Prostock-studio/shutterstock
Prostock-studio/shutterstock

In a world upended by a deadly pandemic, fundraising has “never been more chaotic—nobody knows where it’s going,” said Scott Schultz, president of Schultz & Williams, a Philadelphia consulting company that provides fundraising, marketing and other assistance to charitable organizations.

Predicting a “jagged recovery” from the severe economic downturn unleashed by the health crisis, Schultz spoke at a recent virtual version of the annual Bridge Conference, which brings together marketing and fundraising professionals.

Even with all the economic uncertainty, he said, “people are still able to make annual gifts, but donors might take longer” to do so. Major gifts are likely to be more difficult, given economic uncertainty and the fact that fundraisers cannot engage with donors as they normally do via visits, fundraising events and other gatherings.

Looking at nonprofit organizations nationwide, Schultz said that he sees three distinct types: thriving, struggling and fragile.

Thriving organizations are those on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus, such as food banks and hospitals, that have drawn many new donors in recent months, Schultz said. Their fundraising challenges include keeping those donors and making sure the organization’s development operations can handle the influx of support. He advised fundraisers to report on their organizations’ successes in detail, to dig into any data they collect to gather insights into fundraising, and to start an emergency response fund if they haven’t already.

Struggling organizations, Schultz said, are those that may have paused operations because of the coronavirus, have experienced declines in earned income and contributions, or have lost development staff. These groups are not seen as carrying out urgent work related to the health crisis and have likely attempted remote activities with mixed results. Organizations in that situation, Schultz said, should appeal to their best donors, be transparent about their operations and finances with those donors, and undertake aggressive marketing in multiple channels such as email and social media. They should also consider establishing a “recovery fund” to make up the financial ground they have lost.

Fragile nonprofit organizations, the most vulnerable of the three types, Schultz said, are characterized by a complete closure or an indefinite suspension, significant layoffs, a substantial number of lost donors and new difficulty connecting with supporters. Those nonprofits, he said, should turn to their boards for financial support, identify a manageable number of former top donors with whom to re-engage, consider collaborating with other nonprofits, and think about holding a “mini campaign,” a focused fundraising drive aimed at survival.

As the world moves through and eventually emerges from the pandemic, Schultz predicted that major gifts will rebound more quickly than annual gifts, and that bequests and other planned gifts will grow as a percentage of all charitable donations, as they have historically in other crises such as the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

Even in this time of crisis, Schultz warned, fundraisers should not drop their efforts to identify and recruit new donors.

He advised fundraisers and other nonprofit officials to “use this time wisely,” by undertaking tasks such as looking for ways to improve internal aspects of their fundraising operations and reviewing their organization’s strategic plan. Develop appropriate messages for donors and other constituents without coming across as too needy, Schultz said.

Above all, he concluded, “double down on stewardship.” He cited two recent examples of creative donor communications adopted for a changed world. The first, from the International Campaign for Tibet, was a thank-you video from staff members, each one videotaped at home. The second was a decision by the Foundation for Delaware County to mail supporters golf balls after canceling a golfing event to raise money.

Share with cohorts