Black Swans are an event characterized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and popularized in recent years among investors, philosophers, and world leaders. As Taleb defines Black Swans, they are occurrences that lie outside the realm of regular expectations, carry an extreme impact, and have readily available post hoc explanations. The etymology of the “Black Swan” comes from one specific example of this type of event: it was once believed that all swans were white before the exploration of Australia. The observation of the first black swan was, in itself, a Black Swan.
Black Swans are the “unknown unknowns” that can upend any carefully designed strategic plan or 12-step process. They can’t be prevented or predicted because, by definition, they’re unpredictable. Unfortunately, the ripple effects of COVID-19, even in the waning days of masks and lockdowns, seem to continually bring waves of Black Swan events to nonprofit organizations’ front doors.
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Two recent examples involving supply chain bottlenecks are some Girl Scouts councils’ cookie shortages and Habitat for Humanity’s rising building material costs. Both well-publicized, these unexpected wrinkles both had a massive monetary impact. It was direct for Girl Scouts, where fewer cookies sold meant lower revenues and the cancellation of yearly scouting camps. For Habitat for Humanity, the same gift amount as a year prior could no longer support the construction of a house, and affiliates had to absorb the markups.
Typically, the lost revenue is where fundraising takes the spotlight. In the face of unpredicted change, it’s easiest and most convenient to go back to people already supporting the mission. Indeed, if those relationships are strong and gift officers have successfully connected donors’ values to the organization’s mission, it’s a good stopgap.
But just in the past two years, how many “crises” have donors endured, and how long does it take to become exhausted with that messaging? And it’s not just donors who are fatigued - fundraisers navigating a transformed world of virtual communication and shifting expectations are also becoming tired.
If organizational leaders are going to lean on fundraising as a crutch for every Black Swan event, development needs to be given the resources to deal with that demand. Not only a liveable wage and a safe work environment but the tools to respond to a massive and unexpected demand for funding. Because someday, when a fundraiser approaches a big donor to make another gift for the latest immediate need, the donor may say no.
There need to be other options to turn to, other relationships that could actually be strengthened by a purposeful and immediate ask that aren’t in a traditional “portfolio”. And those options are uncovered by betting on the existing team’s ability to cultivate and nurture relationships instead of just asking for more from the few donors supporting most programs.
Being able to effectively communicate your organization's impact is a proven way to keep supporters engaged even when their financial support isn't desperately needed. Last year I wrote about communicating organizational impact to your donors and the message remains true today. Make sure you check it out!