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Podcast | Fundraising During an Election Year: What Nonprofits Need to Know in 2024

It’s hard to miss the fact that 2024 is an election year. The presidential race is dominating news cycles and social media, but what does it mean for your fundraising efforts? On this episode of the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast, we talk with Allegiance Group + Pursuant Chief Strategy Officer Trent Ricker about what nonprofits can expect.

Organizations often fear that political giving will impact their fundraising; however, studies show this simply doesn’t happen. Instead, nonprofits should adjust their timing and approach to campaigns based on the political climate.

Ricker highlights the need for nonprofits to stay agile and responsive to changing advertising policies in terms of ad content, imagery, and cost. He also stresses the power of data to inform how nonprofits address local and national issues in their fundraising. Finally, he emphasizes that while it’s important to be aware of the election, organizations should stay focused on advancing their mission and engaging their donors.

Want to hear more? Listen to the full episode:

Connect with Trent Ricker

Read the blog Navigating the Political Storm: Crafting Resilient Fundraising Strategies for an Election Year

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Leah Davenport Fadling: Trent, welcome back to another episode of the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast.


Trent Ricker: Thank you, Leah, it’s great to be here with you as always. Thanks for having me.


Leah Davenport Fadling: I’m always thrilled when I get to sit down and talk to you and discuss what is happening in the nonprofit giving landscape.


Something that I think is top of mind for a lot of fundraisers and nonprofit marketers right now is the upcoming election year. We’re recording this in 2024. The last election year was 2020, which was an incredibly chaotic year, but it was also one of the most generous giving years on record. What are some of the top questions that nonprofit clients are asking you in strategic meetings?


Trent Ricker: It is an interesting topic, and I’ll say from the outset that I think it’s one that’s probably given more attention than it probably warrants. It shouldn’t be ignored; it’s something that happens to us every four years of course, and I’ve been around long enough to have seen a few cycles. But I also reflect that I think the impact from the election cycles — presidential-specific election cycles, that is — in some cases, the question is does it affect our fundraising? How does it affect the macroeconomic environment?


Certainly in 2020, we had the uniqueness of the pandemic and social justice that overrode that. I can go back to 2008, when it was the Great Recession, and the banking crisis that took place a couple of months before elections took place.


So, there’s a lot at play, and I think that the important thing that we want to get across to our audience today is don’t ignore it. But I find that many of our clients and organizations that I discuss — and I think particularly for the younger set that are a little bit newer to the presidential cycles as a fundraiser or marketer — might give it a little bit more emphasis than it deserves related to how it might impact an organization’s fundraising.


Leah Davenport Fadling: Yes, so without burying the lede here too much, we’ve seen over the years that typically giving to political organizations or political causes is a small fraction of the overall philanthropic giving. So, nonprofits don’t necessarily need to be concerned with political messages overshadowing their asks for giving. But they may need to think differently about the timing of some of their campaigns. Would you agree with that assessment?


Trent Ricker: Yeah, I think that’s fair. We’re talking about less than $20 billion likely — and it’s closer to the low teens — that’s spent during a presidential election season. Which means that’s what they’re spending, that’s associated with what they’re raising — many of that from individual donors. But we also know from Giving USA’s numbers in one of our earlier episodes that we might believe that’s not even counting all the individual giving resources that are out there — that those are in the high 500s/the low 600 billions of dollars. So, we’re talking about single percentage points. And rarely do we see cannibalization — I shouldn’t even say rarely, we just don’t.


I think most people that have studied this will say it isn’t as if people suspend giving to their organizations that they’re loyal to so that they can otherwise give to a political candidate or political party. I tend to equate it a little bit to disaster relief or episodic giving. In this case, though, people see it on its horizon. High net worth individuals, I think, that are advocacy or politically motivated would be “hit up” to give to causes and organizations that they might believe in. But I think it’s also just part of their overall philanthropic landscape and giving.


