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Podcast | Giving Trends: Exploring Changes and Impact on the Year Ahead

Cheers to 2024! In our first Go Beyond Fundraising podcast of the new year, we’re reflecting on the giving trends that emerged in 2023 and how they may impact the landscape in the year ahead. Is there still some uncertainty in the air? Or will things level out? And what can your organization do now to set itself up for a strong performance?

Allegiance Group + Pursuant Chief Strategy Officer and President Trent Ricker led the conversation. He’s joined by Alicia Lifrak, Executive Vice President, and Matthew Mielcarek, SVP of Analytics & Insights Strategy. Alicia shares what she’s seeing through her interactions with clients, while Matthew brings the data points. In general, growth and revenue look flat; but as you’ll hear, that may not tell the whole story of where fundraising is heading in 2024.

Be sure to stay until the end, when the trio offers tips for where to focus your energy as you set your goals and strategies this year. Spoiler: We’re going back to the basics, but we’re also stepping out of our comfort zone.  

Want to hear more? Listen to the full episode:

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Trent Ricker: Well, welcome everybody. It's 2024, and I'm with two of my favorite people that I love to debate what's going on in the nonprofit fundraising space. I’ve got Matthew Mielcarek and Alicia Lifrak with me today, and I'll let you guys, when I turn it over to you guys in a few moments, talk a little bit about your background. I think some of our long-time listeners know who you are. We probably have some first-time here. But thanks for taking the time getting together.


We were kicking around, as we were heading into the latter part of 2023, the three of us were talking a little bit about the uncertain anticipation for Giving Tuesday and year end. And now we're into January, and I want to spend a little bit of time today reflecting back on both what we've seen from the market in general, what some of the studies are showing and boil it down a little bit because we've seen a variety of results from our clients. And I think we're in this continuing uncertain and evolving time that's got all sorts of different characteristics of how we're collecting data and how we measure donors and where they're giving. So, I'm really looking forward to this.


I'll kick off, and then I'll ask you guys to introduce yourselves as I turn it over to you. But when we think about 2023, that was a pretty volatile year. We're heading in with a lot of skyrocketing inflation and uncertainty and stock market turbulence. And you know, I think with that — though I would at least start by saying we've still got an unbelievably resilient donor base in our country that's very generous — but we're also starting to see, I think, a consistent theme about, “Are there fewer donors giving more? Where are they giving?”


And I also would suggest that one of the things I want to touch on today is that where there's generational giving, it's almost like half generational clicks between those that are first-time donors that are learning how to be philanthropic to those that are unlimited income, and perhaps thinking about their estate but still supporting some of their favorite charities.


So, Alicia, I want to turn it over to you. Tell everybody a little bit about your background. You've been with the Allegiance Group and as part of Pursuant for quite some time now. But say hello, Alicia, and welcome.


Alicia Lifrak: Hi, Alicia Lifrak. I'm Executive Vice President here with Pursuant-Allegiance Group. I've spent three and a half decades in the philanthropic sector, which is hard to believe. But (I) spent the majority of the first half of my career working directly with nonprofit organizations and higher ed and then moved over to the agency side of things in 2018, so very excited to be here with you today.


Trent Ricker: Great experience, Alicia. So, you've been on both sides where you've been hustling to raise money and then working with a variety of organizations to help them raise money. What do you think the pulse of the market is? And I know specifically there's some studies out there to survey (the) fundraising pulse that we talked about a little bit at that. What's your take on the market right now?


Alicia Lifrak: I feel like uncertainty is certainly the key theme, word of the day, if you will. But overall, I think fundraisers remain optimistic. Everything I saw throughout 2023 and going into the fourth quarter, not only were fundraisers — the majority of them — reporting feeling optimistic and on track to achieve year-end goals, but performance reporting was showing the same. So, I feel like going into the fourth quarter, we had some really good indicators that we were on track.


