallory Erickson: I’m curious if you heard this, but I’ve been hearing a lot lately around how little some organizations fundraised in 2021 because they had the PPP loan. They had seen their fundraising go way up. And so they took that we have more cash in the bank to mean that we don’t need to fundraise. I just talked to someone yesterday who has not sent out a fundraising letter in a year.  So talk to me about this space. 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: So there are indicators that fundraising activity has dropped. So we’re seeing indicators like Mail Chimp report a dramatic drop in the number of solicitation emails. So that analysis that they did with us I think is not definitive but quite telling. Fundraising Effectiveness Project, which we manage in partnership with the AFP foundation is showing a much higher percentage of organizations that were fundraising, ceasing fundraising. 

Yeah, that’s a concern. First of all, because it might be an indication of poor sector health. But I just recently was talking to a researcher at ISDR conference who said that what they’re seeing is that the indicators of organization failure in the US, Canada and the UK are actually way down. And that organizations seem to be particularly resilient. And one hypothesis is that various forms of large donor and government support has bolstered these organizations. Researchers have seen that organizations that get government funding, that the more government funding they get, the less fundraising they do. Yeah, that might be part of what we’re seeing. The problem is that doesn’t set us up for long-term resilience and there’s a storm coming. 

Mallory Erickson: Yeah, that, and my deep belief is that the act of fundraising itself is also really important. That the act of inviting people to invest in something they believe in and all of the communications and marketing, all of the strategy that goes into the touch points of good fundraising, not the sort of like urgent one-shot fundraising. But those things that are actually a really critical part of movement building of eradicating issues in society, not just because of the money the organization gets but because of the believers they indoctrinate and the identity that donors adopt as a part of giving. I’m curious what you think about that and the different elements of generosity, giving, and community building around fundraising.

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Yeah. The combination of the kind of storytelling about an organization and the fundraising and support gathering really should be thought of as an ecosystem. That moves you out of a transactional engagement. It means that those two functions become mutually supportive. You become more interesting to your donors. That is the cure for the myth of donor fatigue. The sector believes in this still to this day fairly strongly and it is completely manufactured. The data does not support that donor fatigue is a thing. I have sometimes said, donors are not tired of giving, but they might be tired of your crappy message. 

And, in commercial marketing, I never once had a client suggest that we might reduce the number of touch points, or reduce our frequency of engagement. We understand in commercial marketing that we purchase frequency with quality. And what you’re talking about is how you get there. The vast majority of donors are taking more actions than just giving their money. Only giving your money is a very rare behavior in the US and around the world. 

On Giving Tuesday, we see giving money is the most common behavior, but only giving money is the least common behavior. And this is true on an annualized basis, too. Most people are giving more than one thing, and giving in more than one way, and giving to more than one type of organization. And yet our fundraising tends to be highly transactional, but that’s not meeting donors where they are. All of this also conspires to be highly inequitable. We are robbing people of agency by not engaging them in our missions. They have less voice in the social sector and they’re less involved in your mission and therefore less connected. 

It’s also a big opportunity because if you’re concerned about how often you’re engaging and again, not to be too mean about it, but if you think your message is gonna be an unwelcome intrusion, you’re probably right. But the answer isn’t talk less. The answer is get good. And talking about all the ways people can support your organization, talking about your mission, all those marketing and storytelling components you should consider this as part of the fundraising element. If anything really, I would think fundraising is one element of your marketing and not the other way around. 

Mallory Erickson: Yeah. That’s how I have been sitting with the Venn diagram and that’s why I started this conversation asking about sales and marketing, is because I’ve just really been sitting with what I believe fundraising is over the last few months. When I think about what is included in fundraising, I think my opinion, especially over the last few years as I started to understand good fundraising in a different way, I didn’t separate out marketing. Because actually all those things to me are fundraising, or we are doing the thing that everyone says they don’t wanna do, which is being transactional fundraisers.

