The other day I had a conversation with a colleague who works on building and implementing community software. He asked about my take on community in nonprofits. It was a “why is this interesting to you?” sort of question.
I thought I’d take a minute to share a bit about why this intersection of community, membership and organizations is so important now.
We live alongside trauma, uncertainty and a fraying fabric of norms and expectations. We’ll skip the litany of what’s going on. You all work in it every day.
All this change and pain is sometimes good. You want to topple white nationalists and abolish poverty? Fuck yes. Let’s do it. But it’s often painful and, when constant, this work through change is exhausting, isolating and maddening.
Most people have a sense of all that’s going on – and going wrong – and want to address it. But they don’t want to wade into that exhaustion. They give their $50 to charity and sign a petition. But even that can be frustrating. What happens next, they ask? Does anyone else care?
I believe that campaigns, local groups, nonprofits and certainly businesses engaged in building audiences and communities have a much bigger role to play in how people engage in civics, politics and systems change.
As nonprofit leaders – and marketers, community builders, fundraisers and membership directors – we have a responsibility to our organization’s mission and finances.
We also have a responsibility, usually unspoken, to community – those who support our work with money and time as well as the broader community of people who put food on tables, teach us, clean streets, care for children and so many more. Amidst our lists of activists, customers, donors, volunteers, subscribers are people from whom we expect attention and to whom we promise a better world, a happier existence, a cleaner countertop or a healthier pet.
We in fundraising, membership and organizing are the front line of civic engagement, community power and system change. Whether we like it or not we can and should take seriously this space for rebuilding trust, teaching people about their power, and delivering solutions, not just products or promises.
How that’s done – the future of community – is roughly the theme of this blog, newsletter and the work that I do with organizations. Get in touch if this sparks ideas, you have questions or ideas.
Where did they go?
The Chronicle of Philanthropy last week reported that Giving to Nonprofits Fell Nearly 2 Percent in the Last Quarter of 2022. This echoes other reporting on drops in giving to nonprofits.
More important than a small drop in overall giving is the drop in the number of people making donations. Individuals making small gifts saw a sharp decline:
There were fewer donors over all at the end of 2022, but the decline was sharpest for the 83 percent of donors who gave $500 or less. At the end of 2022, 15 percent fewer people gave $100 or less than at the end of 2021. Likewise, the number of people who gave $101 to $500 in the last three months of 2022 declined more than 8 percent from 2021 levels.
Philanthropy News Digest shared the same data in January along with an Independent Sector report that retention was down 4.2% but fundraising overall was up 6.2%.
The reasons for this decline are debatable. Economic pressures loom large. Inflation and corporate profiteering, job loss and pull back on government stimulus has been a shock to the system for people who make those $50, $100 or $250 dollar donations.
Organizations tend to talk about the connection between community and fundraising in either transactional or vague terms. You’re offered access to events, updates or a premium (tote bags, anyone?). You may sign a petition and immediately become a subscriber, member or part of the community.
There’s no doubt that giving rose during COVID. There are a couple reasons for this. One, things were awful. You had more time to look around and what you saw was crisis: death and sickness, businesses closing and jobs lost, and, after a few weeks of coming together, anger about our collective response. Second, people were more engaged in direct aid to their community. In some cases this showed up as giving to mutual aid groups. This was money directed at addressing visible trauma in the community. Other giving went to smaller charities to address hunger, homelessness and disasters.
Donors know that repair isn’t a one-time act
Saying that donors are leaving due to the economy may be correct but it ignores a couple problems:
- We often (usually) have no idea why someone gave their first donation.
- We don’t acknowledge the emotional investment people are making with their support.
What if a desire to engage in long-term repair of communities was (and is) on people’s mind?
Sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer wrote about the rise of giving in 2021 as a response to collective trauma.
At a time of excruciating social distancing, when quarantine rules separated us from one another, money became a tangible social connector, bridging the physical gap by allowing us to express concern for intimates and strangers. Notice the paradox: cold cash, the ultimate transactional medium, alchemized into a warm social currency, strengthening multiple social bonds and affirming community solidarity.
What Zelizer observed was people’s struggle to cope with the trauma in their community. Our grief heightens our interest in support not just for ourselves but for others who struggle.
But, in a generalized state of isolation (only heightened by COVID), our systems offer few outlets for materializing our empathy and support. We might volunteer or knock on doors. But for many money is easier to come by than time so we donate.
The longreads on grief that filled my feeds in 2020 and 2021 have moved to the background as we seek to normalize living with collective, society-level trauma. Perhaps nothing is more traumatic to society than living through it without acknowledgment.
Organizations who talk about community are missing is the language to talk of community trauma, solidarity and, more productively, the collective work of repair.
This is where community and membership appear. Charity is an act and an entity. But our modern messaging and the structure of our organizations is highly individualized. Giving is a singular act. You are asked to donate. You have given $100. You can have an impact. Organizations position themselves in competition to one another. They brand themselves to set them apart. They speak of their work, their unique process, their wins.
But creating and sustaining impact is a collective effort. That’s the case whether you’re securing food or housing or working for systemic changes to policy, politics or economic structures.
We often position and manage community in either member or organizational terms. I’ve advocated in this space: create value for members if you want them to stay with you over time.
Yet we live in a time of existential crisis – be that climate change, guns, pandemics, white nationalism, war, creeping autocracy or something else. We have video and endless analysis on our phones 24/7 if we choose.
Are people are seeking signs of progress, of repair and solutions? I think so. And they want to play a role in that kind of work. The question before us is how can we engage people in creating community that creates change? What does that look like? What do community, membership and organizing leaders need to prioritize, plan and try?
There’s no one answer. It means investing in community and civic engagement, in media, journalism and democratic and deliberative work. It means building community across interests and policy topics, meaningful communications not just petitions and fundraising, community-based news and voices, collaboration, clarity of purpose, and honesty about how change happens.