COMMENTARY: The Fourth Turning … and what has it got to do with Fundraising? Part III

publication date: Jan 26, 2022
author/source: Ken Ramsay

See Part One of this article series here:

As we progress through the period of “Crisis” as identified in The Fourth Turning, successful fundraising will be challenging and necessarily different.  No one knows precisely what is going to happen but we have enough information from history and Strauss and Howe, to glean a good idea of what the challenges might be for the fundraising sector and we can strategize how best to prepare for the eventual unfolding. So, together, let’s try to look ahead, describe the challenge and discuss what steps we can implement to prepare.

Probable Challenge

Steps to Prepare

Entering a time of great change and unknown future 

Read the book, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe

Massive challenge to fundraising requiring total organizational response

  • Start the discussion in your organization at the highest management and volunteer level you can. Be a spokesperson. Create conversations in the fundraising community. We’ll need as much input as we can on this vital topic.

Growing mistrust in institutions and therefore, large charitable organizations

  • Become totally mission-focused. Bring your mission to life. It is why you get any support in the first place; so, tell the stories; engage in rich dialogue with supporters, so that they understand your organization as fulfillment of the mission and not as an institution.
  • Operate with crystal clear accountability and always create a feedback loop to demonstrate impact on mission.

Focus on local community - taking care of those closest to home

Develop personal engagement with everyone who cares about your mission:

  • Treat your donor group as a community of individuals;
  • Train the whole fundraising team on human connectivity skills – this is your path to future success;
  • Redefine Stewardship to include personal interactions (at least 4 annually.) Listen to how your donors want to impact your mission! And set up clear relationship measurements and keep enhancing them.

Changing values to an expanding sensitivity to manipulation – distrust in conventional marketing

  • Be responsive to what donors want and do not expect them simply, to be responsive to what your organization wants.
  • Move away from marketing driven fundraising towards strategic philanthropy – personal philanthropy, one prospect at a time.
  • Expand Leadership, Major and Planned Giving (Blended Gift) programs. Your future revenue depends on it.

Financial upheaval with huge uncertainty

  • Manage expectations for annual cash donations as these will dry up considerably. Learn the technical aspects of gifts of all types of assets; educate your prospective donors on them and work with those prospects to fulfill their philanthropic desires by utilizing the right assets at the right time.
  • Develop the best planned giving program imaginable, gifts of assets after death will be the legacy that Boomers leave behind to the causes they care about. 

Devaluation of many assets – potentially equities, property, devalued dollar, etc.

  • Again - eat, live and breathe planned giving including blended gifts of assets during and after lifetime.

Increased widespread poverty with supply chain breakdown including food supply disruptions

  • During the Crisis you must be the beacon of hope and your organizational values must reflect the new societal values that will form the basis of the new, emerging society.
  • Fear will be widespread; so, go back to your roots and pay attention to the generational differences discussed below.

Fear for survival, only supporting those closest to you

All of the above.


Strauss and Howe go into a lot of detail at the end of their book, about the “roles” that different generations will ideally fill during the crisis of the fourth turning. Outlining them provides an opportunity to speculate on the kind of fundraising approach and Case for Support that should be incorporated in our fundraising efforts.


Ideal Role

Fundraising Approach

Boomer (born 1943-1960)[1]

Maturation through self-restraint to become the "prophets." Boomers must step back, acknowledge their moral and material excess and yield authority to Millennials

Boomers hold the wealth that will be diminishing and must go through a significant change – one that they are not used to. The fundraising appeal must be to the future, to establish a foundation for the societal order. Appeal to their “legacy” to help their children create a new society with new values (to be defined by Millennials). The charitable world will be part of this redefinition. Gifts of final assets will make up a large part of this legacy. Boomers will come to realize their complicity in the Unravelling and Crisis and their final legacy can make up for their complicity. Lasting gifts will be ‘life-defining’ as they relinquish professional and voluntary leadership roles

13th (born 1961-1981) ‘Gen X’

This generation will provide the “survival skills” necessary during the Crisis. These are the “repairers” and “mediators” who must help piece together the new society and assist with the transfer of power from Boomers to Millennials without the Millennials trying to march to the old drum beat.

Philanthropic appeal to Gen X must be presented as the necessary resources to help shape a new society and a new charitable order. So, cases for support would include survival of the mission for the future, building the new charitable framework to support the new order and the necessary resources to maintain civic order and cement the new values evolving.

Gen Xer’s can also play a critical role in voluntary leadership as builders and mediators, keeping the organizational focus on transitioning the charity through the Crisis and into the new High.

Millennial (born 1982-2002)

Millennials must accept hopeful, new leadership roles. They must discover in themselves the new, strong values for the next 100 years by taking a hard look at the Boomer values that have led to the Crisis. They need to assume leadership to meet the Crisis with optimism, strength and generosity towards and concern for civic values. 

These are the new leaders coming out of the Crisis and into the new High. So, appeal should be to “leadership” exemplified by both financial resources and voluntary time. Strong, basic mission values must be presented to overcome the cynicism that will unfold. Messaging needs to include that it is up to these leaders to form the basis of the new society through their charitable actions. Once they have accepted this mindset, then they will be your volunteer leaders of the future.  

Gen Z (born 2003-present)




Some charities will have to merge and some will not survive. This will be hard work. As society changes, we fundraisers and our organizations must change as well in order to survive and flourish in the future. In many ways, change has already been prevalent in our work:

  • Marketing-driven annual fundraising has been on a downward trend for 10 years.

  • Fewer individuals are giving more through leadership, major and planned gifts.

  • Our organizations are being trusted less and hence; more accountability is being demanded

In 2010, through the AFP research program, Paul Shervish and John Havens of Boston College demonstrated through IRS analysis, that generations younger than Boomers, were 20% less charitable, in traditional ways of giving. The generational cycle of changing philanthropy was already evident. This cyclical change that makes up the fourth turning was already at work then and is inevitable.

The current pandemic was a dress rehearsal for the Crisis that is deepening. We saw a dramatic increase in the desire of donors for personal interaction and there was a strong increase in planned giving interest and willingness to take action. More traditional, impersonal fundraising approaches were not as successful and will not be so in the future as institutional trust continues its decline.  

The financial world ahead will be very, very different. Our regular, consistent donors will either not have the resources or they will be fearful of using up the resources that they have. This will challenge our creativity to work confidently with donors to utilize other assets to maintain their philanthropic desires while allaying their fears for their own wellbeing. Think of the Great Depression and imagine what successful fundraising might have been then.

Strauss and Howe consistently remind us that the scope and depth of the Crisis is not definitive and can vary greatly. However, we must plan for it as key facilitators of the charitable presence in society and we have to start now as described above. Fundraising has to keep changing as the societies we serve also change. We have to be smart, strategic and flexible, and risk doing things differently.

It is easy to get discouraged when we apply the predictions of The Fourth Turning to our fundraising responsibilities and to our own lives. However, there is also a critical opportunity to be ahead of the curve, to prepare and assist the inevitable change and to work towards a renewed, vastly different, re-invigorated first turning or “High” that sets society on its path for the next 80 to 100 years.

Ken Ramsay is one of the most experienced planned giving professionals in North America. As President and CEO of Legacy Leaders Inc. from 1996 to 2014, Ken radically changed the way fundraising was done,  securing over $2 billion in gift expectancies for hundreds of clients. He was the founding Chair of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners and co-founded with Frank Minton and Betsy Mangone, the course on Planned Giving at the Banff School for Management. He is currently the CEO of Empowerment Dialogue Inc and the Avatar Consulting Group. 


[1] Dates defined by Strauss and Howe

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