Still a lot of nail-biting, and obviously digital results we have in hand and mail results, we're still calculating. But what I've seen from the clients we're working with at Pursuant-Allegiance, we’re seeing some really strong, favorable results for year-end giving as well. So, I feel like there's reason to be optimistic.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, I think it's encouraging as well. Matthew, we’ll throw it to you because, as the head of our analytics and insights group for a lot of years now, you track several studies. And we're also seeing some inconsistencies out there as it relates to certain giving groups, but also some consistency related to this theme of fewer donors but the same or more dollars. So, Matthew, introduce yourself to our listeners and tell me what you’re thinking right now.


Matthew Mielcarek: Certainly, yeah, thanks, Trent. Hi, everyone. I'm Matthew Mielcarek, SVP of our analytics and insights group. And so, I work with many of our clients to understand and assess their program performance and put it into context with broader industry performance.


And so, (I) agree that early indicators, for both Q4 as well as for the year looked good. And one of the earliest indicators that we had is from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, which dropped Q3 2023 industry performance metrics, and those were just dropped in December. FEP is really the most current recent and objective source for industry insight. And so, we really appreciate the work that they do.


And what that data is looking like right now, to your point Trent, is very much a return to the trend line almost brought for pre-pandemic trends. And specifically, that means a decline in donors. So, it's not great news. And we're looking at flat revenue growth for 2023 overall. So, I would say a much less volatile year than 2022, for instance, coming off a prior pandemic year. But at the same time, even though it's less volatile, it's still a slightly alarming picture even though revenue is holding. But we're not seeing a ton of growth.


I would say, to Alicia's point, many of our clients are matching those industry trends, so seeing fewer donors, seeing flat revenue growth. But we are certainly also seeing pops and areas of interest in the area of growth as well. So many of the digital programs that we manage on behalf of our clients exceeded projections and the books are closed on that. Direct mail program performance, which we're still waiting to close and for those campaigns to fully mature and fully realize. That direct mail feels like it's more mixed. So, mature, broad programs are trending downward, average gift or direct mail is up pretty much across the board, because those who are giving are really closest donors.


The other bright spot that we're seeing, at least, in our own client data — so, a much more limited data set than the full industry — was around Giving Tuesday and, actually, December giving, and so revenue seemed to be much higher, much stronger than flat than it looks like for the year.


And the other bright spot that we've really found, which is great, is we've seen a dramatic reversal in our response rate declines that we were seeing pretty much through all last year then trending downward around summer, and especially toward year end they increased, and this is even adjusted for seasonality. So, it did feel like, as we rounded the corner, as we closed out the year, we were seeing pretty strong performance. And so, I hope that as the FEP analysis catches up and incorporates some folds in Q4 that that helps us really close out 2023, not just flat from a revenue perspective, but perhaps with some growth overall.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, it's fascinating, and part of the reason why we love these conversations and then sharing with our listeners is because we hope to give some insights based upon our extensive client set across multiple market segments and say, “Well, this is what we're seeing.” And is the market data going to catch up to that as well?


So, I think, as I reflect back on a few things: four years ago, we're at the beginning of 2020. It's pre-pandemic, and so, what a year. In 2020, I think that there was so much uncertainty, but the response was overwhelmingly generous. I don't think we knew what to expect if I reflect back to the early days of COVID and the pandemic. And even then, the inconsistency around 2021, where there were fits and starts as it relates to restarting the economy. So much money pumped into the economy; as we head into 2022, the money continuing to get pumped in slowing down; and then inflation catches up.


I think then, wow, the 2022 headlines became pretty painful. I think that smaller donors can be reactive to headlines. If the news tells us to be afraid because dark clouds are ahead, people might start saving for that rainy day. And we do find that more major donors tend to be a bit impervious to the short-term swings, but certainly we've seen the generosity correlates a bit to the stock market. If we see bull markets, we see usually more generosity, more robust capital campaigns. If we see bearish markets, we see campaigns either slow down, or (we) maybe delay launches until people feel a bit more optimistic. But we got to think 2023 was better than 2022.


