Reces­sion-proof fundrais­ing: How to fundraise out of bad times

Turn on any news show and you’ll hear ana­lysts and pun­dits fore­cast­ing eco­nom­ic doom and gloom. Their reports are filled with words and phras­es like eco­nom­ic down­turn’, soft econ­o­my’ and the dread­ed reces­sion’.

Written by
Marc Pitman
June 02, 2014
Follow Marc Pitman’s latest words of wisdom and you may just be able to ride out the current financial storms in style.

While the jury is still out about whether or not we’re really in a recession, now is a great time to recession-proof your fundraising effort. Weak economies can be very helpful for nonprofits. During such times, organisations are forced to be leaner and more efficient. When the economy rebounds, they’re in a much better position to take advantage of it.

But economic downturns can also be perilous times for nonprofits. When faced with a recession, many nonprofits make bad choices that limit their growth. Some of these mistakes can prove fatal.

How will this economic climate affect your favourite nonprofit? Will you fulfil your mission or will you fold? That depends on whether you make these deadly mistakes:

  • Spend less on fundraising.
  • Become pessimistic.
  • Apologise when you ask.

Spend less on fundraising

Whether we like it or not, asking for money costs money. When you’re looking for budgets to trim, costly mailings and fundraising activities will seem obvious opportunities.

But exercise extreme caution.

Most fundraising efforts can be tweaked to improve their effectiveness. These tweaks can either reduce cost or increase money raised. But I’ve never seen a fundraising effort raise more money by being eliminated.

In a recent study I did, I discovered our organisation’s direct mail programme raised more money during the years we sent out more letters. This was counter-intuitive to me. I’d worked for a couple of years to eliminate mailings and focus exclusively on the people deemed most likely to make a gift. But in that time, our annual fund dropped by around 30 per cent! This year we’ve increased our mailings and have already raised as much in six months as we did the entire previous year.

Spending less on fundraising can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Less investment can result in less being raised, which leads to further cuts and even less raised. Tighten budgets where necessary but be very careful when making cuts to fundraising programmes.

Becoming pessimistic

The top fundraising professionals are some of the most optimistic people alive. The minute they start being gloomy, people begin holding on to their wallets. Have you ever wondered why the stock market drops when pundits prophesy uncertainty? No one wants to invest in a questionable deal. It’s the same with fundraising.
As fundraising professionals, we’re inviting people to invest in our mission. Our cause makes the world a better place regardless of the economy. That’s not going to change. We need to continue to shed light on the good things happening around us.

Apologising when you’re askingIt’s easy to feel awkward about asking for donations when we keep hearing how bad things are. Timidity is a sure-fire way to not raise money. We need to continue getting out from behind our desks and inviting donors to give. I’m certainly not advocating being brash or arrogant. We do need to understand that many of our donors may not be able to give at the same level. This is where we can be compassionate and understanding. And our relaxed understanding of people’s financial realities can make them even stronger proponents of our organisations in the future.

But there’s nothing compassionate about not asking.

One sure way to raise less money is to stop asking for it, whether the economy is soft or strong. The best way to recession-proof your fundraising is to keep doing the things that raise money and to do them in a way that strengthens relationships with donors, helping them become evangelists for your cause.

  • Keep on making wise investments in fundraising efforts.
  • Stay upbeat.
  • Continue to raise support compassionately.

Combine these ingredients and you have an excellent recipe for strengthening your nonprofit, independent of the economy.

© Marc A. Pitman 2008


Marc explains the story behind his bow tie:

‘I’ve been wearing a bow tie even longer than I’ve been raising money. In the 1970’s I got started with a maroon velvet clip-on. In high school, I was able to get the yard sale bow ties from Boston Brahmin for 50¢. I didn’t realize how much a part of me bow ties were until I tried giving a seminar in San Diego without one. I was told I had to wear one, it was just ‘part of who you are!’ Fortunately, I had one in my briefcase!’

About the author: Marc Pitman

Marc Pitman is the author of Ask Without Fear! (Executive Books, 2008, USA) He is also the founder of, a website dedicated to practical ideas for more effective fundraising.

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