And I was saying this to you before we click record, this has been this thing that has been driving me crazy is, the relentless conversation around don’t make fundraising transactional. And the same folks who are doing that are separating their marketing department from their fundraising department and all the non-transactional elements then are no longer in fundraising. And I just they’re gutting it of all the relationship building, of all the additional communication, but then telling these fundraisers to not be transactional. And it just feels really confusing and stifling dynamic. 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: At least aligning incentives, but yes, thinking about this as your holistic approach. One way to look at this, it’s been said that marketing is just everything that’s not production. And another way to look at this is, what is marketing it’s using messaging to engage someone for a behavior you want. And so if you think about it in those terms, one of those things we want is for people to give money to our organization, especially knowing that they also want other things. And that one of the ways you deliver on that relationship is by telling them a story of their good, all of that just means this is just marketing. That’s what it is. 

Mallory Erickson: Why do you think fundraisers or nonprofit leaders have this sort of internal dialogue that they’re always bothering people, or that there’s a lot of victimhood and martyrdom in this sector. And I say this 100% saying that I was that fundraiser for many years. I grew up in the sector. That was all the messaging I had been surrounded by. I 100% approached things from a lot of scarcity and fear and discomfort. And held those beliefs that, oh, I don’t wanna ask them to volunteer cuz they just gave, and this is asking for too much, instead of saying this is something that people want.

What do you think leads to some of that dynamic in our sector? 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Part of that problem is that chicken and egg situation you described. They’re not wrong to some degree, right? The Sector 3 insights had some really interesting research looking at the quality of nonprofit messaging and most nonprofit messaging is not leveraging the most important drivers of donation. Yeah, demonstrably not doing a good job. I think that again, part of it is about the alignment of incentives. 

And on the one hand, you’ve got a big opportunity, right? By losing that scarcity mentality, it frees you of all of that self-limiting, self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, it means now you have to accept responsibility for the success. And that’s a daunting thing, particularly when you’re being judged on what comes in the door this month. And that does mean, it’s one thing to drop the scarcity mentality. It’s another thing to convince your CEO and your board that the strategy for the organization needs dramatically change because you need to be able to weather the next recession.

Now, the good news is I don’t think it’s an either-or thing. We can do large donor stewardship and broad engagement. We can do both. And more importantly, in some ways, it’s just easier. We need good storytelling. And when that supports the fundraising that actually makes the job easier. We need to worry less about trust. There’s far too much, I think there’s a lot. And it goes back to not looking at the fundraising results as this confluence of donor desire and fundraiser behavior. So if we only look at it with as the donor, as donor-driven, which it’s mostly not, then that leads us to ask the wrong questions.

So a classic is, how many different ways have we seen donors ask how important it is that they can trust the organization to spend their money effectively? So donors always say it’s a hundred percent important. Is it important we don’t steal your money, yes, it’s maximally important. And so then we think we’re gonna message about that, but that doesn’t matter. 

By and large people are trusting of nonprofits and what drives the donation is not trust. Trust is your table stakes. It’s needed in order to get a donation, but it doesn’t motivate a donation. And yet we have this pivot away from emotional storytelling because of this idea that’s the most important thing so then that’s what we have to talk about. And if we ask people how important it was that we not kick puppies, they would say it was maximally important. But we’re not gonna message about that. 

And it actually reminds me of a story of a diaper brand that had exactly this situation. They asked consumers what the most important factor in choosing a diaper was. And consumers said, unequivocally its absorbency. So that’s what the diaper brand started messaging about. And they lost share. And the reason they lost share is that by and large people trust the top diaper brands to be absorbent. So when you’re messaging about that, it wasn’t differentiating, it wasn’t important. Easy close tabs and elastic leg bands, and Disney characters, those things differentiate your product. Absorbency doesn’t because people trust your brand to be absorbent. 

And we have a similar situation in the nonprofit sector where we’re getting more and more intellectual in our engagement, more and more transactional, and then asking questions that reinforce the idea that’s the right thing to do. 