And I want to come back to you, Matthew, in a minute. Earlier on we had a podcast with Jeff Cain, who put an article on the Chronicle about where are these donors? I've been of the belief that we need to evolve our tracking of where donors and generosity might be coming from. I don't necessarily subscribe to the fact that we have as few donors that we can actually pinpoint as to where they are. I believe in general, that America remains generous, and Matthew and I had some great conversations about the differences between generosity and philanthropic.


But I want to throw it back to you as it relates to the industry, Matthew. We see these studies, and I do think that there is some alarmist mentality, and we're in an election year. We are still seeing some economists forecasting some recession softness. I tend to believe that during presidential election cycles that our government tends to intervene a little bit more to keep things a little bit steadier. I don't know if that's true or not, but it seems that way. But tell me your thoughts on the macroeconomic environment.


Matthew Mielcarek: Yeah, yeah, so I've got to believe that 2023 performance is ultimately going to shake out and be more of a bright spot than the prior year 2022, so I think that's good news. I think the way that we may ultimately categorize the year and classify the year is finally a return to trend, a normal year, a typical year.


Trent Ricker: 2023 being more of a normal year, okay? So, post-pandemic, we might be settling back into some predictability that we had pre-pandemic. Is that what you’re thinking?


Matthew Mielcarek: Exactly, not the kick back from the great performance and then being dragged down. So, I think it is, ultimately, and was finally a return to normalcy.


But the problem with that is that normalcy is not good. And so, what I would say is what this year is going to show us — and again, the FEP data, even just three quarters in, is validating — that donors are continuing to decline. And so, we know before the pandemic, that was a 10-year, if not longer, trend that fewer and fewer donors were giving. We know that the pandemic incited many folks to give for the first time. But in most cases, they have receded. Those long-tail donors have even stopped giving, and so we're also seeing giving by individuals declining faster than ever.


So, I think we're seeing that 2023 and perhaps the same trajectory we're on now in 2024 is really a return to many of those industry trends that certainly are concerning.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, that's fascinating. Alicia, what do you think about that?


Alicia Lifrak: Well, I think you can get data to tell you any story that you want the data to tell you. And I guess I would counter with a little bit of, maybe, optimism. I think things are definitely changing, and how we count gifts and how we count donors, historically, is going to be a challenge for us going forward.


If we look at that pie chart that comes out and breaks down giving, and we say there was a decline in individual giving. If you look at the piece of pie right next to it, which is bequests, that number went up by almost the same number that individual giving went down. And so, if you take that into consideration, bequests are actually gifts from individuals, and then you add to that foundations, which is where the donor advised funds are getting categorically bucketed.


There is still tremendous individual support out there, and I think that the giving trend that has increased — take the COVID bubble out. We are still seeing growth in philanthropy. We're still seeing growth in engagement. How we're counting heads has changed, but philanthropy in and of itself is still on a very strong and positive trajectory. So, I think the thing that we in this industry need to be responsive to is the fact that donors are far more complex than they used to be.


And so, we had attribution models that were point A to point B causal relationships that were really easy to measure. And now we've got folks who might receive a direct mail piece, be motivated by that, but go online to make a gift, or maybe give to a crowdfunding opportunity, and we don't count them in the same way. But that doesn't mean that they're not philanthropic, and it doesn't mean that the appeals aren't working. It just means that the donors are responding in a different way, and I don't think that as a marketing endeavor for our industry we've caught up. And I think that's where we're going to have to really be innovative to meet the donors where they are.


Trent Ricker: Yeah. I think you've nailed it. This is why I love conversations with the two of you. We've been doing this a long time now, and I think the market is responding positively in some areas.


I think, Matthew, to your point, if we're seeing better response rates, and we are raising as much or more with fewer donors, that means that organizations are certainly getting better at loyalty. But we are also seeing churn. We are also missing acquiring new donors to the level where our coverage ratio is positive. We're losing more donors collectively, at least how we count them. So, Alicia, I want to come back to that point here in a minute.


