YanLev/shutterstock
YanLev/shutterstock

In the classic 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode “Time Enough at Last,” Henry Bemis, a bibliophile whose harried existence prevents him from devouring the books on his extensive reading list, ends up getting his wish when an unexpected calamity strikes. Suddenly, albeit for tragic reasons, Henry has extra time on his hands.

Countless fundraisers keeping their organizations afloat during this time of financial turmoil cannot relate to his predicament. However, as noted in a previous post, some development officers at organizations not on the front lines of COVID-19 response have temporarily scaled back active donation solicitation.

Some don’t want to come across as insensitive, while others, whose organizations have sufficient cash on hand, made the calculated decision that their teams will be more effective after the crisis subsides. “Given the time and energy it takes to be a fundraiser, you better have the optimal chance of success,” donor Lisa Greer told me. “If you don’t have a good chance, why not wait a month or two when their chance of success increases and they’re likely more efficient?”

For organizations that have temporarily dialed back fundraising operations, Henry Bemis’ situation is not so far-fetched. “In a way, the pandemic created a pocket of time that wasn’t there before,” said Jenn Gibbons, CEO of Recovery on Water, an organization that provides rowing programs to breast cancer survivors. “The only thing we can do—that seems appropriate to do—is to share good news,” Gibbons told me. “This is an important time to get back to the fundamentals and why people connect with us.”

I asked fundraising experts what else development directors can do if they find themselves in this newfound “pocket of time,” however small or fleeting it might be. Five key themes emerged. Fundraisers should optimize development infrastructure, show donors how their organization is making an impact, revisit board members’ roles, ramp up the executive director’s donor engagement acumen, and cultivate staff wellness.

Of course, the following recommendations also apply to organizations that are seeking donations. As fundraising consultant Marjorie Fine told me, “This is good fundraising that should have been happening even before coronavirus.”

Fine-Tune the Machinery

Respondents told me that development directors will want to use this time to clean up donor databases, hone CRM skills, reassess prospects, segment lists, and revisit communication with high-impact donors. “Now we’re asking people, ‘How often do you want to hear from us?’” Gibbons said. “We’re thinking about what kind of information our top 25 donors need versus the other 14,000 people on our list and creating separate newsletters accordingly.”

Development teams should also be building out their online fundraising capabilities. In early May, the Art Funders Forum held a virtual charrette series focused on how arts organizations are leveraging technology during COVID-19. “This is the time to think about cultivating smaller donors who can not only make a significant collective impact in the short term, but also develop into larger donors over time,⁣⁣” its organizers said. Participants discussed efforts to leverage Instagram and Kickstarter’s new Lights On Initiative to reach smaller donors.

Other related ideas include:

  • Finding new and unique ways to thank donors. “Now is a good time to practice that gratitude and understand how we can deepen relationships through gratitude,” Gibbons said.
  • Spruce up the organization’s blog.
  • Make sure your organization’s giving page allows donors to select an option that says “In honor of” or “In memory of.”
  • Since staff are working from home, make sure that older donors, who tend to prefer talking on the phone, can reach fundraisers via their cell phones.
  • Explore new fundraising opportunities. “Success involves the ability to pivot,” Fine said. “This involves a director saying, ‘We’ve never held an auction before, but let’s try one now.’”
  • “If you know of another leader working on a similar issue, get on the phone with one another,” longtime fundraiser Kathy LeMay told me. “Start asking: Can we join forces? Should we join forces? What would it look like? What would be difficult? What could it open up?”
  • A recent survey of 750 nonprofit professionals by La Piana Consulting found that nearly a quarter of respondents are “considering partnerships, such as a merger with another nonprofit, as a strategy for responding to the pandemic.” Greer thinks this number should be even higher. “Whether ‘working together’ means a merger, a partnership or even something as basic as shared services, more often than not, the result is that it makes organizations stronger,” she said.

Remind Donors Why Your Organization is Important

Experts told me that the two most important things development officers can do if they’re not raising money is to check in with donors and work with program staff to create robust and engaging content. Now is “a perfect time to remind donors why our organization is so important for the people we serve,” Gibbons said.

Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), told me that fundraisers should dust off their “greatest hits” to engage donors. Send a note and invite donors to discuss a previous event, fundraiser or performance. Get the director, writer or performer to participate. Pull some clips, whip out a glass of wine, and “remind people of the great experiences they had with your institution,” Hopkins said.

In a similar vein, Maureen O’Brien, senior vice president for institutional advancement at Miami’s New World Symphony, told MCW Projects’ Melissa Cowley Wolf that her organization has been brainstorming “virtual cultivation/stewardship events, such as inviting a small group of patrons to watch one of our online offerings at a designated time and then join us for a Zoom call afterwards.”

