As my colleague Jeremy Beer said earlier this week, March 2020 is surreal. It’s difficult to understand how we got to the point where entire cities are closed, multi-billion-dollar businesses are on the cusp of bankruptcy, and Americans are asked to hide in their homes for weeks on end.
It’s bizarre and unsettling. But we fundraisers don’t have time to play armchair economist—the world is where it is, and we must find a path forward. We must find a way to close the next major gift in order to keep the staff employed and mission thriving.
But how do we achieve fundraising success—and major-gifts success—when the world seems to be falling apart and charitable giving is seemingly the last thing on Americans’ minds?
There are plenty of answers to this question, but here are six tips, I suggest all fundraisers keep these in mind over the coming months as we cultivate our donors and secure major gifts during a time of incredible uncertainty.
ONE: We’re all in this together
Times of economic decline or uncertainty affect all nonprofits equally. Keeping this in mind doesn’t necessarily make our job of raising money any easier, but it is a morale booster to remember that we’re not the only one struggling to close a gift or experiencing anemic upgrades.
All fundraisers are experiencing this and we’re all working through it together. So keep your chin up and be sure to regularly check-in with your colleagues and peers at other organizations to learn what is and isn’t working right now with their fundraising.
TWO: Stick to your plans
If you have a fundraising plan for 2020, stick to it and don’t make any knee-jerk changes or deviations. Yes, the world seems to be going mad right now and life might be pulling you in several directions, but don’t let your fundraising plan—or your confidence in it—falter. Stay the course. Get your direct mail out the door. Get your meetings and events done (even if you need to do them over Zoom!). Get your newsletter and annual report out. Keep the donor emails flowing. Keep seeking renewals and upgrades.
Meticulously execute your individualized donor plans, making the necessary tactical adjustments. Don’t throw everything out the window—be patient and nimble, relying on your strategic plan. You developed a 2020 development plan for a reason (success and growth) so stick to it. (If you don’t have a 2020 development plan in place, please call or email me today.)
THREE: Stay “near, dear, and clear” with your major donors
I want to reiterate the recommendations outlined by my friend Jeff Trimbath in his recent article on Philanthropy Daily.
Stay near to your donors—in other words, stay in touch with them! This is not the time to pull away from donor outreach, to “give them space.” If you are close with your major donors, make sure you are staying in touch with them.
Stay dear to your donors—in other words, draw them closer to you and the mission of your organization. Show them that you’ve not forgotten to check in on them or to update them about how your organization is faring. If they support you, they care to know that you are doing well.
Stay clear with your donors—in other words, effectively communicate the importance of your mission, the value of your programs, and how the donor has made all of this possible. Communicate stability to them—and that you are stable in these interesting times thanks to them.
FOUR: Always be cultivating—it always pays off
Have you seen the famous movie Glengarry Glen Ross? Among Alec Baldwin’s many famous one-liners from it, he instructs his staff to: “ABC. ‘A’ – always. ‘B’ – be. ‘C’ – closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. Always be closing.”
Applied to fundraising, I consistently encourage gift officers to “ABC. ‘A’ – always. ‘B’ – be. ‘C’ – cultivating. ALWAYS BE CULTIVATING. Always be cultivating.” Why? Because even if the answer to your major-gift solicitation is “no” or “not right now,” the number one way to move from “no” to “yes” is to get closer to your donor and align your mission to their philanthropic priorities. How do you do this? Always be cultivating.
FIVE: Continue to schedule major donor meetings—even if they’re non-traditional
It is simply a fact that the best way to fundraise for your mission is through personal, face-to-face meetings. Any “expert” who advises you otherwise hasn’t raised a dollar in their life. (Do you really think Johns Hopkins closed Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion donation without a meeting?) But of course in March 2020 you’re probably wondering, “How the heck do I do in-person meetings when cities and airlines are shut down?” I am not saying it’ll be easy, but not one of us got into fundraising because it was easy!
At an absolute minimum, ask your donors to meet over a phone call. Yes, conference calls can be cumbersome and awkward, but they’re better than no meeting—and no gift! And you can be sure that other fundraisers are reaching out to schedule meetings over the phone.
Here’s another option: Skype, Zoom, even FaceTime. Everyone is downloading Zoom right now—the question isn’t whether you’ll be using Zoom, but when. I know you’re worried about older donors using Zoom. What’s the worst that could happen if you request a video call? They say no and you do a phone call instead. What’s the best that could happen? You graciously help them fumble through their first video call, demonstrating your friendship and value to them.
If they do agree to a video call, take advantage of the opportunity to make it personal. Share your screen to make the organization and mission clearer and to provide timely updates to them. More than this, take advantage of the opportunity to connect personally with them. There is a good chance you’re both stuck at home. Maybe your kids are noisy in the background or their favorite artwork is on the wall behind them. Don’t hide from this fact—you’re both stranded at home, so make that connection. Talk about it, endearing yourself to your donor, demonstrating that you’re friends.
SIX: Keep asking and keep fundraising—but be sensitive!
How do the vast majority of nonprofits bring in revenue? Don’t think too hard: it’s charitable donations. Not investments or dividends, not estate gifts, not royalties, and not program fees. The nonprofit sector runs on cold hard cash donations—from grantmaking foundations and from individuals who want to make your organization and mission possible.
And we get those donations by doing one thing: asking! So I encourage you, please keep cultivating your donors during this time of uncertainty, but also please keep asking your donors for donations.
That said, it is imperative that our cultivation and solicitation tactics are sensitive to current events. If a donor is heavily invested or employed in one of the harder-hit sectors of the economy, maybe push your ask to later in the year or ask them to make a smaller donation today and pledge to donate the rest in a few months. Or if your donor typically gives $45,000 in April but you know that might be difficult for them this year, consider asking them to donate $5,000 each month through the end of the year. (If things are looking up in Q4 and you ask them to continue that in 2021, then you just effortlessly upgraded a donor by 33%!). You have plenty of options, even in times of uncertainty and crisis—we fundraisers just need to be creative!
Here’s a final idea: find ways to deepen the meaning of your donor’s gift and connect it to current events and your mission. For example, if you operate international mission projects and need funding to bring missionaries home, consider asking a donor to fund these flights. Or if you operate an educational service (that doesn’t qualify for free Zoom accounts), consider asking a donor to pay for your new Zoom license so that you can offer remote services or new online curricula.
The options are nearly infinite. Simply take the time to think about how you can pivot in light of the pandemic, what costs would ensue, and then bring a more meaningful ask to your donor. A bit of planning and creativity here will go a long way to securing the funds you need for your mission.
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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