Mallory Erickson: Wow. That is really interesting. I wanna go back to what you were saying before around the relationship between trying to inspire fundraisers to behave differently, the relationship between what’s being tracked inside organizations.

And it makes me think about, I had a scientist on here, Ayelet Fishbach, who studies the science of motivation. She talked about the middle problem, which is a common concept we understand around motivation. Motivation dips in the middle, that there’s high motivation at the beginning of something and at the end of something. And when she was talking about this on the podcast, what it really made me think of is the arc of donor stewardship and retention.

That acquisition is the beginning. We’re highly motivated around acquisition. We’re highly motivated around that sort of like major gift close rate. And retention and stewardship, especially of smaller dollar donors or more of that middle space is just a giant middle problem. And part of what I’ve been thinking about is that we have this moves management system that is really limited in terms of how we can track whether we’re on track. And so I think about what are ways that you might suggest organizations start to track the behaviors of the fundraisers in the middle to demonstrate that they’re on track for that longer-term stewardship.

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Yeah. So I think that there are a few things. First of all, as soon as you recognize that the engagement should be less transactional and more about developing relationship, then that opens up some obvious points that  KPI to think about how engaged are people. Are they doing things other than donate? How often do they read your thing? Do they respond? Do they share, like, what are those relationship metrics? Those are critically important and ultimately gonna be the key to retention. I think then tactically, I think that most organizations could probably benefit from a much stronger focus on recurring giving.

Particularly for donors under 40 or at least recurring givings tends to skew towards donors under 40. And I think that’s a big advantage because you’ve got a marketplace that’s that is inclined to charitable giving, feels financially stressed accustomed to subscription models. Recurring first is probably a valuable strategy for a lot of organizations. Now, what do you do with those folks once you’ve got them in a recurring gift? I think the sector really needs to dial in a lot better. I hear too often from our platform partners about their clients saying things like, we don’t message our monthly donors because we don’t wanna remind them to turn their donation off. These are people who subscribe to your mission, who subscribe to feeling good, and they are much, much more valuable than a one-time giver. So your job now marketing and fundraising being one effort, is to deliver on that feeling good on a regular basis.

And that is what opens up the opportunity to ladder those givers up to other behaviors. So again how else are they getting involved? They want to be involved in your mission in more ways. One of the great things about that recurring environment is it frees you up as a fundraising, or a marketing professional to now think about all the other ways that you can deliver on and get those people involved in your mission and feel like they’re a partner with you, because the donation part is taken care of. What is that gonna do? It’s gonna unlock more from that donor. The more they do, the more you can get from them, including more money.

Mallory Erickson: Okay. I love that and I hear that a lot too, that piece around we don’t wanna remind them that they’re giving monthly, or it goes back to what you were saying before around that zero-sum gain. I hear folks don’t wanna do a monthly giving because then what if that’s less than what they were gonna give at end of year. 

And I think a place you and I are super aligned on is the fact that the market for giving is indefinite and it’s about how much generosity we can inspire. And so it’s not about here’s the pie for the taking. And we often look at, foundation funding is 20% of philanthropic giving, and even that is more flexible as we’ve seen in the last few years than we once thought. But even if we assumed that piece was inflexible, 80% is totally flexible and has the ability to increase. And I’m curious, about what you think about the ecosystem around nonprofits themselves. I’ve been thinking a lot lately around how a lot of the companies in our sector as well demonstrate a lot of similar behaviors to the nonprofit, in terms of a focus on acquisition, as opposed to a focus on really truly helping nonprofits raise more money year over year. And it’s interesting to me because when I think about the potential for the entire ecosystem to grow by bolstering generosity. If we were just moving a few more billion or trillion dollars into nonprofits as an entire ecosystem, everybody wins. 

And so how do we start to change that even larger conversation so that recognizes the ability to move the bigger needle than just their company, just their organization, and this sort of potential for the sector?

