Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Finding The Silver Lining

Feb 28, 2017

I consider this my “silver lining” segment. You’ll likely understand why in a moment.

Since November 8, nonprofits – especially human rights defenders and advocates – have seen a great increase in volunteer interest and have received donations at levels never seen before. Planned Parenthood is the prime example of this. In the first week following the election, Planned Parenthood of America received nearly 80,000 new donations, and by the end of November, the organization had received 260,000 donations. (Washington Post, 11/30/16)

Since the election, the American Civil Liberties Union has received more than $15 million from a quarter-million donors, according to  the ACLU’s chief development officer. About $7 million came in the five days after Nov. 8. By comparison, after the 2012 presidential election, the ACLU received $28,000 in the same amount of time. (Washington Post, 11/30/16)  In the weekend after the executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the ACLU took in $24 million, six times its yearly average. (New York Nonprofit Media, 2/7/17)

The Anti-Defamation League, another established organization that protects people against discrimination, has seen a similar response, particularly with the surge of hate crimes recorded across the country in the wake of the presidential campaign and election. According to Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL chief executive and national director, the group has received 20-times the call volume from people who want to volunteer and 50-times the online donations, with close to 90 percent from first-time donors. (Jewish Times, 11/23/16)

Perhaps no group was more surprised by the surge in new support than the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group. November is not their fundraising period: its donor base is primarily the American Muslim community, and typically Muslims donate to charity during the Ramadan holiday. But, according to the Washington Post, after the election, the Council received donations and volunteer offers from people of all faiths who saw it as a way to protest Trump’s pledge during the election to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, and the hate crimes directed at Muslims since his win. The Council’s spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper said,  “It’s a very good sign. It’s something we hadn’t seen before. Making a donation is the ultimate sign of solidarity. Actions speak louder than words.” (Washington Post, 11/30/16)

The term “rage donation” has been used to describe this dramatic uptick in charitable donations and volunteerism. I’m not comfortable with that term, because “rage” implies a certain loss of control, though I do love the passion that has driven so many to act. Therefore, I think of this as an awakening. Many recognize the work that nonprofits are doing to serve the least among us, and now realize the public’s critical role in ensuring that these organizations continue doing that challenging work.

A flood of donations, while a good problem to have, presents challenges. Much like the 2015 Ice Bucket Challenge started by the ALS Association, sudden influxes of cash wildly disproportionate to an organization’s standard budget can be difficult to manage. The annual budget of the ALS Association is $23.5 million: the Ice Bucket Challenge brought in $115 million. There was significant -- and understandable -- pressure on the organization to show all the ice water-doused donors what could now be achieved. The ALS Association has detailed how much of those millions of dollars supported mission-related research, knowing that with such publicity comes close scrutiny. http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ibc-progress.html

The difference between the Ice Bucket Challenge and this post-election surge in donations is that ice bucket participants weren’t necessarily engaged with the mission of the ALS Association: it was a fun activity that resulted in lots of funny videos. Donors acting in response to the election knew what they were supporting.  Educated donors are far more valuable to an organization because they are likely to become sustaining donors. And sustained support is the holy grail of nonprofits.

The onus is now on nonprofits to convert the passionate first-time donors into  committed supporters. It will be interesting to see how the next two to four years play out. Will donors commit to giving annually to these organizations? Will the nonprofits have the capacity to increase their services as needed? Will they opt to create a rainy-day fund for what looks like a very challenging period of time? I’m hopeful that this silver lining of humanity will shine brightly during the years ahead.

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.  She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

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