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Jerold Panas

Perspectives on Philanthropy
from Jerold Panas



Books by Jerold Panas

Click on the book cover for more information



120 Days


Fundraising Habits


Making the Case


Mega Gifts


Times Are Tough
And yet they are the best of times for raising money

I was at a YMCA board meeting the other evening. The discussion was heated. Some directors were pounding the table. Arms were flaying and flapping like flags in a high wind.

The group was pretty evenly divided. And I could tell the chair wasn’t certain where or how to step into the fray. He was intent on listening to everyone’s counsel — a fence-sitter with both ears to the ground. At a time like this, it’s much like being caught between a dog and a lamppost. 

For about 18 months, the YMCA had been planning to launch a campaign for funds. It would be the largest ever undertaken in the organization’s history. The staff had done a superb job of preparing for the campaign and I was reporting the results of our feasibility study to the board. 

The findings were extremely positive. We found a warm and enthusiastic feeling about the Y. Top leaders were very supportive. Our recommendations were clear. This was going to be a highly successful campaign.

Institute for Charitable Giving

And then the unexpected happened (it always does, doesn’t it?).

The discussion started slowly with one person asking if this was the right time to launch a campaign. Then another pitched in. Some said it was the perfect time. And finally it grew into a major confrontation. The board sprinkled invectives like itching powder over a deluge of irritants and objections.

I’ve been at this a long time and here’s one thing I’m certain of. If you want to kill a proposal to raise funds, don’t attack the cause, don’t challenge the plans, don’t raise any questions about the need for the funds. 

Agree with all of these and argue instead against the timing. This will almost certainly carry the day. Because, as everyone knows, “this is not a good time to raise money.” Fund raising in a declining economy is hazardous and probably not productive. 

But as Will Rogers said, “A lot of what everybody knows ain’t necessarily so.”   

Some Surprising Advantages

Let me get back to the board meeting.

The discussion raged on -- for hours. I was reminded of a line from the Grateful Dead’s 1970 anthem Truckin’— “lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it’s been.”

The board was 50-50 on the issue.  There were those who pleaded the problems of timing and the fragile economy. They were pitted against those who felt the results of the study were sufficiently positive that the Y should proceed with the campaign. The board was locked in a dance of death in which neither faction could escape the other’s embrace.

Then, with tempers at white heat level, one board member turns to me and says: “Jerry, you’ve heard all this discussion — what do you think.” I felt like quoting terse abstracts from the Book of Deuteronomy!

The room was suddenly flooded with silence, a thundering quiet. It was a telling moment — the decision could go either way. The immediate future of the Y and its service to the community was at stake. It was up to me.

I decided to do just what it says on the back of the Hellman’s Mayonnaise jar: Keep cool and don’t freeze! I began my sermon.

There is, I said with certainty to the board, no “perfect time to raise money.” There is no such thing as a time when all possible factors are in your favor. But there are some surprising and significant advantages to raising funds in hard times.

Each Year More Than The Year Before

This may surprise some, I continued, but we find that economic conditions aren’t a prime element in determining the success of a campaign. Philanthropy has been one of the most stable factors in our economy, year in and year out. From the time we’ve been keeping records, philanthropy has increased steadily, each year more then the year before. 

I reminded the board that since World War II, we have experienced seven “official” recessions. And still, philanthropy has continued its unfailing and consistent growth.

The plain fact is that in good times and in bad, Americans continue to give to worthy and urgent causes. I stressed the word urgent. In difficult times, the case for funds has to be urgent.

There is nothing to compare with the pure goodness and caring concern of the American people, I told them. There is nothing like it in all of history. 

And when times are difficult and traumatic, Americans respond with even greater dedication, generosity, and a genuine sacrifice. All the data substantiate that. Americans will allow nothing to interfere with their fervor in supporting worthwhile, urgent causes.
Through major tax revisions, economic peaks and valleys, and inflation figures which at times are shattering — Americans support those organizations they believe in. They have never failed.

That’s why, I said, you don’t have to fear moving forward — fear only to stand still.

The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same. I kept talking.