So, when we think more broadly about the landscape of organizations — from health to healthcare to higher education to arts and culture to mission-based organizations, ministries, etc. — the vast majority are not going to be competing for those dollars and need to consider that they should be fundraising and marketing and aligning their constituents in a way that’s sensitive to the landscape. And I want to come back to that because I think it’s important that you figure out ways that you can ride tailwinds or combat headwinds related to some messaging that can be pretty predictable out there. But nevertheless, 2024 should be treated as other years when you’re doing the best that you can to engage with your constituents to align them to take action for you.


Leah Davenport Fadling: I liked how you compared that to or made the analogy to a crisis response–, natural disaster–type of organization because the speed at which decisions have to be made can be very quick. But we also see organizations that do a lot of disaster fundraising leveraging techniques like having pre-written, pre-set campaigns. So, in a political environment, are there tactics like that that nonprofits can have in their back pocket to deploy, should something happen in the news or some decision on legislation come down, that they get an appeal out there immediately?


Trent Ricker: Yeah, Leah, you bring up a really interesting point. This is a good example, I think, of an election year versus a non-election year. So, once again, I’m going to get into some subjective viewpoints based on observations and instincts and experience, nothing based on any sort of empirical study. We typically find in an election year that our government doesn’t act as decisively because of the pending election.


So outside of presidential election years — and it’s not just limited there, but let’s stay focused on this topic today — if you’re an organization where a piece of legislation could impact you as an organization, then you may be ready to deploy fundraising campaigns as a result of that legislation, okay? And in those cases — let’s take Roe vs. Wade. When that decision came down, organizations on either side of that issue were likely prepared to have campaigns that would engage their constituencies from a marketing, engagement, and fundraising perspective.


In an election year, I think it’s a little bit unlikely that major legislation or Supreme Court–type decisions are going to be that earth-shattering. It’s possible, of course, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most politicians try to keep those presidential election years as tame as they possibly can. Now granted, external environmental factors like we saw in 2020 can significantly disrupt that. Or like we saw in 2008 with the economic crisis that we experienced.


But your question was what can you anticipate? I will say for an election year, your anticipation is more around — if your cause aligns or opposes a political platform, you should be ready for the post-election fundraising opportunity. We’ve seen some pretty significant studies related to — I’ve heard the phrase “rage giving.” I certainly think that was a real thing after Donald Trump won in 2016. But the opposing party was able to capitalize on, “We need to raise funds in order to do our job in light of what the anticipated legislation would otherwise be.”


I’ll give you a quick example. We worked with an international relief organization that processed an awful lot of immigrants, and they do that as a non-governmental organization. As you can imagine, different presidential administrations might have differing perspectives on how many refugees will be let into our country. And the work that needs to be done either out of country or in-country to process. So again, even in my language here, I’m staying apolitical because the point is something can move those policies that’s going to affect this particular organization and the messaging that they may have to those that feel compassionate toward refugees that are looking for asylum in the United States.


So, I would really encourage organizations to sit down with their staff and think through in a very objective, moderated way (and) to try to anticipate those sorts of issues that might arise in the news and how they might be able to position themselves as neutral experts to be able to speak to the media. But ultimately, once the election’s complete, to be able to deploy campaigns that are thought through related to the best way to take advantage of the outcome of an election or anticipated policy.


Leah Davenport Fadling: Have you experienced encouraging a nonprofit organization to take action around something that’s in the headlines and then had them decide not to do it? And then, part two, what was the outcome of that inaction?


Trent Ricker: Yeah, great question. And again, I’m not an expert in the delineation between 501(c)(3)’s and (c)(4)’s and what you can and shouldn’t do. We defer to the clients and their experts to be able to determine that. But … When we think about fundraising in general, a long-standing strategy has been to first engage a broader audience around an issue; and in that issue perhaps getting people to raise their hand and say, “I align with that mission.”


I’ll use a couple of examples here. Feeding America is a great example — lots of food banks and their affiliated networks throughout. Periodically, the Farm Bill comes along, and it’s an important piece of legislation as it relates to hunger. When we think about aligning a population, if you will, to take a stand against hunger, let’s say, you might collect names first to say, “I stand to do my part to combat hunger and give you permission to have a conversation with me.” A food bank might then start a conversation by thanking them and telling them the work they do in the community, and then call them on that pledge. That could include something like bring a can of food to the football game; volunteer at our food pantry; give us a donation; send a letter to your congressman — now, this should be through your (c)(4), related to the Farm Bill.


