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Fundraising in the Era of the New Tax Law

Fundraising in the Era of the New Tax LawTax benefits are icing on the philanthropy cake. What to do when the icing is melting?

First, the good news.

The sky is not falling.

Human beings have given long before the existence of charitable deductions. Human beings are generous. They like being helpful. They like making a difference. They like doing the right thing.

Philanthropy helps people fulfill their higher purpose. It gives them meaning.

The primary reason people give is not to get a tax deduction.

It’s to see themselves reflected in a mirror as the person, deep down, they really want to be.

Now, the bad news.

If you’ve been relying on using language about tax deductibility of gifts to inspire people to give, you must revise your strategy in light of the new Tax Law.

Hmmn ... maybe that’s actually not such bad news.

Because the most passionate philanthropy stems from deeply held values. People who make major gifts, and who give to you repeatedly, do so regardless of the economy. They stick with you through thick and thin. Because ... they believe.

So ... wouldn’t it be much better to focus on turning them into believers? To anchor your appeals by telling people value-laden stories that inspire them to jump into the narrative and become the hero?

In my experience, tax benefits are icing on the cake. Most donor heroes still want the cake, iced or not.

Still ... a little icing never hurt. Let’s look at some ways you can give donors a little extra push to buy your particular cake in the newly revised tax landscape.

8 Nonprofit Tips for Dealing with the New Tax Law

1. Rich Donors Will Have More After-Tax Dollars to Spend

There’s never been a better time to focus on major donor fundraising.

Of course, it’s always been a good idea given that over 88 percent of all funds raised come from just 12  of donors. With the new tax law, this proportion could dramatically change so the lion’s share of philanthropy comes from an even smaller slice of donors at the top.

When you talk to your major donor prospects this year, how about asking them how they intend to spend their after-tax windfall? Get them thinking about the fact they’ve just been given a gift worth more than the value of their past tax deductions. Net/net, they won’t come out worse this year if they repeat or increase their gift to you. The more flush donors feel, the more likely they are to spend their wealth—philanthropically or otherwise.

It’s worth noting the government has just made a huge statement about its role in funding the social benefit sector.

They’re abdicating. That means the onus falls more and more to socially conscious philanthropists.

Make your donors feel they’re the “good guys.”

2. Those Who Itemize Can Now Deduct More

The limit for deductions has been increased from 50 percent to 60 percent of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI).

Though this may apply to only about 5 percent of taxpayers, for those major donors to whom it’s applicable it’s a reason to donate more (and have it cost less).

Your charity can remind folks of these changes. You can also ask donors if they have a Donor Advised Fund (DAF), which has long been a convenient vehicle for major donors who have windfalls in particular years and want to avoid losing a huge chunk of their gain to taxes. You can suggest to folks they might want to “bunch” their donations by consolidating the equivalent of two to three years’ worth of giving into one gift to a DAF. They’ll get a large tax deduction that year and can recommend distributions from their DAF to your charity (and others) over the ensuing years.

3. Pay Extra Attention to Mid-Level Donors

This is where, if you do nothing differently, you could see donations diminish.

The new tax law increases the standard deduction, effectively shielding the first $24,000 of household income (for couples) from taxes. This will likely dramatically reduce the number of American families who itemize deductions for breaks on things such as medical bills, mortgage interest, and charitable deductions. According to Una Osili, professor of economics and associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, roughly 30 million households making between $50,000 and $100,000 will be less likely to itemize their deductions. The Tax Policy Center notes roughly 35 percent of households previously itemized; moving forward, only 5–10 percent will itemize. They estimate this change will reduce charitable giving by up to $20 billion a year.

Why? Non-itemizers are less incented to give to charity. A study by the Lilly School found itemizers are much more likely to donate to charitable causes: “83 percent of itemizers reported donating any amount of charitable giving at all, compared to 44 percent of non-itemizers. In fact, non-itemizers contribute less than 20 percent of total giving.”

Suffice it to say many of your mid-level donors may not exactly be feeling the love.

This is where your opening lies. Now, more than ever, you have an opportunity to show them some love. So double down; treat your donors like royalty. All of them, not just the big donors.

4. Understand and Tap Into Why Donors Give

Moral or religious obligation can be a prime mover.

Organizations most likely to suffer from the tax changes are local charities, congregations, and basic needs organizations. The arts and education, traditionally favored by wealthier donors, may be less impacted.

A report by Giving USA ;on religious giving found that “62 percent of religious households give to charity of any kind, compared with 46 percent of households with no religious affiliation.”

Do all you can to understand what your donors value. Ask them in person. Conduct surveys. Observe which articles they open and read, and which stories they like and retweet. Match their values to yours in your donor communications.

5. Take Advantage of New Corporate Giving Opportunities

Just like major individual donors, many businesses will see a cash windfall from the new tax law.

Talk to businesses you know and ask them how they expect to spend these extra dollars. Some large companies have already announced wage increases and bonuses, though others see these as a mere publicity stunt. Either way, what better time for you to begin a discussion about how giving to your cause could generate even greater goodwill?

6. Reach Out to Foundations Benefitting from the Robust Stock Market

Many foundations are seeing their investments grow.

Some of them never really returned to pre-recession giving levels, and the current economy may mean they’ll have more grantmaking power in the coming year. Talk to them!

7. Change Your Legacy Giving Marketing Approach

Talk with supporters about how they want to see their values live on, rather than how a bequest can save them tax payments.

The new law more than doubles the size of estates that will be subject to the federal estate tax, to over $22 million. This means fewer families will be subject to this tax. And this means fewer families will be looking for ways to avoid it.

The bad news for charities is the estate tax has been shown to be a strong incentive for super-wealthy to give to charity rather than pay the tax. I used to tell donors subject to this tax they had three choices of where to leave their money when they died: (1) family; (2) government, and (3) charity. The kicker? They had to pick at least two. Many preferred the option of family + charity to the option of family +government.

Eliminating this inevitable choice for many more estates will cause a substantial decline in very large gifts: the kind that can be truly transformational for charities, colleges, hospitals, and the arts. The best evidence for this comes from 2010, when the estate tax was not in force for one year: charitable bequests dropped by 37 percent from the previous year, and then rose by 92 percent in the following year when the estate tax was restored.

Don’t forget, however, that if your donor has no heirs they still have a bilateral choice: (1) government; (2) charity. They may prefer their assets pass to charity rather than to the government.

8. Advocate for Beneficiaries

The folks who rely on you to fulfill your mission will need to rely on you more than ever. It won’t be the first time nonprofits have faced slashes in government appropriations, and it won’t be the last. Right now the majority in Congress are pushing for continued reductions in community development block grants and deep cuts to social safety net programs to make up for deficits resulting from recent tax cuts. Rally your troops, and get ready to make your opinions known! Invite your representatives to see your work in action, and help them to look like good guys to their constituents when they support you.


Whatever you do, don’t buy into the negative publicity and use it as an excuse for failure. Focus on what’s within your control (solid fundraising), not what’s outside your control (tax legislation). Failure may be an option, but truly it’s a lousy choice. Especially when you have so many better options!

Fundraising in the Era of the New Tax LawThis post is an excerpt from “New Tax Law: How Worried Should Your Nonprofit Be?” in the Clairification blog. Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification.

Topics: Fundraising Major Gifts Tax Cuts and Jobs Act