I recently got an email from Philanthropy Today with the headline, “Big Gifts Rise by 6% This Year, Aided by a Single Giant Donation.”

Now, you probably will not read past that headline because, well, you’re busy. I get that, but what will happen is that everyone will start touting how major giving is up this year versus last year.

The problem is that if you take out that one single gift of $1B, our sector is down 14% year over year.

Unfortunately, the article goes on and on about how major donors are giving more this year providing just anecdotal evidence by quoting two fundraisers who are “seeing more major gifts” this year because people are asking for more.

This kind of stuff drives me nuts!

What we should be talking about is why the sector is actually down 14% year over year, as the article also notes. But no one is going to focus on that because: 1. All most fundraisers will do is talk about how the industry is up 6%, and if they do read the article in full, how 2. Everyone is bully on major donors this year.

Remember, two fundraisers were quoted in the article. (But of course that means everyone is doing great with major donors.)

This is what we do in our sector. We fail to ask the right questions. Failing to ask the right questions does not allow us to focus on the right solutions.

We see this played out in how Executive Directors and/or Directors of Development report on the strength of their mid and major gift programs. “Well, we’re up 12% year over year.” But when you ask about the donors who gave last year, and how much those same donors gave this year?? “Huh, I have no idea…”

Then, they are surprised to hear that the same donors who gave last year are down 40% in value this year. But they didn’t know that because new donors came in and their gifts masked the 40% value attrition rate.

Every quarter, Veritus reports on the results of the portfolios of the MLOs, MGOs and PGOs we work with. Whether we are up or down in revenue YOY or compared to goal, we must answer: why? If we don’t know why, then we have not done our work right. If you work as an MGO and at the end of the year do not know why you are up or down in revenue and what your donor and donor value retention rates are, you are not doing your job.

Just like our non-profit sector of fundraising needs to delve deeper in the ‘why’ questions, so do fundraisers with their individual portfolios.

Are you up in revenue because a donor gave more than expected? Was there a disaster or other situation that impacted giving to your organization? Are you down because a key donor was unable to give, and it skewed your entire goal for your portfolio? Or are you comparing your current giving to Covid years when several big gifts came in that just were not repeatable?

There are a lot of questions we need to ask. But the key is to ask them. And I would caution that when we’re up in revenue versus last year and to goal, it’s harder to ask why. But you need to know, and you need to report why.

I know many frontline fundraisers who didn’t ask that why question when they surpassed their goals in one year and when they failed to make their goals the next year, they realized that some of their donors gave large non-repeatable gifts the year prior. It didn’t look good when they had to explain that AFTER the fact to their manager.

Always ask why. Sooner than later.