Woodrow Rosenbaum: So I think that it does require a fairly dramatic shift in view from scarcity to abundance. Our report is that we just released is exactly about that. Giving is abundant. We need to drop the idea that it’s not. What does that change once you drop that idea? For one thing, that means that you’re less in competition and more in cooperation with every other organization. There’s a lot of room to move giving upward. 

And there’s some nuance there, on a sector level that means, yeah there’s some acquisition opportunity. We saw that in 2020 more donors into the system and that reversed a multi-year trend. And it’s important that we do that. And so organizations need to acquire new donors in order for that to happen. That said a lot of people are giving. So frequency is another key opportunity and recognizing that we’re gonna get that frequency sector-wide across multiple organizations. So what we really want is, yeah, sure you want someone to give to you more often? You should lock them in as a recurring donor and then find lots of other ways for them to give. But it’s actually beneficial to all of us if we increase the number of organizations people are donating to, we’re all gonna do better. And raising that frequency collectively means more action, more often.

And then yeah, part of that is acquiring a donor to your organization. What we saw in 2020 was a lot of shift in donors but one of the things that made clear is that the sort of fundamental models that we saw prior to 2020 are pretty much out the window. And that’s very risky, right? It means that our systems are even less aligned with success than ever before, but I actually worry more about a return toward quote normality. There are indications in 2021 that we’re getting back to a pre-2020 reality. And that means, fewer donors in the system. 

So what we should learn from this is creating giving moments is what drives participation. For an organization, that means acquisition. For the system, that means frequency. And if we think about ourselves as to in this together, creating giving moments, that’s what’s going to drive the entire sector up. And I think the opportunities are enormous. We should be thinking in terms of 10 – 15% increases in individual giving in the US, and the way we’re gonna get that is by believing that it’s there. 

Mallory Erickson: Okay. I love that. And I wanna ask you a different question before we wrap up, which is what do you think about the more societal shifts that could help with some of this? So I have been for the last few years documenting when I see it, the way that fundraising is portrayed in pop culture. When we see it show up in a show, and it’s always very much through a lot of the scarcity language, or a lot of the sort of avoidance you were talking about trust before. And I was thinking about why is it that we still believe so deeply that donors don’t trust us. Because what you’re saying is that’s not actually reflective of how donors feel, but yet we so deeply believe that. 

Some of that is that limiting beliefs just carry on until they’re broken. Some of it though is that some of those beliefs get reinforced around us all the time. Whether it’s the way that the fundraising is portrayed on a show, or it’s the way we feel personally when we pass a canvasser on the street and we walk to the other side of the street and we pretend we’re on a phone call. Those moments, I think reinforce for us that fundraising is uncomfortable, inappropriate, or hounding, or they don’t trust us. And we get those political fundraising emails. And we get 45 of them a day. 

So how, what is that more global responsibility, or if we were gonna ask media to be mindful of something when they’re portraying nonprofits and fundraising, what would you say to some of those things? 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Wow. There’s a lot to unpack there. So let’s start with trust. So first of all, I think that we look at trusted nonprofits, there are indications that are slipped particularly recently. And that is true. The problem is that fact is being taken out of context. And so when we look at the context, what we find is that trusted nonprofits are comparatively resilient compared to other sectors.

Secondly, it’s also fairly high compared to other elements of our society. And it tends to be more elastic, like when we ask people in the abstract about their giving and their trust, that’s one thing. But when they’re presented with an opportunity to make change, that ultimately matters more and in fact supports trust. And so it’s okay to measure trust for sure. But if we don’t think about that context and the fact that the trust is still quite strong and resilient, then it leads us to an approach to donors that don’t actually trigger the behaviors we want. 

Another example of this is in the early days of the pandemic, individuals were asked, do you expect your donations to go up down or stay the same? And people were highly pessimistic about their giving in the early days of the pandemic. They were worried about the potential economic issues that were coming. And that makes sense. We were asking them in the abstract to predict their behavior, but when it came down to them having an opportunity to make change, they were highly responsive. In fact, the more concerned they were about things in their community, the more likely they were to take action to give because in the moment when being presented with that opportunity, that gives them agency over the concerns they have in their community. And the more acutely they’re feeling those concerns, the more likely they are to wanna take that action.

