Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock, iStock, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images, and Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Originally created for Slate.

Donor Communications in the Trump Era, part III

What Next?

In part I of this conversation, we commented on the nonprofit world’s inferiority complex and compared Detroit and D.C. In part II, we had a dialogue about dialogue.

MS: Today, a growing segment of nonprofits are actively combating the Trump agenda. Protecting women and immigrants has become more urgent. Freedom of expression. Civil liberties. Government ethics. I could go on and on. Most organizations, however, aren’t in a defensive position. They’re just trying to keep on doing good, important work in a very different world. Yet they are in danger of seeming less urgent,by comparison. What can they do?

KP: Stop spamming me to tell me why their work still needs to be at the top of my agenda, for starters. And for god’s sake, refrain from using the phrase, “Now, more than ever.” Cattiness aside, this seems like a good opportunity for all of us to take inventory. Are we still conveying clearly what we do and what our value is? Are we partnering with the right people, doing outreach in the right places, targeting the right donors? These are questions we should be asking ourselves regularly, of course. But we don’t always make time to do it in any systematic way. The majority of nonprofits are local organizations (or local chapters of larger organizations). And there will always be local needs.

As a matter of fact, I suspect many people who want to do something may turn their focus closer to home because it’s so difficult to figure out what is going to make a difference at the national level. Now is a great time to reassert what your value is to your local community. And if there are others doing similar work, and doing it well, it might also be time to talk about collaborating instead of competing.

(See a recent Bridgespan project on collaborations and partnerships.)

I think we’d all be well advised to strengthen alliances right now. What do you recommend?

MS: All of the above, plus: nonprofit leaders can acknowledge political realities without taking a political stance that would jeopardize their 501(c)3 status and without alienating Republicans. The work you’re doing in health or education or (to cite one example that came up for me recently) picking up garbage from the side of the road — it’s all changed now, thanks to a federal government with a profound bias against spending money on so many of the things we care about. If the sky isn’t falling, it sure is raining hard.

So catch up to the new world by tearing up your old case statement and drafting a new one. The new world, by the way, isn’t just Trump, it’s the times that gave rise to his shocking success.

KP: So, in the midst of you and I having this exchange, an organization whose board I recently joined was denied a large HUD grant that we’d been receiving for the last 20 years. We serve asylum seekers and it was determined that we no longer fall under the agency’s priorities.

The denial has nothing to do with Trump or even the anti-immigrant backlash that helped elect him. It does have to do with the fickleness of the funding world that I discussed at the outset of our discussion — it can have life or death consequences, literally. While strong case statements and stories (very difficult with this population, by the way, as there is great risk in revealing identities or details about their situations) will continue to be important, this is a particularly sobering reminder that the nonprofit industrial complex, like every top-down system, picks winners and losers, and that’s a mighty force to contend with.

The lesson for our current times, I guess, is to recognize that trying to predict that system will likely be more difficult than ever. I’d recommend no one get too comfortable.

MS: While the new administration is poised to slash programs all over the map, it might be a good time for us do some slashing of our own. What trends in the industry would you eliminate if you had such power?

KP: Fundraising challenges! They run counter to everything we’ve been talking about: building meaningful connections, being strategic, planning for the long term. They harm organizations in so many ways: you have to devote so much time to them (often for really meager amounts), you have to compete with others in your community, and they require you to spam your mail list, which inevitably causes long-term supporters to drop off. The lack of respect these challenges show for the organizations they’re supposed to be helping disgusts me. And, of course, I’d move away from restrictive programmatic grants in favor of gen ops. You?

MS: One, I’d do something to make it more appealing for nonprofits to hire staff instead of consultants. Not to shoot myself in the foot, but consultants don’t bring the same level of commitment to a cause. We have too many competing priorities. Just imagine: nonprofit job-creation tax credits. (We can dream!)

Two, while I would stop short of slashing donor-advised funds, if I could I’d create an incentive to allocate more of those dollars sooner. Too much money is locked up, collecting interest, while Rome burns. In large part, this is a communications opportunity — how to signal urgency without crying wolf.

Final question: What have you learned from this fiasco? This Slate piece says that liberals need to use emotions as a rhetorical tool. Facts are dead.

KP: I like the logic there. Don’t wow them with your amazing facts and figures. And, if I can read into the piece a little, don’t dazzle them with your tug-at-the-heartstrings story, either. One of the most useful lessons I’ve ever learned came during training to lead a Junior Great Books discussion group: only ask questions to which you do not know the answers. No leading questions, in other words. Instead, questions designed to spark bona fide discussion (totally possible with first graders, btw). Questions that might, dare I say it, elicit empathy. Or, if not empathy, perhaps something even better: understanding. For many years, I worked in various capacities at a children’s art museum. It was there that I began to deeply grasp the value of process. What if we talked to our supporters as if there were no end game? What if the conversation was the thing?

And you? Has the current climate, or the strategies we’ve been discussing to weather it, changed how you plan to work with nonprofits moving forward?

MS: Whatever happens, whether the Trump presidency lasts another two weeks or another seven years and eleven months, we’re stuck, in many ways, in the Trump era. Changing minds is practically impossible. Constantly reaffirming our core beliefs will grow exhausting. What works for me is whatever connects people, whether in person or in real life. Stories and dialogue, a striking infographic, a heartrending photograph — if we share it with our networks, and they share it with theirs, that’s how we make progress.


Kristin Palm is a freelance writer and educator who has worked in development, programming and communications for a variety of nonprofits. Currently, she is communications director for a business incubator in Detroit.

Mark Swartz is a writer and editor who helps organizations tell their stories.