You get the idea as it relates to the strategy that might be first acquiring names that align with your mission that give you permission to have a conversation that moves those constituents toward taking some sort of action in alignment with the organization’s mission and purpose. Now, you could take that a little bit further. I worked with an organization once that (was focused on) antisemitism — and this was quite some years back, so the current situation in the Middle East notwithstanding. But when Ahmadinejad might say something at the United Nations, it was easy for this organization to say, “We condemn these words, and we ask you to stand with us. Sign this pledge” — again, different than a petition or actually advocating to Congress — but “sign this pledge or this petition so we can take this letter to the United Nations.”


And in so doing, you’re creating a groundswell of those folks who are giving you permission to continue a conversation and align with a cause that you have. Which would lead, obviously, to, “This is the work that our organization does. This is why it’s important. Here’s how you can help.”


So, I do think that organizations during this news cycle of a political year — you’re fighting for competition related to a lot of noise. So, you have to think about, “Where might we anticipate certain issues to be elevated during the election cycle? And how might we start conversations such that when the election’s over, we can begin to have further conversations based on the outcome of that election?”


It’s called being prepared. And I think those are good conversations to have here in the first half of a presidential election year.


Leah Davenport Fadling: I’m glad that you brought up the topic of acquisition because another phenomenon we’ve observed happen a lot in election years is advertisers tend to tighten restrictions around the type of language that can be used in advertising. We see that a lot on Meta, but we’ve seen it happen in other places too. And so, another thing that nonprofits need to be prepared for is ad copy and perhaps ad images that would pass muster in non-election years may not pass muster in these years.


Trent Ricker: What a great observation. I think it was amplified in 2020, and I think it’s going to be even more important this year. Again, not an area of my primary expertise for sure. But I think if you look at it on the surface, the big companies — Meta, for instance — will take more time in scrutinizing ads. And by the way, those that are on social media platforms and paying for ads, you now have a new competitive player, which makes this real, right? So, there are higher costs during an election year for certain nonprofits when they’re competing with new players that are episodic in nature related to a campaign cycle.


That’s the first thing to consider, but the second is your content. Because to your point, number one, the content may take longer to get approved, and it may not be approved unfairly. I certainly think that the scrutiny again, no matter where you personally stand on this — and I really want to implore this upon our audience. Politics is passion, and there’s a lot of intensity surrounding it. Your job as a senior leader in a nonprofit is to try to cut through that objectively. How does it affect the cause and the mission and your fundraising and marketing efforts, first and foremost, in staying objective?


You may not agree with how the social media platforms may position their advertising policy, the length of time to approve ads, the costs associated. Or they may reject an ad that you feel shouldn’t be rejected. But you have to objectively recognize the landscape that we’re in. You have to be honest with yourself about the landscape that you’re in this year, 2024, and work within those parameters.


But yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because I think that’s something that caught some folks in 2020 as the year progressed a little bit more and the government was getting a bit involved with social media platforms and misinformation and disinformation. That’s a fast-moving target during an election year, for sure.


Leah Davenport Fadling: Another angle that I think is also worth considering is the difference between national, state, and local elections. We know all these things are happening simultaneously, and there’s so much attention given, especially if you’re a large nonprofit, to things that are perhaps happening at the state and the national level.


But there may be missed opportunities of things that are happening within your local election. You may have some really passionate people, especially if you’re a more local nonprofit, that it’s worth also perhaps shifting your gaze from issues that may not be as relevant to you on a national level but may be at a local level.


Trent Ricker: I like that observation a lot. I think we live in a smaller world, obviously, because social and internet, the news cycle brings this world closer together. In many ways, that is a blessing. But I think far too often, we’ve lost that local connection. It seems to me that outside of local news, and of course the sites associated with that, folks are not getting some of the local perspective they might otherwise have gotten years back through previous cycles of politics.


