Taylor Swift can sell out 70,000-seat stadiums for days in a row. She can cause an earthquake in Seattle. But can she solve the generosity crisis—the sharp decline in the number of U.S. philanthropic donors over the past decade?
The answer is yes…if we apply the lessons behind her success to donor stewardship.
Ask most anyone who’s been to one of Swift’s Eras Tour concerts and you’ll hear comments like these:
- I felt like she was singing directly to me.
- I was overwhelmed by a sense of joy sharing the collective experience.
- The shared experience was life changing.
- It’s been five years since Taylor had last toured, there was so much pent up excitement in the crowd.
This year, the average Swift concertgoer spent an average of $1,300 on tickets, merchandise, and travel to be part of the phenomena. They gladly made the investment because the once-in-a-lifetime experience was worth the price.
Swift is a master at making connections. Age, race, nationality are irrelevant. She often focuses on universal themes and shared experiences, such as love, heartbreak, and personal growth. These themes cultivate a strong sense of connection and inclusivity that resonates with nearly every individual.
You might not see the connection between a pop star and the trend away from donor engagement. But look closer. It’s there.
Solving the Donor Generosity Crisis
First, let’s define the crisis and some of the factors behind it.
- Americans are less generous: Fewer than half of American households give to charity, down from two-thirds in the early 2000s. In 2022, only 1.7% of our disposable income went to charity. This is tied with 1995 as the lowest rate on record.
- Donor retention rates keep falling: Nonprofits fail to build a connection, and donors aren’t compelled to give again. Only 42 percent of donors in 2021 gave again in 2022—the lowest rate on record. New donors are even worse—only 26.4 percent gave a second time.
- The reliance on mega and major gifts erodes other giving levels: We pay an inordinate amount of attention to major gifts because they bring the biggest return. It makes sense, but we tend to ignore everyone else and mid-range and lower-level gifts become collateral damage. As a result, our donor pipelines are anemic.
- Nonprofit staff turnover is too high: Nonprofit development offices are notorious for their revolving doors of staff members. Donor relationships walk out the door with them.
If we apply Swiftie-like lessons to these challenges, we’ll make some headway. Here are some examples.
Swift is a master at connecting with her fans. For nonprofits, if we can make donors feel like they belong, like they are a part of a cause bigger than themselves, they will be more likely to give again. If they’re new donors, welcome them and celebrate their newness. When they renew, acknowledge what you’ve been able to accomplish since they joined.
Donors are also consumers. And as consumers, we’re programmed to support causes that show us some love. Amazon Prime, Hilton/Marriott hotels, and airlines are great examples: we go out of our way to patronize them because they give us value and rewards.
Reward your donors by helping them understand the problems they’re solving with their contributions. Monthly donor programs and giving societies are perfect ways to build loyalty and value among your donors—as long as you make the experience meaningful. Segment and celebrate these special donors for their loyal support; make them feel special and they are likely to stay and even increase their giving over time.
The vast majority of donors give because it feels good. Donors like to solve problems, so make the connection between their passion and your unique ability to solve the problems they care about. Often, we fail to connect the dots between our mission and the donors’ role in achieving the mission. Show your donors their impact and go beyond numbers and stats. Share stories that evoke emotion.
Are you connecting your donors to other donors who share the same philanthropic passion? Donor-to-donor experiences like school parent events, donor volunteer days, alumni gatherings, or symposiums are a great way to build connections beyond the staff level.
The cities hosting the Eras Tour were inundated with Swift fans, fostering a profound sense of community both before and after the concert as people witnessed others who shared their passion for the artist. When bonds are built around a common purpose or a common energy, donors will renew their giving year after year because it’s so personal.
To stop the revolving door of nonprofit staff, make your office a special places to work. Steward your staff members the way you steward your donors and the way Taylor Swift treats her tour staff (in terms of the appreciation she shows them, not the $100,000 bonus checks!).
Remember that most staff members choose to make less money when they are hired by a nonprofit; to them the value of their impact is worth the pay cut. Never fail to show your staff how important they are to the mission.
A Path Forward
Solving the generosity crisis will take intentional effort from each of us.
The generosity crisis demands collective action and innovative thinking. As the threat of diminishing philanthropic spirit looms, taking inspiration from sources beyond traditional fundraising, such as Taylor Swift’s approach, offers a potential roadmap. By leveraging the principles of connection, loyalty, emotion, collective experience, and staff stewardship, we can reverse the concerning trends and ensure a future where generosity thrives.
About the Authors
Anna Lipscomb is Marketing Events Coordinator (and official Swiftie) for the Winkler Group, a national capital campaign planning and management firm headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. A graduate of Clemson University, Anna is passionate about community development, sustainability, and the arts. Connect with Anna on LinkedIn.
Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and Executive Vice President, has helped lead nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years. An award-winning case statement writer, Jessica is a specialist in donor communications and a former member of the Giving USA Editorial Review Board. Jessica received a B.A. from Duke University as well as an M.A. and M.B.A. from the College of William & Mary. Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.
2022 fundraising showed substantial weakness through Q4. (2023, April 16). Association of Fundraising Professionals. https://afpglobal.org/2022-fundraising-showed-substantial-weakness-through-q4
Giving USA 2023: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2022, a publication of Giving USA Foundation, 2023, researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Available online at www.givingusa.org.
Villanueva, P., [@itspaolopv]. (2023, August 11). Taylor swift the eras tour the folklore set era. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/paolov/53109707789/
Cover image for “Can Taylor Swift Solve the Generosity Crisis?”
Winters, M. (2023, July 4). Taylor swift’s eras tour is set to earn a record-breaking $1 billion in sales—here are the 10 highest-grossing tours. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/07/04/taylor-swift-eras-tour-set-to-earn-record-breaking-1-billion-dollars-in-sales.html