And I also think that the data, particularly when we look year over year, has a head fake from this unprecedented pandemic. There's a difference between somebody who might say, “I gave a gift,” or “I made a donation to an organization.” That's a mindset. Then somebody else who might say, “I'm a supporter of” or “I'm a member of this organization,” which implies sustaining giving, monthly giving, regular giving of some sort. And there's a pride, almost an ambassadorship, versus someone who might transcend to being a true philanthropist. That also goes back, I think, to the generational gaps that we have. This idea of being a philanthropist evolves usually when people have more resources and (are) usually a little bit older in life, but not always necessarily the case.


So, we had a situation in the pandemic that had, I think, some elements of disaster relief generosity resulting in giving to those that are needed. And if I think about market segments that we've served — food banks, for instance, are struggling with the new benchmark of unbelievable generosity as a result of the pandemic, which was wonderful. An opportunity to introduce the cause to helping others through long-standing food banks that were helping those in need versus, let's say, higher ed or arts and culture, who had to shut down during the pandemic, who had a different case during the pandemic, and are resorting back to the norm of their giving.


So, what I'd like to open up back for you, Matthew, the big question that I continue to struggle with is, if we're seeing dollars still at a pretty good level, but the numbers keep telling us there's fewer donors, where are they? I've got my thoughts, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Where are all these donors, then, that we either aren’t counting, that there are fewer, or that we’re unable to count that might be out there that we’ve got to think about how we count them.


Matthew Mielcarek: I think we have to assume that it's both to some degree until we can prove it out, until we can find them. I love where Alicia was heading on this and really just thinking about the ways that an individual can be philanthropic are so diverse right now, and the tools that we have for measuring them likely aren't keeping track of them, aren't really attributing all of the effort or the impact that a mass market program might have on a constituent’s behavior.


I work occasionally with some clients who are really only interested in measuring the response back to their program — for instance, back to the annual fund. And I bristle when I hear that. It's important to understand the performance around a single program. But if we're not looking more broadly at whether the constituent eventually joined a peer-to-peer team, whether the constituent made a major gift — all of these are activities that are outside the solicitation channel or the solicitation vehicle or program. Yet, we know that a mass market program like that can have an impact on the constituent’s relationship more broadly.


And so, along those lines that we think about the last 20 years, even the last five years, even last year, in philanthropy, there are so many ways that a constituent can engage around peer-to-peer giving, through Giving Tuesday, through GoFundMe, for instance, to support an organization, perhaps indirectly or directly. But it's harder to identify and measure these folks. We know that these donors are harder to find. And I would say a new wave of privacy is upon us that's going to make them even harder to track and attribute overall.


So, I think it's really an evolution that Alicia hit head on. It's no longer about sending an appeal (and) measuring that direct response. But we are going to have to look more holistically at how supporters are engaging with us so that we can measure the impact of our efforts and really keep track of where those donors are and finding those donors.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, quick response on that, too. And I think we also, as an industry, have to recognize that the collective work we do with marketing and development are critical, because if we are marketing our brand and our case for support effectively, we are empowering ambassadors to raise money on our behalf in ways that are non-traditional.


If we go back — well, you don't have to go that far back — but the Salvation Army ringing the bell outside of a Walmart during Christmas time, and that's filling the buckets. I would suppose that when they add up all that money at the end of a season, it's a result of both the awareness of the effectiveness of a trusted organization like Salvation Army, coupled with the generous spirit of the giving that year. So, some years they raise more than others, and I would suggest that the Salvation Army would have work to consistently do to say, “This is who we are. This is the important work that we do. We've been doing it for a long time. We’re a trusted organization, and so give us an extra quarter, dollar, $5, $20 bill when you're coming in and out of the grocery store.”


