When I first sat down to write this blog, it occurred to me that this topic would be most applicable to our NY/NJ/CT clients. After all, these are the “sister states” of Sunny Florida. But as I thought about it further, in an increasingly digital and remote world, the phenomenon applies to all of us. Twenty years ago, for most nonprofits, it might have been the case that 90% of your donor base lived down the street—or at least in your service area. Today, factoring in higher taxes, indefinite remote work assignments (looking at you, COVID), and more ways to stay connected than ever before (thank you, technology!), that trend is quickly turning. The reality is, even for the local social services organization or the community hospital, your donors are not necessarily “right here at home.” So how do you hold on to faithful donors while they jet off to their new digs and set down roots in a new community?
Recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were among 10 states that lost population between June 2018 and July 2019 (and this was before COVID!). New Jersey became the No. 1 state to move away from in 2018, according to moving and relocation company United Vans Lines, which also found that Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts ranked in the top 10 states where most residents moved out. This is not all that surprising considering these states, and New Jersey, are often ranked among the most tax-burdened in the country.
Research suggests that we can’t necessarily depend on our donors to stay in one place. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average person in America will move as many as 11.7 times in their life.
Adding to the above, while it may be still too early to tell, pandemic-related fears also have the potential to push people away from cities and into suburban or rural communities.
They may be leaving home, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaving you.
Ask yourself: Why does this donor give to our organization? If you don’t know the answer, it’s probably time for a personal conversation with the donor. Ask them what makes your organization special to them, and why they remain involved. Chances are, the answer will have nothing to do with geography.
Yes, it is very likely that your organization is providing needed services to a specific community, demographic, or region. Except for in very few cases, it is unlikely that your donor is giving because they expect to directly reap the benefits of your services. Andrew Carnegie said, “Wealth is not to feed our egos, but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves.” For many of your donors, this sentiment of helping others is what keeps them giving – not how close their mailing address is to yours.
Maybe they won’t be able to set foot in your library in New Jersey as frequently as they once did after they move to Arizona. And yes, they’re very unlikely to request to be airlifted to your community hospital in Maine from the shores of the Florida Gulf next time they visit the emergency department. But maybe that library in New Jersey was where their child first leaned to read during Saturday Read-Out-Louds. And maybe the hospital in Maine is where their mother was cared for so compassionately at the end of her life. It’s these reasons—the moments, the heart—that spur giving. Not proximity.
It is true that as donors lay down roots in a new community, they’re likely to become embedded in the charitable activities of their new homes (especially if fundraisers know how to find them!). And many are counseled to focus giving in their new states—especially if transitioning from states looking to retain taxable income. But that doesn’t preclude them from giving to you. People give for two main reasons: because they were asked and because of the person who asked them. Maintain existing relationships with these donors. Wish them well, check in after their move, and keep them updated on what your organization is doing. Their nostalgia for home will appreciate it. And continue to ask. Just because they left doesn’t mean the good work you are doing stops—and you do need their help to keep it going. If it makes sense for your organization, consider regional trips to bring your mission to them. Regional alumni clubs, mission trips, and celebratory receptions that incite warm, home memories can go a long way toward keeping donors engaged.
Of course, this is a balancing act between retaining good, loyal donors, and stewarding new donors to fill the gap created when your traveling donors begin to spread their wealth. Maybe they’ll continue to make an annual gift and will pledge to support the endowment fund (after all, who wouldn’t want to be part of a legacy where their own legacy began?). But they may not purchase a table to your annual gala or invite friends to join them at a campaign celebration. For that, you must continue to cultivate your next generation of donors – read TAG’s blog here (link) on that topic.
And in the meantime, keep an eye on your really wealth donors – it might be worth a trip down to the Sunny Shores during the Northeast Winter to revive your personal connection!