The Best Time To Raise Money

I told the board about the extensive examination and analysis our research people just completed. They looked at the issue carefully to determine if there is some relationship between the fluctuations of our economy and the results of fund raising. 

The results are conclusive: no documented correlation can be confirmed.

I hear it often: “People are worried about the future . . . the times aren’t good . . . the market is down and folks won’t give.”  But I have been hearing some trustees make those same observations for the past 30 years. When you look at the data, it is quite clear that giving is not based on the economy.

I’ll repeat that. I take my cue from Teddy Roosevelt who said, quite apologetically:  “Retelling and iteration are necessary in order to hammer the truths and principles I advocate into the heads of people who require repetition.” Giving is not based on the economy.

I was really beginning to warm up to the subject.

I said that as the economy rises, giving rises with it. But seldom as fast as the economy.  But here’s what’s particularly interesting. When the economy declines, philanthropy continues to increase — although at a slower pace.

Yes. Philanthropy continues to grow. Even in the most difficult of times.

I think the board was surprised. In boom periods, Americans give a lower percentage of their income. But in tough times, they give more. That’s right — more!

I could offer no guarantees, I said to the board, only challenge and opportunity. We are all faced with extraordinary opportunities . . . brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.  I told them the best time to raise money is when they’re prepared. They can raise money — but only if the Y is ready. Nothing else is of greater significance. No other consideration is as important. I repeated that based on our study, the Y was indeed ready.

The Campaign That Never Was

I told them it was their choice. If you do not build, or go forward with your project, the services of the YMCA will be less than they should and could be. Less than what they must be.

Look at it this way. What happens if we don’t quite make it because of the economy?  Objectives that aren’t fully met are not the great failure in life — the great tragedy is not having objectives and not making the attempt.  I suggested that they should always shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you’ll grab a star along the way.

What’s the worst? The real loser is not the campaign that raises only, let’s say, 85 percent of its goal. The great failure is the campaign that never gets off the launching pad. Zero!

Eighty-five percent beats zero percent any day.

Waiting for precisely the right time to raise money, and waiting for the economy to improve, is not necessarily prudent.

What is truly good stewardship is taking the time and thought to prepare properly.  Creatively conceived, carefully prepared, and tightly organized fund raising programs win — in both good times and bad.

Is there a good time for the YMCA to raise money? Yes. When you are ready.  That is a good time to raise money. Not one day before.

Tough Times Can Be Good!

I listed for the board the five reasons that a difficult economic environment is actually a good opportunity to move forward. 

Here’s what is most fascinating. There are actually important advantages in raising funds in tough times.

1. You will plan and prepare more carefully. There will be riveting attention to detail.

2. You will settle only for first-choice leaders. And you are more likely to enlist the best because competition for their time will be less demanding.

3. Your leaders will take their campaign responsibilities more seriously. They will understand the need for longer and more careful preparation and will appreciate the higher standards of selection and performance.

4. There will be fewer competing campaigns to interfere with your prospective givers.

5. The fact that the YMCA is seeking a major goal in the face of challenging economic conditions underscores the importance and urgency of the cause.

Win Some, Lose Some

You’re probably wondering what the board decided to do. Well, it wasn’t a happy decision. It was a confirming case of the nervous naysayers. Albert Einstein said:  “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

They voted (18 to 11) to postpone the campaign until the next board meeting, when they would discuss it again. They didn’t know what they wanted — and won’t be happy until they get it!

Good grief. That’s two months away. I failed. What do you do when you stand at the crossroads and all the signposts are down? I felt like chanting the old Cheyenne warrior battle cry: It’s a good day to die.

I suspect that when they meet in two months, those board members, lacking in soul and failing in spirit, will decide to move forward. But that’s another 60 days of needs unmet and mission unfulfilled. Just think of the lives that could be served in that time. Lives that could be changed.

I blame myself. It was my charge to help them understand that a path with no obstacles probably doesn’t lead anywhere. 

Here’s the lesson: Proceed with your fund raising program — just make certain you’re ready and the need is urgent. You’ll be successful, in good times or in bad.

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