Some GoFundMe, peer-to-peer fundraising has been around forever. When an individual on the street corner is asking for a little help to get a meal — we never tracked that. We as organizations, though, when we are effectively marketing our case for support, our impact, the stewardship of the work that we do, then we should be able to influence all ships rising with the tide and raising more money in general.


Alicia, I'd be interested in your thoughts, because I think there are other drivers of revenue that's driving this top line, even if we aren't counting all the individual supporters that are giving us permission to continue a conversation with them.


Alicia Lifrak: Yeah, I think one thing, when you and Matthew were both talking, one thing that popped into my head is a unique example of how people are philanthropic but not necessarily following the same behavior models that we in the institution of philanthropy expect, and that was when the Ukraine war first broke out. There were slews of folks who wanted to help. They wanted to do something. There was a refugee situation, and they gave money to Airbnb. And so, not a registered charity, not an entity that has a philanthropic component to it. But they took all that money, and the donors didn't get a tax receipt, and they probably didn't get a report of how that money was used. And there was a giant trust factor that just went into this need to respond, this need to help, which that's what philanthropy is.


And so, I think, as we look at this, in working with institutions who probably could do far more meaningful work than Airbnb, the difference was Airbnb was there. It was front and center. They created the opportunity. They got it out, and they were ready to make that response in the same way that the Red Kettle campaign folks are there. They're present. They're standing in front of the door.


I think too many nonprofits are hamstrung by an inability to spend broadly and put themselves out there in the marketplace. And so, we don't have really strong branding and awareness. We don't have really strong marketing campaigns to help introduce them to the general public. And so, they become over-reliant on their existing file, and then seek to build that file with lookalikes. “Find me more donors that look like this.” And it's a shallower pool to work from.


I think the other kind of challenge that I see in the philanthropic sector is that we have become, as an industry, so ROI-focused. And I think a lot of that is driven by boards, and it's driven by donors, and that's driven by wanting to demonstrate an impact. But we've depended on this one too far.


So, you can't have a really successful long-term relationship-building exercise with a constituent if every single interaction has to have an ROI. What I've seen is organizations have scaled back on stewardship, or they've scaled back on planned-giving efforts. They scaled back on those things that have a longer tail and a longer return in exchange for seeking quick revenue. And even acquisition, to a certain extent, a lot of organizations have really scaled back and have lessened their acquisition efforts for the sake of managing (their) ROI.


And I think that's a real challenge for us because the new donors, the new constituents who are out there, don't even know that these institutions exist. And so, there's going to have to be a massive marketing appeal by organizations to let people know that they're there, to let them know the good work that they're doing. And it's going to take an investment. It's no different than any other acquisition effort. They're going to have to put themselves out there. And that's a tough thing to do when the economy is so uncertain, like we just talked about at the beginning. It’s not easy to do. But it's going to be a necessity if we're going to really, truly turn the corner on this.


Matthew Mielcarek: Yeah, Alicia, that leads me to think of growth and how we're guiding our clients in the year ahead. And some of the things that you referenced — in particular, thinking about constituents more broadly — has me thinking about the importance of not only a partnership with marketing, but also the importance of brand, and what investment and brand and awareness mean in terms of reaching those constituents.


A lot of the research that we conduct shows clearly, time and time again, that individuals who are aware of an organization, aware of a brand, are much more open, receptive, and responsive to opening a message from them, whether it's an email or direct mail piece, and then responding to it overall. And so, I think that that's really difficult for folks who sit in direct response seats because so much of their work is dependent on the perception of the brand, awareness in the marketplace overall. But we know that if those things are strong, if development and marketing can team up related to brand, related to awareness, that certainly leads will follow and acquisition, and subsequent fundraising efforts will be stronger and strengthened.


In this New Age where we are headed, where fundraisers are looking outside of the traditional donor pyramid. Where we throw that out the window, and we say that we need to be present and ready and available for constituents who are looking for us, that brand, that strengthened awareness is really how we stand out, how we're found, and how those supporters who do have inclination and desire to give can find us, can act and engage. And so, I think that that's really one of the most important tactics that folks can hold into their strategies in the year ahead.