So, to your point, as a nonprofit, the issue that is the most relevant to your constituent is one that is going to be most actionable by your constituent. Which comes back to a drum that I like to beat on our podcast discussions, and that is data is really important. What do you know about your constituencies, and how relevant can you have a communication with them based on what you know? The investment that Allegiance Group + Pursuant have made over the years in data and particularly in our GivingDNA platform — we can learn an awful lot about our constituents. When you have folks that have given you permission to continue a conversation, the data points that are now more readily available through third-party data sources can tell us a lot.


And I think that’s also an important place for organizations to take a closer look at their constituencies. A lot of times people think, “Oh, these are the policies that are most important to us, so the political affiliation of our constituency must be a vast majority of this type of individual.” GivingDNA actually has that information, political affiliation, and it reflects a lot more of what we see in the United States. Even those organizations that feel like they’re “a vast majority,” it’s pretty rare that we see a constituency that’s below 60%. That’s a significant majority for most organizations. And it’s not uncommon to have an organization, once they start looking at data of their constituency, to say, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize we had so many Republicans or so many Democrats.” And of course, in this day and age, there’s a lot of Independents as well.


Back to your point, though, how do you speak relevantly and localized through your campaigns, particularly digital because it’s a lot easier to do that from a cost standpoint. But a great observation, particularly in 2024.


Leah Davenport Fadling: If we can leave with anything today, it’s the message to nonprofits to really get to know who is in your universe of supporters and donors and make sure that the causes that you’re fundraising around and doing advocacy around align with who your supporters are and what they care about.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s a simple, “Everything I needed to learn, I learned in kindergarten,” or whatever that book title was. I would love to tell our listeners, regardless of how passionate you might be, to number one, learn your constituency. You’ve got a tribe of folks that you’ve earned the right to have conversation with over the years. Know who you’re talking to.


Two, be prepared. Think about how potential items that might have visibility in the news cycle could impact your fundraising opportunities or create fundraising or marketing challenges.


Three, I would say be respectful. I think in this day and age, those organizations that show the decorum and respect for their audience and the landscape in general, those messages — authentic messages — seem to resonate more deeply. It’s not to suggest — I’m going to have a caveat here, a 3A — that post-election, you may have some constituents who are motivated and upset, and you should take advantage of that. There’s no reason to not do that. If they see that giving to your organization could help right what they perceive as a wrong, that’s knowing your constituency. But don’t assume that 100% of your constituent base is ticked off about that outcome.


So again, use some good judgment as it relates to that. And I think I said this at the beginning, it’s really important that it’s emphasized: be aware, but don’t use the election as an excuse. Be aware and don’t ignore it, but don’t use it as an excuse as it relates to, “We had a bad month because it’s an election year.” I find that the inexperienced fundraiser will tend to use the distraction du jour to explain away what might otherwise be underwhelming results that might be more of an effect of poor planning, unanticipated response, not knowing our constituent base.


Let’s get back to fundamentals. Giving during a presidential election cycle does not cannibalize traditional generosity. There are individuals that will include political organizations as a philanthropic priority, but they were doing that already. You need to count on your continued mission, advancement, your strategic relevance, personalization, and timeliness to your constituency even in the light of an election year.


Leah Davenport Fadling: I love it. Just, keep it simple.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, keep it simple and pay attention. It’s going to be an interesting year. I think, in closing, I don’t think that there’s anybody here listening to this podcast today that wouldn’t think that the rest of 2024 is unpredictable.


One quick thought too, we still have high costs and an uncertain economy — again, that’s another area where people might look at it and use that as a justification as to why we’re either fundraising poorly or well. I would suggest that in an election year, outside of what we saw in 2008, which was extraordinary, the economy usually is fairly stable. No political party wants to have too much disruption. So, don’t expect interest rates to jack back up quickly or to jack down quickly. Expect much of the same as this year unfolds but be prepared. Be respectful. Don’t ignore it but stick to your fundamentals.