Nonprofit Challenges and Opportunities: Eastern Leaders Share Their Experiences

Read Time: 6 minutes

2017 was a tumultuous 12 months, full of highs and lows for the nonprofit sector—both nationally and regionally. How are organizations in the Eastern United States coping with the change and uncertainty the past year wrought, and what are they expecting 2018 to bring?

To complement our East team’s 2018 fundraising outlook published in December, we gathered perspective from individual voices in the area. We spoke with four nonprofit leaders to understand what trends are affecting their organizations and how they plan to respond in 2018.

East-Nonprofit-Leaders.pngRead on for their most salient insights and advice for the coming year.

Building on the opportunities of 2017

Throughout our conversations, there was an undercurrent of positivity and possibility about the year ahead. Paul Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre referenced his cautious optimism: “The stock market is up and businesses are doing well. These factors tend to be good for the philanthropic market.”

East-leaders-callout3.pngJim Asp of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) echoed this sentiment, explaining that the economy always has a strong impact on giving. Asp also registered his concern over the stock market’s performance going forward. For now, indicators remain positive, and they correlate with the strong fundraising results that TNC has recently experienced across its chapters. According to Asp, TNC has also been able to reach many new donors, thanks to an outpouring of concern about climate change.

Southeast of Ford’s Theatre and the TNC Worldwide Office, Connie McKenzie of Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) has noticed a growing sophistication among fundraisers. “In our region, development professionals seem much savvier about doing true cultivation and stewardship, as well as marketing their mission,” she observed.  

On the donor side, McKenzie noted that donor-advised funds are becoming an increasingly popular vehicle for giving. In McKenzie’s calculation, this is an overall positive development. It signals a strategic and generational approach to philanthropy while presenting certain hurdles to effective cultivation and stewardship.

At Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), 2018 will follow the same blueprint as 2017—Sue Hassmiller explained that the Foundation doesn’t plan to veer. RWJF will spend the year building a Culture of Health, ensuring healthy communities, and seeking out partners across the country that can help further its mission.

Likewise, Ford’s Theatre is committed to carrying out its core values over the next 12 months. Tetreault shared that the organization has spent the last several months thinking through its position in the current climate. As a Civil War site, Tetreault sees the opportunity for Ford’s Theatre to play a role in opening up discussion surrounding current events.

Recognizing the obstacles facing the nonprofit sector

East-leaders-callout2.pngIn the midst of all this possibility, the nonprofit leaders we spoke to expect many challenges to carry over from 2017. Asp of TNC explained that, sector-wide, “an increasing amount of gifts are coming from a smaller and smaller number of donors. It’s concerning that the number of giving households has been declining.”

At Ford’s Theatre, Tetreault and his team are also preparing for changes to the giving landscape. During national elections, the organization has found that people in the DC market tend to focus on giving to support political candidates, conventions, and inaugural events. With the 2018 midterms around the corner, Ford’s Theatre is preparing for the pressure elections may put on contributed revenue.

While some ebbs and flows are foreseeable, certain challenges crop up unexpectedly. Both Tetreault and McKenzie of EVMS mentioned that they had seen shifts in giving from their organizations to relief efforts addressing 2017’s devastating natural disasters. According to McKenzie, “ultimately, I think these donors end up coming back if you do a good job of continuing to steward them.”

2017 also brought many legislative shakeups that organizations are still navigating. Hassmiller emphasized that RWJF is especially concerned with the current administration’s efforts to rollback healthcare coverage. She added that healthcare institutions are nervous about an Affordable Care Act repeal because many hospitals and health systems have benefited from the associated subsidies.

In the political realm, McKenzie is focused on tax reform—specifically, how provisions in the current legislation could impact charitable giving and the higher education sector. Beyond tax law, McKenzie has noticed a lack of qualified fundraising professionals in the job market. While her staff is highly capable, she had difficulty hiring major gifts and planned giving professionals during a recent team expansion.

Preparing for the next 12 months

What’s next? We capped off our discussions by asking each nonprofit leader to share recommendations for their peers.

East-leaders-callout1.pngMcKenzie of EVMS counseled other nonprofit leaders to take a fresh approach to recruiting and retaining fundraising professionals: properly valuing employees, compensating appropriately, promoting when deserved, and offering tools and training for career development. She also emphasized that leaders and boards have a responsibility to advocate for a tax code beneficial to the nonprofit sector, noting that this advocacy needs to continue over the next three years.  

For Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre and Asp of TNC, maintaining a focus on mission was top of mind. Tetreault urged other leaders to ensure their organization is not straying from its core principles. Similarly, Asp advised organizations to align their fundraising program with the organizational mission for best results.

As nonprofit leaders contend with the opportunities and challenges that 2018 brings, Hassmiller of RWJF offered a simple but important reminder: “First and foremost, look for every possible way to keep your employees healthy.”