So removed from the moment and the emotional need and the recognition of a mission. Yeah, they were fairly pessimistic, but what was the reality of their giving? They were highly motivated to give. Where we saw despite less fundraising, more donors, and more dollars. So we have to be really careful how we think about these results and that they don’t always indicate the most important lever to pull.

The other factor about this is separating nonprofit giving of dollars from all the other ways people give and thinking about those things as competitive and cannibalistic is likewise locking us out of some opportunity and frankly is highly inequitable. So there are two things to think about here. One is those people who are doing things. Giving behaviors that aren’t dollars to 501C3s, those people are more likely to give to charities than their peers. Those are generous people who give, the best predictor of someone’s giving is that they give. And so we shouldn’t be thinking about those mechanisms as competitive. We should be thinking about how those behaviors deliver for that giver. And what does that tell us about how we should engage that giver? And the more giving they’re doing the better. Those are the customers. Tactically also, this means things stop filtering out your best givers from your email campaigns, but that’s a whole other story.

The other way to look at this is if you are highly focused on major donor giving and laddering up those major donors, that means you’re basically calling white dudes. Lilly Family School Philanthropy has done some research. It’s very clear that a lot of the people who are left out of this and aren’t showing up aren’t being invited. And so this means that we are robbing those people of agency by doing that. Those people who are often more connected with the communities we want to help are not being included in the conversation. And as a result, they have less voice. They have less voice over how organizations spend their resources, what interventions they deliver, what policies are made.

And this means we are not engaging what the nonprofit sector calls, recipient communities. If you think, look at those communities, there is a lot less dichotomy between giver and receiver. The idea of an ecosystem of support is much more how people live their generosity, as opposed to some independent action that is taken as part of some sort of benevolent view. And this is most giving. Most givers and most donations and so we need to drop that and start looking at this as at a systems level if we’re going to embrace everybody and ultimately have more resilient organizations. 

Mallory Erickson: I love it. And what I think I heard you say in that first piece around how donors reflect on their giving versus how they actually behave in the moment, maybe goes to my sort of thinking around that perhaps the media portrayal of nonprofits is not quite as harmful as I’ve been concerned about because when it comes down to the moment of engagement and inspiration to get involved, that’s a separate brain.

Woodrow Rosenbaum: Yeah. I don’t think it’s helpful. It’s not helpful. And I think that we are often complicit, right? Because we get into a conversation about that and the counter-examples and all that does, if we look at the is the concerns about trust and we are adding voice to this idea that giving us complex make sure you give to a good organization. You have to think about all of these things. That might direct more dollars toward more trustworthy organizations, a whole fraught issue in and of itself, but it could very easily just overall have a suppressing effect, including for those organizations. And the fact is most organizations are not wasteful. Most organizations are doing good work. And so we should not be feeding that fire. And then, yeah, I don’t think it’s helpful, but I for the most part what we see is that those pest, those sort of cynical views of the sector are more often than not an excuse somebody’s already not giving has for not giving, as opposed to a very substantial suppression of behavior.

Mallory Erickson: Interesting. Okay. I could talk to you forever. But I know we’re at time, so thank you so much for this incredible conversation today. Where can folks find you or where should they go to learn more if they aren’t already involved in Giving Tuesday, which I can’t imagine that you aren’t if you listen to this podcast. But just in case, where should everybody go to get more involved and learn from some of these top resources.

Woodrow Rosenbaum: So GivingTuesday.org is your source for all the things: how to get involved, how to get into our research, how to see our latest report, how to learn about the data commons and what we’re doing, how to become a researcher as part of that commons, how to get resources for organizations to activate on Giving Tuesday and every other day of the year, our website has all that.

Mallory Erickson: Awesome. Thank you so much. 

Woodrow Rosenbaum: My pleasure, anytime.

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