The past three weeks have been rather unique in American history with regard to at least two subjects: public health and public markets. With the rising threat of the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19), and the rapidly retreating ricochet of the equity indices, fundraising has been even more difficult than normal.

If you were in this industry a decade ago, it might feel to you a bit like the Great Recession.

Some fundraising teams are responding to these challenges by formulating their presentations to senior leadership and board about why they couldn’t raise money. While times are tough, this is an inadvisable approach.

Others fundraisers, therefore, are embracing a more advantageous response by focusing on three key elements of fundraising during a crisis:

  • stay the course
  • be “near, dear, and clear” with donors, and
  • appropriately raising planned giving opportunities.

STAYING THE COURSE

The first thing to do when fundraising during a crisis is to stay the course. This presumes that you have developed a fundraising plan for the year. This plan includes strategies for mailings, communications, and donor interactions with specific goals and targets. You must continue to execute on that plan.

Yes, our donors are distracted by the virus—and by all of the social disruption that comes with dealing with the virus. Of course, we need to be prepared to talk with them about this and offer our sympathy. And yes, many have assets (like stocks, for example) that have declined severely and quickly. But for everyone who has lost money, there are donors who have made money (know anyone in the real estate lending business, or online education business?!).  

Staying the course means, at a minimum, not cutting development efforts during the crisis, and perhaps even investing more in it.

This is exactly what we did at the Heritage Foundation in the wake of the Great Recession. While other departments in the organization had to take a “haircut” in terms of their budgets, my former boss John Von Kannon (whose Chair in Philanthropy I was privileged to occupy) successfully won additional investments for the development department. And these weren’t simply for pay raises and perks—these investments were to fund increased donor acquisition. That effort resulted in identifying hundreds of thousands of new donors in the years following the recession.

Furthermore, not only did Heritage not cut fundraising staff—we continued to identify top talent, too. In fact, one of the fundraisers Heritage hired in October 2009 went on to close the largest commitment in Heritage’s history just six years later, and now raises millions of dollars each year for an allied organization. John Fogarty, the long-time successful VP of Development at Heritage, explained the rationale behind these moves this way: “you don’t cut the sales team during a recession.”

Other nonprofits in our space spent their time explaining to their boards why they couldn’t raise money, and they responded by cutting mail programs and staff persons. Heritage sensed an opportunity, and it paid off.

STAY “NEAR, DEAR, AND CLEAR”

Secondly, fundraising during a crisis requires that you stay “near,” “dear,” and “clear” with your donors (I’ve taken this concept from The 10 Laws of Fundraising).

Staying near means staying in close contact with your donors, whether or not they can give. Why? To value the relationship. They want to know that they are worth more than the money they give. Going to see folks, and calling folks, especially during economic downturns, just to listen, illustrates the value of this relationship.

You show that they are “dear” to you by drawing closer to them. When they draw away, you draw close, so that you can listen to them. You want to find out what is going on in their lives. During this particular crisis, you want to know what their fears, anxieties and concerns are. And you want to help if you can. Here’s an example. If a donor expresses to you that they may have difficulty fulfilling their multi-year commitment, your response should be: “Joe, that’s totally fine. You know that we value your relationship, and I know you will fulfill this pledge when you are able.” And then move to stay close with them to see them through to the other side.

And you are “clear” with them regarding the work that your organization continues to do, and the impact that they continue to have through their support. Regardless of the crisis, the mission of your organization goes on. With many crises, the importance of the mission of our organizations actually increases, rather than decreases. We can continue to make the case, and show the impact. During a crisis, donors matter even more than normal, and it’s our job to make sure they know this—and that our colleagues and senior leadership know this.

PLANNED GIVING OPPORTUNITIES

Finally, fundraising during a crisis can present an opportunity to appropriately discuss planned giving. Now, I want to offer many caveats here: be appropriate, respectful, careful. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that this virus has many people thinking about health, mortality and the future in a way that they may not have been thinking about it just a month ago. A natural part of any consideration of these subjects is the inevitability of what might happen should the worst come. As you’ve carefully stewarded your relationship, earned trust, and matched their deepest concerns with your nonprofit’s work, it can be quite natural to talk about what might be next.

We can, and should, acknowledge this with our donors and be prepared to talk about how our organizations will carry their values and mission forward, well into the future through a legacy commitment and a planned giving opportunity.

We all know that fundraising is never easy. It can be particularly difficult during times of crisis, as we are currently experiencing. But we are not helpless. As we stick with our plan, stay close to our donors, and speak appropriately about legacy, we can and will succeed.

We just need the courage to do so.


For the next several weeks, Philanthropy Daily will be a resource for fundraisers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back daily for new articles addressing news about coronavirus and philanthropy and providing strategic and practical recommendations for weathering this storm as a fundraiser.

And please join us on Thursday afternoons at 2:00 eastern time for a webinar on “Fundraising During Uncertain Times.” American Philanthropic leadership and Philanthropy Daily authors are hosting a weekly webinar to discuss the impact of the pandemic on fundraising and to answer your questions. Sign up here.

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