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s director of development Daniel Moss told me that development directors need to make sure fundraisers are “frequently updating their plans for each donor and remapping cultivation/ stewardship opportunities appropriately.” His organization has held many Zoom meetings and telephone calls with donors to share updates and to solicit donations when appropriate. “We’ve quickly realized these cultivation/solicitation and/or stewardship check-ins are very much appreciated by our donors—and often are much longer than we initially anticipated,” he said.

Fundraising consultant Fine encourages development teams to “take advantage of opportunities that come up that are part of the donor’s life. Birthdays, anniversaries—check in then.”

Hold the Board Accountable

LeMay said that during a crisis like COVID-19, “the cracks in the culture—communication challenges, competing expectations, not truly understanding why fundraising isn’t working—widen.” These cracks may appear in the development team’s relationship with the board.

Hopkins suggests directors should revisit expectations of board members by crafting customized plans laying them out (e.g., a $25,000 “give or get”) and drawing up realistic metrics to hold them accountable once fundraising resumes. “There’s a thin line between aggressive and cautious,” she said.

Development directors shouldn’t pressure board members to depart too dramatically from their pre-crisis engagement roles, Hopkins said. “Some will write a check; others will help secure a corporate grant, while others will chair a gala and sell a certain number of tables.” Rather, “the key is to understand that what you ask them to do has a beginning, middle and end, instead of an ongoing cry for help. Then, whoever on the development team is assigned to that member can work with them to achieve it.”

Part of this process involves members reaching out to donors but not making the ask. Last month, Gibbons’ Recovery on Water sent out its quarterly newsletter in which it did not ask for money. Gibbons sent it to her board and encouraged them to forward it to supporters with a note reading, simply, “Let me just share this good news with you.” At the very least, this process sets the table for future conversations. As Marjorie Fine noted, “If you want the board to raise money, you have to equip them.”

Empower the Executive Director

The current crisis may also necessitate a higher fundraising profile for the ED, who may be called upon by the development team “to talk with major donors, even if it is just a thank-you follow-up,” Moss said. This is a simple request for executive directors who are comfortable talking with donors. But what about those who aren’t?

Development directors need to pinpoint the cause of the discomfort, address it, and ensure that the ED understands what “fundraisers are up against and see how they can help,” Fine said.

For instance, development directors will need to remind skittish EDs that fundraising isn’t like sales, or that their social work background doesn’t let them off the hook, especially during a global pandemic. “At the end of the day, successful fundraising is relationship-building, and every ED should do that,” Gibbons said.

As with the board, development directors need to equip EDs with the data to build these relationships, whether sharing success stories or a list of 10 donors they should be talking to. “It can be easier to leverage the ED’s relationship with a high-profile donor than have the development director build one,” Gibbons told me. Fine agrees, saying, “If you’re the ED that holds relationships and the fundraiser is asking you to make those calls, make those calls.”

EDs can be coached to ask questions around donors’ motivations and values during this uncertain time. “All of these questions EDs should be comfortable asking,” Gibbons said. Of course, not all executive directors need to make the ask explicitly. “The aspect of the resilience required and the willingness to get rejected is part of fundraising,” Gibbons said. “And EDs don’t want to do that.”

“Inspire as Much Confidence as Possible”

During this time, directors must express themselves with “authority and compassion,” Hopkins said, “and go forward to inspire as much confidence as possible. This is the moment that defines leadership.”

This leadership may involve communicating uncomfortable financial realities to staff, supporting their professional development, or cultivating wellness. Moss said, “As a manager of fundraisers, we need to be transparent with our teams about what we know and what we don’t know.”

From a professional development perspective, “this is a great time to encourage major gift officers to work on their CFRE status,” Moss said. “Use some weekend and evening time now to further your own fundraising education in the meantime.” Other experts encouraged directors to strengthen relationships with mentees.

All respondents stressed the importance of fostering a culture of wellness across a field that struggled with staff burnout long before the coronavirus hit. “As managers, we need to be supportive of our teams and be flexible,” Moss said. “We need to encourage them to take a vacation day (or more), even if it is a stay-at-home ‘clear-your-head’ day. And we need to lead by example and do what we preach.” O’Brien’s New World Symphony, for example, launched team and all-staff happy hours “to bring back some of the camaraderie that happens naturally in a physical workplace.”

Finally, Marjorie Fine reminds directors “to remember to say you did a great job. Just because fundraisers may be social justice warriors doesn’t mean their suffering will make lives better.”

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