Trent Ricker: I want to quickly comment on that, what I'm finding interesting. And maybe this is crass, but people will give a gift to pretty much anybody, people in need. There's a human nature reactiveness that if we find somebody in need, who needs help, a spontaneous gift, we'll get them all the time. A friend of a friend's in school that was just struck with a health situation and doing a GoFundMe. Generosity exists all around us. I have great faith in humankind, to be generous.


While people might give a gift to pretty much anyone, people won't necessarily support an organization without some level of awareness or trust. So, when there's a hurricane in Houston, and T.J. Watt says, “Give my foundation some money, and I'll help the people of Houston.” He's an athlete that people trust, and he's got a brand, and people. I think that's great. Not a knock on him at all. He's doing wonderful work, leveraging his brand.


But to have sustaining philanthropic support is a completely different issue. And I worry about — maybe worry’s too strong a word — but I think there are organizations that focus on donor acquisition who might be too focused on, say, front-end premiums or other things to get that gift. The board is measuring them on ROI, to your point Alicia, so we've got to get a certain response rate. We're going to invest in getting new donors. At least, we're getting permission to have a conversation, but we may not necessarily be in the right kind of donors that will give us sustaining support.


Nothing against episodic and spontaneous giving. I think that's very important for every organization to gladly take in. A bake sale, it doesn't really matter — if you're supporting an organization, you can do it in an efficient way, do it. But we are talking about, I think, the trend of our industry, and as organizations having to face a new time. Gone are the days where either a cash gift or a check, which later evolved to credit cards, which later evolved to online giving, which now evolves into so many other channels… I think it becomes so much more difficult to measure the impact and effectiveness of a particular campaign as measured by that specific return on that channel of investment. Do you guys agree with that?


Alicia Lifrak: Yeah, I think the metrics are part of it, and attribution models have to get updated if we're going to do this in a meaningful way. But then to your point, people are never going to stop being philanthropic. We need to figure out how to take, for example, the acquisition campaign that has the labels or has the tote bag, or whatever it is, and they make the gift. Organizations need to have the technology that allows them to scale that effort to then translate it into “Where do they spend their time?” They need to be able to understand what's in that data, what's in that constituent file. And then how do they manage it going forward?


Not all of them are going to be philanthropic and sustained donors. Some of them might just be buying their mailing labels for the year. But there is a segment in there that they need to be able to (home) in on, and I think that's where technology can really assist organizations, to help them scale that effort to figure out who those folks are, and then translate that into more meaningful engagements down the road. But again, that goes back to you’ve got to make an investment in that technology because you can't do it with an Excel spreadsheet. It's just, we've moved past the point of being able to manage philanthropic campaigns in that way.


Matthew Mielcarek: And I would say, our team does a lot of that research and modeling to allow us to look through a group of episodic donors and identify those with the right mindset or greatest potential and opportunity for whatever type of program. So, I think that looking ahead is another key strategy that we often share with our clients. It's making use of those that we have, and then also creating profiles for the types of prospects that we want to acquire and recruit through subsequent activities.


Trent Ricker: It's really great. I love these conversations, and I think we always want to give our listeners, then, as we pivot to how. How can they respond? I mean, the three of us are talking about a few things in summary here. We're not so sure that the studies are collectively accounting for all the activity, and that's just a function of our evolving industry. That's number one.


Two, I think, we still believe in the generosity of the human spirit. People continue to give, and if we, as organizations, are doing a good job in positioning our case for support and packaging our message in a way that people will respond to, that we can tap into that generosity. I'll come back to that in a little bit.


But as we kind of pivot to look ahead, Matthew, let me start with you. How are organizations going to see growth in 2024? And what's the inside track to capitalize inside of this environment that we are fundraising inside today?


