Last week, with our “Vital Signs – 1” survey, we asked readers of The Agitator to share their prognostications regarding the fundraising outlook for the balance of 2008.We received 126 completed surveys, and 55 individual fundraisers offered to join a panel to report further assessments as the year plays out. Three-of-four respondents work in a nonprofit organization; the other respondents work for a fundraising agency or as independent fundraising consultants. Our respondents are nicely representative of the full range of nonprofits, from advocacy groups, social/human services and arts & culture, to medical/health, education and humanitarian assistance. Thank you one and all.Here is an overview of the responses. The full results can be viewed here. Keep in mind these responses are directional only.Key findingsThe last quarter won’t be a disaster for everyone:

  • 31% of responding nonprofits expect their last quarter 2008 returns to be down by 10% or more, compared to actual returns for the same period in 2007;
  • 27% of nonprofits expect their last quarter 2008 returns to be down by less than 10%;
  • Sectors expecting the least downturn were faith-based groups (28% total down), and animal welfare (33% down);
  • Sectors expecting the greatest downturn were humanitarian assistance (100% expected a downturn), social or human services (69%), education (63%) and arts & culture (60%).

Agencies/consultants are more pessimistic than their nonprofit clients:

  • The most stable fundraising programs for most respondents were monthly giving (20% expect a downturn) and renewals (29%);
  • The biggest losses in the last quarter are expected in prospecting (49% expect a downturn), major gifts (42%), special appeals (41%), and reinstatements (33%);
  • Agencies and consultants had a more pessimistic outlook, seeing far more substantial downturns in all programs with the exception of monthly giving (24% expect downturn) — renewals (48%), prospecting (63%, including 30% “significantly” down), major gifts (64%), reinstatements (65%), and special appeals (66%).

Looking at the differences between nonprofits and advisers with respect to individual types of programs, one can only wonder if the advisers haven’t yet shared the bad news, or if nonprofit clients aren’t absorbing it!What are fundraisers doing about the situation?

  • Both advisers (78%) and clients (76%) consistently report that they have adjusted messaging to reflect the economic environment.
  • Advisors (62%) and nonprofits (50%) say they are soliciting their house files more aggressively;
  • Advisors (56%) and nonprofits (46%) say they have re-projected returns for the last quarter;
  • And, on the other hand, nonprofits (16%) are a bit more likely than advisers (9%) to have reduced prospecting investments.

Finally, 24% of responding nonprofits project that they will have fewer donors/members at the end of 2008 than they had at year-end 2007. Not too different from the 27% of advisers who make the same assessment for their clients. Only 15% of advisers say their clients will have grown in size (compared to 25% of nonprofits who think they will grow over 2007); but the largest group of advisers (58%), not surprisingly, say that some clients will have more, some less.All in all, our respondents seem to expect moderate, but not catastrophic, declines in year-end revenue. And agencies/consultants appear a bit more cautious, if not negative, than their counterparts within nonprofits.To close, here is a flavoring of the verbatim comments offered by respondents to add some texture to the findings and illustrate what fundraisers are doing to rise to the challenge:

  • Regular and middle donors are about flat. Acquisition is easy, retention is the challenge. Key is moving them from 1-shot program participant to engaged to ownership. The major donor challenge is whether they are liquid with their capital or whether it’s tied up in fixed assets.
  • The big bump this year for us has been online fundraising. It has more than made up for losses in our traditional mail fundraising.
  • We aren’t seeing as many increases in renewals as we have the past several years. People are either renewing at the same level or slightly lower.
  • Response rates are close to last year’s, but average direct response gifts are significantly down.
  • Returns based on personal relationships are meeting expectations … returns that can only be solicited through mail are the “iffy” ones.
  • In today’s market, we’ve postponed doing any prospecting.
  • Trying to maintain momentum on more personal methods of acquiring new donors and renewing old donors (house parties, personal calls, etc.)
  • Cutting costs in events; sending no-ask messages; offering options for multi-month payments, pledges; positioning opt-outs of benefits more strategically.
  • More education about multiple-levels of giving, more connections between mission and inviting/asking, good stewarding and more creative asking.
  • We are focusing on major donors as they are more insulated from current economic trends.
  • Acknowledge the economic situation and try to position our organizational mission as a must priority that should stay on top of their short list.
  • We’re keeping the same mailing schedule as we usually do, but are being much more aggressive in our messaging in the appeals being sent.
  • Fine-tuning solicitation list to curb cost.
  • We are communicating more frequently with current donors. We are reviewing our expenditures and asking each department to categorize line items by essential, can defer, and would like but can live without. We are continuing programs, adding a new program, and calling public attention that we are moving ahead with our mission while understanding the economic situation.
  • We are being more conservative in our plans, but not reducing or eliminating mailings. We will probably hold back on creative tests and focus on what we can do to improve the ROI.
  • We are keeping our message extremely positive. We believe that an Obama win will be a plus for us. Donors will be celebrating, and will likely make gifts to agencies like ours that have suffered during Bush’s administration. We are weaving the success message into our year end strategy. Coupled with an economic downturn message that focuses on our clients’ struggles.
  • Working to build and maintain our donor relationships. We are moving away from mail to more focused, interactive, human-oriented approaches.
  • We are not expecting a downturn because we are soliciting our more aggressively through direct mail, email, and face to face. Likewise, we are increasing our stewardship to ensure our donors feel good about their investment in our organization.
  • More carefully targeting reactivation efforts to lapsed donors; increasing multi-channel messaging (mail/email/phone); testing downgrade offers and lower dollar monthly giving asks.
  • We are initiating new cultivation and solicitation efforts in major gifts and through a newsletter.
  • Focusing more on (using) our most committed donors, through fundraising methods like Social Network Fundraising. And reducing ‘general messaging’ like e.g. annual fees, and focusing on special appeals.

We will be repeating the survey cycle by asking our Vital Signs panelists to update their assessments, with our next report due for publishing on November 21st.Hope this information is helpful. Again, the full results can be viewed here.Roger & Tom 

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