Remember Peanuts, the comic? We all know how again and again Lucy would hold the football for Charlie Brown and then snatch it away at the last second when he went to kick it. And poor old Charlie Brown fell for it every time.
Charlie Brown Effect seems to be alive and well and wreaking some havoc in fundraising land.
Fundraising is down industry-wide, in some respects ominously so. That’s led to shortfalls in many organizations. But what’s making the shortfalls especially gnarly is the number of groups who enjoyed a COVID surge in giving in 2020 and 2021 and just assumed it was going to continue forever.
In my decades in this business, I have never seen a giving surge lead to sustainable increases in income, yet groups persist in assuming their windfall will be the new normal. Disaster aid groups will tell you that after a hurricane or earthquake, there’s always a giving surge, followed by a steep decline, at least until the next disaster. (The ‘Trump bump’ may look like an exception, but I would argue that the Trump bump has morphed into a broader ultra-right-wing assault on science, morality, and decency – a disaster that continues to unfold.)
So here we are, again, with hand-wringing and drastic cutbacks because fundraising is down just when some expected it to go up. My guess is that these expectations are coming from the C-level and not the fundraisers. Most fundraisers know that a surge of donors driven by an event like COVID, 9/11, or some other finite catastrophe is a windfall, not a watershed.
Meanwhile, there’s another, perhaps bigger fundraising crisis as a system built for another generation slowly loses steam. A conversation for another day.