Vintage (black-and-white) photo of stock brokers monitoring computers. Header image for blog, "Stop Blaming the Economy, Maybe it's Us"

Stop Blaming the Economy—Maybe It’s Us

Donor retention. Building authentic donor relationships. Connecting donors to causes they care about. And retaining good development and advancement professionals. It may not sound like it, but this is good news. Because unlike the economy, these are challenges well within our control.

Our clients saw high levels of giving in 2022—the same year US giving was down 3.4 percent according to the Giving USA data released last month. The common denominator among the orgs with high levels of giving: strong donor relationships.

One of our partners, St. Matthew’s House in Naples, Florida, saw a $6.2 million increase (a 59 percent increase) in giving in 2022. Bill Curry, St. Matthew’s House VP of Development attributes the growth to, “deeper relationships with our donors through personal visits to campus, tours with development officers, and sharing meals together. We can offer personal involvement in our mission. They can see, touch, and feel the impact.”

Here’s what these successful development and advancement shops are doing well:

  • Their senior staff—not just the development officers—have strong relationships with donors. Program officers, department chairs, curators, executive directors are included in meetings so the donor feels like an insider.
  • They are listening to their donors. They’re asking questions that evoke emotion and passion in their donors. They understand why their donors give.
  • They’re creating work environments that foster long tenures for their development and advancement staff.

Effective Donor Stewardship: Your Hedge Against Economic Downturns

No one can predict with certainty whether we’re headed for a recession.

Instead of fretting about something we cannot control, let’s learn from organizations and institutions that are bucking the trend.

Ensure you have a plan in place that follows the general steps below and balance their attention equally between acquisition, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.

  • Make your case and make it compelling. Demonstrate how your organization, academic institution, or hospital solves a specific problem.
  • Find donors who are passionate about solving the problems you’re uniquely positioned to solve.
  • Build authentic relationships with these donors. Involve senior leaders from across the organization because donors want access beyond the development or advancement team.
  • Really listen to your donors. Not through surveys but through one-on-one interactions.
  • Keep donors updated on how you are solving the problem they’re passionate about.
  • Make your donors feel like they are key to your progress, that you can’t solve x, y, or z without them.
  • Thank your donors when they give.

Curry sums it up with this optimistic statement. “While data may fluctuate, let’s remember that generosity knows no bounds. As long as there are causes to support and people in need, the spirit of giving will endure.”

The Great Resignation: Staff Turnover Fuels Development’s Problem

Donor retention and staff retention go hand-in-hand, particularly for mid-level and major donors. How do we build authentic relationships with donors if the average tenure of a development professional hovers around two years?

A plan to keep is a good place to start. Nonprofit HR’s 2021 Nonprofit Talent Retention Practices Survey  found that 80 percent of nonprofit organizations surveyed did not have a talent retention strategy in place. A few ideas to reduce turnover include:

  • Take the time to listen to your employees, hear their opinions, and determine how they feel they could be better supported.
  • Acknowledge faults within your organization and be open to change.  
  • Place trust in your employees to get their job done.
  • Look for ways to involve employees in your organization’s mission.  Nonprofit professionals are drawn to the field because they want to serve.  By continually reinforcing the connection between their job and the advancement of the mission, you will encourage them to see beyond just a paycheck.

Find more ideas in this resource on addressing nonprofit staff turnover.

Lessons from Crowdfunding and Round-Up Campaigns

Most Americans consider themselves generous. They round up at the grocery store. They support a friend’s GoFundMe page. They give their old clothes to Goodwill.

Let’s celebrate their philanthropic spirit, but also learn from their giving patterns and how we can translate their generosity to traditional nonprofit giving.

These donors are giving:

  • because it’s easy.
  • because someone asks—someone they know.
  • because they have confidence that their friend with the GoFundMe page will use their contribution wisely.

How do we make giving to our causes that compelling—and that easy? Personalization. Channel optimization. And making the right ask at the right time. 

Click image to expand.

The Generosity Commission’s recent
data correlates with what our most successful client partners are finding: authentic relationships that build trust and bring the donor into the conversation are the most effective. Their findings demonstrate that donors want to hear about giving from a friend, relative, or philanthropic leader. It’s the personalization that matters.

Fundraising Can Rise Above the Economy

We can make excuses. We can make fundraising complicated. Or we can get back to the basics and build the long-term relationships with our donors that will see us through the tough times.

The economy may impact giving, but Americans are generous at heart. If we make our case, find the donors who share our passion to solve problems, and make it easy for them to give, they will respond. Our clients are the proof.

Schedule a consultation with one of our fundraising experts for a customized evaluation of your development or advancement program and how to strengthen it.

About the Author

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.


Brew, A. A. (2021). 2021 Nonprofit Talent Retention Survey results. Nonprofit HR.

Delvin, B., & George, K. (2023). Advancement moving forward: June 2023 survey of gift officers, alumni relations officers, and chief advancement officers. Washburn & McGoldrick.

Rice, P., & Fitzpatrick, C. (2023). How and why we give: Research insights on the aspirations and motivations that inspire people to give and volunteer. The Generosity Commission.

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