Matthew Mielcarek: Yeah, yeah. So, I think it's mailing smarter. Using advanced tools that include AI, that include seasoned professionals to look and comb through mail plans to understand which segments offer the greatest opportunities. This is in the direct mail world, for instance, where we want to lean into using data and analysis tools to identify which constituents want to take a next step. And so, we have various models for doing that, whether identifying a donor who's ready to upgrade or a donor who might be a monthly donor prospect or a constituent that has a similar mindset to the types of prospects we're seeking to acquire. So, I think, using data for those things as well.


And then, I guess this is sort of coupled with what Alicia shared around the relentless focus on ROI. But it's also partnering with other teams and groups within an organization, whether that's marketing, or perhaps programs who are engaging with the public. And to think about taking a more constituent-centric focus. To put that constituent back to the center of thinking and think about their engagement and their value beyond perhaps fundraising alone, but in the way that they are supporting an organization and seek to strengthen and build that overall relationship. And know that many of those activities are ultimately going to drive revenue, whether it's fundraising revenue, programs revenue, whether those constituents will be fundraising for you. So, indirect revenue as well. But many of the organizations we're working with who are seeing growth are thinking about their constituents in a much different way.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, I'm right there with you. Alicia, what are your thoughts?


Alicia Lifrak: I think there's probably a couple of keys to add onto what Matthew was saying. I think diversification is going to be a really strong differentiator for organizations that figure out how to broaden beyond their traditional audiences. Diversity from a demographic standpoint, diversity generationally, diversity in terms of the channels they use to connect, but really getting outside their comfort zone and moving past what we've always done and moving into an arena where they're willing to try new things.


Try new channels, maybe loosen up the reins, if you will, on control and understand that influencers and TikTok and all these things that none of us entirely understand, crypto gifts. All these things that create stress because it's not known. I think we're all going to have to embrace it a little more and recognize that that's where the donors are. And so, our ability to connect with them is going to require us to be where they are.


And then finally, always stewardship, because I really believe above all other things, fundraising still comes down to the relationship. The relationship that the donor has to the cause and the relationship that the donor has to the institution or the organization. I think both of those are equally important. And I think we need to treat donors in such a way that makes them understand that. And we need to resource those. So, whether it's an acknowledgment and thank you letter, whether it's having someone pick up the phone and say thanks, or a formal stewardship program that enlists the donor to really feel like they are a part of the gift that they made and part of that impact.


But those are the things that I would say are probably next-step. They're not necessarily new. We just have to do more of it.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, I think I would kind of summarize some of those things, too, that we're at the beginning of the year. Some of you have a fiscal year that starts in a different month, got it. But you're also at the beginning of the year where we typically reflect and plan. I would encourage a few things here. Don't lose sight of simplicity. There are four primary components to giving. One is acquisition. Retention, upgrade, and stewardship. Those four components are tried and true and will never change. I think that the vehicles by which we do those things change.


But which one of those things? Not to suggest that they're all not important because you have to practice on all four. But I would encourage our listeners to think about what one of those four do you think you need to make the biggest strides on in 2024 for the strength of your program to be much better at the end of this year. And if it's acquiring more donors, then what's the strategy to do so? If it's retaining, then what is your messaging? If it's upgrading, then where are you going within your file to ask for a deeper, more loyal commitment? And stewardship should be an umbrella over all that, but I believe stewardship then leads into marketing and awareness that you’re a worthy cause that can be trusted for someone to give either the first time or sustaining.


I would encourage the refining of your case. What is the case for support that you are creating at the various levels of either a first-time, small gift all the way up to the case for someone to be giving a philanthropic, impactful gift? Not to get overly simplistic, but I think reviewing your packaging too. Regardless of what that packaging looks like. Sometimes, you say “package,” and people think of a direct mail package. I would say a package is whatever someone has to unwrap in order to do that thing you want them to do next. It might be the message you leave on an answering machine or on a cell phone. It might be the subject line in an email. It might be the physical package to get someone to open it up.


