Less Exploitation, More Engagement

No one understands estate giving more and explains it better than Robert Sharpe Jr. We try not to miss his conference sessions, and he spoke a few weeks ago during the Public Media Development Managers Conference in Pittsburgh.

In the course of profiling those whose ages make them the best prospects for effecting legacy gifts, Robert used the term “geriatric fundraising.”  It’s a term worth special attention as we watch donor bases age.

We ought to consider a spectrum of donor experience management on one end of which is exploitation and on the other end of which is engagement. At the center of the spectrum we could usefully put benign neglect. Then we should examine all our fundraising and donor relationship management practices, scoring each one along that spectrum.

Robert talked about some of the practices of benign neglect, like calling “lapsed” or “expired” those who have supported faithfully for many, many years but not responded in fifteen months or so, and our failing to check in on them.

And if we really want to move toward engagement, we should take carefully into account the increasing probability that our donor is in someone else’s care and suffering dementia. There are, after all, some 8.5 million Americans today suffering some degree and form of dementia, 60% of them fatal Alzheimer’s disease.  That incidence is rising right in line with our aging population.

Recession Bites Assets

Blog #10

Recession Bites Assets

If Gretchen Morgenson’s Reckless Endangerment hasn’t closed your eyes and ears to anything the Federal Reserve may say from now on, there are data from their report, Aftermath of the Storm: Family Finances from 2007 to 2009¹, worth the while of fundraisers and nonprofit financial management executives.

The Fed’s surveys of household finances are usually conducted every three years. But the Great Recession prompted them to re-interview 2007 survey respondents.

The report documents that overall median household net worth fell 23.4% from 2007 to 2009.

Here are data selected particularly with nonprofit organization interest in mind:

Demographic ‘09 Median % Change from ‘07
Select Age Ranges
35 – 44 $69,400 – 28.5%
45 – 54 $150,000 – 25.9%
55 – 64 $222,300 – 13.7%
65 – 74 $205,500 – 11.7%
75 or older $191,000 – 16.6%
College degree $294,600 – 17.2%
Homeowner $244,800 – 21.3%


Thanks, again, to New Strategist (www.newstrategist.com) to bringing this to our attention.



The Smart Donor

Almost all today’s donors who went to college and who are in their prime time of giving – those between the ages of 50 and 651 — graduated college between 1968 and 1983. Two very important things were happening during those years and they were bound to have major impact on the demographic character of today’s donor marketplace.

First there was a fast-paced evolution in higher education that some have termed the democratization of American higher education.  David Brooks wrote about this in his BOBOS in Paradise, noting that in 1960 there were 2,000 institutions of higher learning in the country and by 1980 there were 3,200.  There were 235,000 college professors in 1960 and 685,000 in 1980.

Second, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the following July were to have their intended influences on the greater and eventually better remunerated employment of women. David Brooks also noted that while the number of women enrolled in college increased 47% from 1950 to 1960, it increased an additional 168% from 1960 to 1970.

The more women with more money, the better off the nonprofit sector would be by the time they reached their years of maximized earnings and discretionary income. That is, provided the institutions of the nonprofit sector could engage better educated and better heeled women in support of its values and causes.

Much as we like to think otherwise – and, alas many who should know better do think otherwise – sustained financial and voluntary support of nonprofit organizations apart from places of worship are activities practiced by an elite subset of our society, and education is what makes them elite.

Education is also the principal determining factor of financial capacity. So it provides both motive and means to engage in financial support of nonprofit organizations.

In its latest edition of The American Marketplace – Demographics and Spending  Patterns – 10th Edition2 New Strategist editors reference the Bureau of the Census 2010 Current Population Survey and note that college graduates in 2009 had more than twice the median household income of high school-only graduates and accounted for 76 percent of all households with incomes of $200,000 or more. And the higher the degree, the greater the household income. At the top of education attainment, those with professional degrees, median household income was 50% higher than it was for those headed by those with just bachelor’s degrees.

Looking further in The American Marketplace, 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey we see that households headed by people with bachelor’s of higher degrees made cash contributions 74% above household average and accounted for a 51% share of all household cash contributions.

Thirty-one percent of householders 25 or older have at least a bachelor’s degree.  But in studies we conducted the 2007 we found 64% of Red Cross chapter donors were college graduates, even though 62% were then over 65 years old. Also in 2007 we saw that while more than two-thirds of public television station retained members were over 65, 73% of them had college or advanced degrees.

Just four years later, with more of those graduates moving into the prime age range of giving, we have found a public radio station membership with 91% graduated from college and a cultural/educational institution – despite having 42% of its retained members over 75! – with 81% college having graduate college degrees and an astounding 49% having earned doctorate degrees.

And, yes, this group we are focusing on, those between the ages of 50 and 65 this year, are also Boomers.  While education doesn’t necessarily define who a Boomer is, it obviously does tend to define who a donor is.  But, as J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman pointed out many years ago in their seminal report and book on generational marketing, Rocking the Ages, generations don’t change with age, ages change with generations. And Boomers began to show their stars and stripes before they got to college.

So we have more than education with which to reckon as we think about engaging the loyal support of people now in their prime age of giving. We have education plus the idiosyncrasies of what the Yankelovich folks called the cohort experiences of this generation.

In his book Change by Design, Tim Brown offers an almost perfect metaphor for the challenge nonprofit organizations face, and the bigger and older the nonprofit, the more apt the metaphor is.  The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

As consumers, we are making new and different sorts of demands; we relate differently to brands; we expect to participate in determining what will be offered to us; and we expect our relationship with manufacturers and sellers to continue beyond the point of purchase. To meet these heightened expectations, companies need to yield some of their sovereign authority over the market and enter into a two-way conversation with their customers.

Take that advice and apply it to a situation in which engagement is entirely voluntary and in which the person you want to engage is very smart and you will have achieved the focus of mind required of today’s fundraising.

1 This is the age range of highest discretionary income.  For a copy of our “Client Advisory on Discretionary Income” please request a copy in the comments section.

2 2011, New Strategist Publications, Inc., Ithaca, New York, www.newstrategist.com