Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

November 17, 2008

Asking and giving critical in tough times

By Todd Cohen

To cope with the sinking and uncertain economy, nonprofits should keep asking givers for charitable support, and givers should keep giving.

Nonprofits also should promote planned giving, which includes gifts that are complex or deferred or involve assets other than cash, such as stock or real estate.

And they should take the time to retool the way they ask for support, moving beyond a dry recitation of facts and figures about their organizations to telling compelling stories that capture the passion and importance of their work and its impact on the people they serve.

That is the view of Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, a $725 million-asset public charity based in the Philadelphia area that has raised over $1.3 billion in charitable assets since it was formed in 1996 and granted over $715 million to over 25,000 nonprofits.

Despite the “worldwide shattering of our financial system,” Heisman says, she is cautiously optimistic about charitable giving.

“Americans are generally philanthropic, but I think Americans feel poorer,” she says. “But I’m hoping the ultra-ultra wealthy will continue to give at the pace they’ve been giving, although that’s a small percentage of people.”

Research shows that 90 percent of individuals with a net worth of $1 million or more give to charity on an annual basis, she says.

But modest givers “may have a tough year” because “building confidence back in the marketplace will be really tough,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll have the pace of the past three years.”

Still, while “you can’t keep your head in the sand,” she says, “I’m very much an optimist.”

Her advice to nonprofits is to keep working to generate contributions.

“You cannot stop asking,” she says. “There are going to be loyal donors who continue to give. People still get their paychecks. A lot of annual giving comes out of paychecks.”

She also encourages wealthy givers who have commitments to nonprofits not to retrench.

“Even though your investment accounts may have shrunk, you can give from annual income,” she says. “Charities depend on your gifts.”

Yet many charities do a poor job “making their case” for support, she says.

“They state too many bare statistics and don’t talk about the impact” they have, she says. “If there’s any time to retool and look at your case statement and your direct-mail pieces, now’s the time.”

Donors will continue to give, she says, if nonprofits have “made a compelling case and it’s passionate and important. The best case statement is storytelling.”

The stories nonprofit tell should be about the people they serve and “getting people involved,” she says.

Citing the advice of fundraising consultant Mal Warwick, she says a fundraising letter “has to create a personal relationship with the reader about the personal impact” of the charity’s work in fulfilling its mission.

Heisman also encourages nonprofits to continually promote planned giving.

While it can take years after a donor sets up a planned gift for a nonprofit to receive it, marketing those gifts, such as simple bequests set up through wills, can provide “wonderful surprises” and an ongoing income stream, she says.

“It’s really important to keep that in the pipeline,” she says. “That’s all about making the case as well.”

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