Which leads me to my next point: refining your message that's inside of that. What does the conversation look like once somebody's given us permission to have that conversation? And, Matthew, you've hit on some things that I'm sure we'll hit on in a podcast in the coming months as AI is evolving, as refined analytics is becoming exponentially more impactful. At the end of the day, we've got to be able to do more with less. And we need to try to tap into the generosity of those supporters that are most aligned with our causes. If we do believe that there are fewer donors that are giving more dollars, then every organization should try to figure out how they really leverage that loyalty. I'm not so sure I believe it because I do believe that generosity is part of humankind.


I'm going to ask you guys one last thing here. And as this thought has evolved through this conversation, I'll start with you, Alicia. So, when we think about organizations and titles that they have, from Chief Development Officer, the Chief Philanthropic Officer, whatever it might be, in different organizations. What's your take as it relates to the focus of the leader, and even the language that's used within an organization to evolve in this New World Order 2024 and beyond? I think about generosity and just at a general level. And how can we help organizations think more holistically about engaging to align money with mission?


Alicia Lifrak: Well, leadership is key, truly, and for several years there was a coined phrase going around. I've heard it less in the last year, but I don't think the concept has gone away, but it's the culture of philanthropy. And the culture of philanthropy starts at the top, and that every person who's affiliated with an organization is essentially, should be, a fundraiser, and especially the CEO.


It seems like such an obvious point. And yet I have come into contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations through my history that the fundraising team is like this island. They do their thing. People don't want to be associated with it. They feel like it's icky. They're uncomfortable asking for money. There's this idea that “Oh, I don't want to make them uncomfortable” versus being evangelists for their organization, being evangelists for allowing the donor to come in and help them cure cancer or end homelessness or feed a child or whatever the thing is. Everyone should be excited about the opportunity to bring people into the fold.


And so, I really feel like that starts at the top. The leader of the organization, whether it's the CEO or CVO or the Board President, whatever that seat is, has to take that mantle and run with it and get everyone behind them right down to their newest constituent to feel like “If I ever have the opportunity, I want to help. I want to help this organization do what they do.” And I think that enthusiasm and that excitement is a necessity. But it's not necessarily something I see everywhere, so I think that’s a big key.


Trent Ricker: Yeah, Matthew, what are your thoughts on closing?


Matthew Mielcarek: Yeah, I'm encountering a lot more individuals who are Donor Experience Officers, and I love that. Effectively, we're talking about donor stewardship. But when it is framed as donor experience, the individuals on these teams are responsible for more than just a gift acknowledgement. But really thinking more collectively about that constituent, their experience, how they engage with other teams, and not just about the gift. And so, I love seeing Donor Experience Officers talking with them. And it does feel like they're more evolved as the way that they are thinking about their constituents than a stewardship team or receiving team alone might be.


Trent Ricker: I love that. I would challenge our listeners in the culture of our collective market to more broadly embrace outside of our traditional channels of fundraising and development and philanthropy, as we've used these tired terms. I think they’re true — “development” implies that we are developing a relationship with our supporters to a deeper level. And I think more of your arts and culture, higher ed, and healthcare typically use “philanthropy” more because they're dealing with it, usually, at a major donor or a different sort of donor set.


In general, I want to encourage our industry to think: What is the Office of Generosity? What would it look like for us to maintain the discipline and the science of fundraising but implore a culture of generosity that has us, to your point Alicia, building evangelists and ambassadors to share or to spread our word? And then connect money with mission. There's so much science that's evolving. Matthew, you know this better than anyone else, as it relates to analytics, insights, AI, etc. That we should be able to talk more relevantly to appropriate audiences, but about generosity and the way that they can connect us with others.


So, I love these conversations. Thank you, guys, for your time. Good to see you both. Happy New Year. Alicia, Matthew thanks very much. And I look forward to some more of these conversations as the year evolves.


Matthew Mielcarek: Thank you, Trent.


Alicia Lifrak: Thank you.