Election years are full of potential for both fundraising and frustration. Here’s how to keep your communications strong—and yourself sane—in 2024.
Not sure if you’ve noticed, but 2024 is a big election year. And not simply a presidential election, but one that very loud voices on both ends of the political spectrum are calling PERHAPS THE MOST CONSEQUENTIAL ELECTION EVER—as, allegedly, Donald Trump returns like the Angel of Death to visit destruction on our democratic norms and institutions . . . or, perhaps, as radical leftists succeed in hammering shut the coffin of our civil and political liberties.
Election years are always a fundraising bonanza. But this year relentless requests to give, coupled with seemingly existential stakes, threaten to drown out your nonprofit as you seek to communicate with your donors and secure their support. It’s likely your donors will keep an eye on the election, that they’ll be constantly solicited to make donations, and that they may well be cajoled into giving in accordance with their political affiliations.
At the same time, that sweet 501(c)(3) tax status comes with the mandate that you not engage in political fundraising. So how do you keep your messaging relevant and your fundraising strong during the EXISTENTIAL THREAT CIRCUS SHOW of the next twelve months?
There’s no magic bullet. You probably know that already. (That won’t stop many deafening voices from trying to sell you many magic bullets in the year ahead. Might as well wise up now!) But let’s walk through a few dos and don’ts that can keep your communications strong, and you sane, as you seek to raise money in 2024.
One: Understand (and accept the fact) that the election IS at the forefront of your donors’ minds.
Not all your donors, of course. Plenty of people are disgusted with twenty-first century American politics and want to get the whole unpleasant business over with as soon as possible.
But more of them do care—and are possible wracked with worry. Worry leads to action, and action frequently means reaching for one’s pocketbook. People give because they feel the need to do something in response to someone else’s serious need.
There are some headwinds here that you can’t change or avoid, so you need to figure out how best to sail against them. It’s probably not the best year to hand your appeal to the USPS in October, for instance. And if Statistics 101 taught me anything, it’s that more competition, more mail, means that you’re more likely to lose your donors’ attention—if you don’t put in the effort to stand out in mailboxes and inboxes. You have to find ways to make your messaging more personal, more eye-catching, more precise, and more timebound in terms of your offer (what the donor will accomplish and why he or she must give right this second). It’s not the year to pin your hopes on generic language about “improving the future of our country,” being the change you wish to see in the world, [insert bromide here]. That’s just going to seem like a sad, vague imitation of the fire-and-brimstone take-action language that political campaigns will be cranking out 24/7.
But . . .
Two: Ride the wave, if you can catch it.
Do I contradict myself? Well then I contradict myself! Donor messaging is large. It contains multitudes.
Setting the Walt Whitman back down: On the one hand, don’t try to chase relevance with half-baked faux election-centric language. On the other hand, if you can plausibly link your case for support to the voter at the ballot box in 2024, do it!
And by “Do it!” I mean, speak frankly about the donor’s concerns regarding the direction of our country and the importance of the election. But that’s something every politician is purporting to do; you can’t stop there. Resist the all-too-alluring impulse to fall back on generalities about the State of America. Instead, frame your organization’s work as doing something important and urgent in response to the current moment. The election is the hook, and your fundraising message is the solution. If 2024 is front and center in your donors’ minds, you’d be foolish not to speak to your audience.
(Important caveat, to keep your legal team happy: always speak in terms of principles, movements, and positive goods—not political parties or candidates. I’m not speaking as a lawyer here, but that’s the line a 501(c)(3) shouldn’t cross. You can talk about helping to get out the vote, if that’s your thing, as long as it’s in terms of ‘educating voters and encouraging them to vote in accordance with their values’ etc. etc.)
Three: Election-proof your messaging.
You shouldn’t fall into the trap of fixating on November 5th, 2024. Avoiding this strikes me as perhaps the most sensible and philosophically sound approach. The fact is, nine times out of ten, your donors aren’t giving to your organization because you win elections. They give because they care about the good you do and want to be a part of it.
When they gave to you last year, it was to help victims of human trafficking, or to protect ecologically critical wetlands, or to support the arts in their community. It wasn’t to elect some septuagenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian buffoon. That’s the same reason they’ll give next year, too!
That being said, why not unapologetically double down on what makes YOUR organization unique and meaningful to donors? I’m verging on well-trodden territory here—“Don’t change horses in midstream!”, “Play your strong suit,” “Dance with who brung ya!”, etc.—but just because advice is well-worn doesn’t mean it isn’t right.
If everyone else is zigging towards chasing electoral relevance, maybe the best play is to zag resolutely back the other direction, to the good you and your donors can do irrespective of the political climate or electoral map.
Four (because the Rule of Three is played out) . . .
Here are a handful of other ideas to get your communicative juices flowing between now and November 5th:
- Make the case for what’s missing: Show what’s missing or overlooked amid all the electoral noise, then use that as a reminder of the importance of your donor-supported work. “With the election approaching, everyone these days seems to be talking about X. But what no one seems to consider is Y.” Y is the problem your organization exists to solve. Y is what your donor cares about.
- Capitalize on the burnout: All but the most depraved Twitter (or, I suppose, “X”) junkies will start to feel deathly sick of election noise—and particularly of the CONSTANT DEMANDS made on their attention, emotions, and checkbooks. You can sympathize with them. You can share a laugh together at the ridiculous, intrusive tactics of political fundraisers. And you can gently remind them how much more human and good they feel when they do something really meaningful by giving to your organization.
- Picture your donors doing something besides reading (or watching) the news: An awful lot of fundraising appeals include lines like, “when you see the news these days . . .”, as a way of gesturing at [all the bad worrisome things happening in the world today]. But your donors don’t spend most of their time wringing their hands over alarmist primetime reporting. They go to the beach. They take a walk. They frequent their local coffee shop. They chuckle at their grandkids. All those moments are freighted with emotions and moral intuitions that need not be squeezed down and repackaged as part of America Decides, 2024.
Eventually, this too shall pass. The best thing to do is to reframe the obstacle as an opportunity. You’re not facing the challenge of how to keep your fundraising afloat in a crisis-messaging maelstrom. You have the opportunity to better understand what really speaks to your donors—to make your donor communications too good, too clear, too distinctive to ignore.
Is that easy? No. That’s why you read this article all the way to the end. But that’s the mindset that will help put you on good footing for 2025.