Gajus/shutterstock
Gajus/shutterstock

Back in April, we published a piece by fundraising expert Holly Hall titled “10 Quick Tips for Fundraising Survival During the Coronavirus Crisis.” Tip No. 1 was “Reach out and communicate with donors, but do not ask for money.”

Turns out, this is something of a controversial topic among fundraisers these days. At the time, we heard from one reader who emphatically felt people should still be asking for money. Another said it seemed “obscene and inappropriate” that certain organizations would be asking, while others are laying off staff or even fighting to stay afloat.

In the two months since Hall’s post, businesses are reopening and the S&P 500 Index is up 38% from its March low. That said, the smart money investors on Wall Street aren’t betting on a comeback just yet. Meanwhile, more than 40 million Americans remain out of work just as government aid is set to expire.

All of this got me thinking—is now a good time to ask for money? Or should fundraisers still be lying low?

I recently posed this question to a handful of fundraising professionals and donors. Respondents were unanimous in their belief that organizations on the front lines of COVID-19 response should keep the fundraising machinery humming. Everyone also believed that organizations, regardless of their missions, should reach out to donors and conduct a cost-benefit analysis weighing the short- and long-term impact of making the pitch. Others contended that all organizations should keep asking, but doing so in a thoughtful and educated way.

Donor Lisa Greer, whose forthcoming book is titled “Philanthropy Revolution: How to Inspire Donors, Build Relationships and Make a Difference,” summed up the overall sentiment best. “The answer is somewhere in between. If you’re asking for something that involves food, shelter or healthcare, then you should forge ahead. Otherwise, you should modify the ask.”

What is “Essential?”

For non-health organizations looking to modify the ask, what exactly does this kind of cost-benefit analysis look like?

First, organizations should consider their position in what Jeffrey Wolfman, Fitchburg State University vice president for institutional advancement, calls the “hierarchy of philanthropy.” From top to bottom, the hierarchy consists of healthcare, religion, education and the arts. As a global health crisis, COVID-19 has reinforced this hierarchy. Can fundraisers convince donors that the organization is mitigating the impacts of the crisis? It can be a hard sell for some.

“If you were talking about Middle East relations, and the organization has financial security, that issue is still going to be there in a few months,” Greer told me. “That may not be an entirely reasonable ask.”

On the other hand, many organizations that aren’t on the front line of COVID-19 response can still make a compelling pitch. “On the surface, it may not seem that a rowing program for breast cancer survivors is vitally important right now,” said Jenn Gibbons, CEO of Recovery on Water, which provides rowing programs to breast cancer survivors. “But when you unpack that, this is a group of women who had a shared traumatic life event, and when they need support, they’re going to go to the people they’ve received support from before.”

Similarly, fundraising consultant Marjorie Fine, who works with immigrant rights groups across the country, told me that during the current crisis, “all policy work is still essential.” Fundraisers can show that “what is essential, that doesn’t have to be you’re driving an ambulance.”

According to Gibbons, organizations that aren’t explicitly fundraising right now should work with their programming teams to “share their worth, over and over again, in new and creative ways.” Last month, her organization sent out its quarterly newsletter, which focused on its recent successes in serving breast cancer survivors. The newsletter 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.”

Fighting the Impulse to “Smile and Dial”

To Greer’s previous point about financial security, it may make sense for some organizations to hold off on full-throttle fundraising if there’s sufficient money in the bank. And while many are hurting, there are quite a few other nonprofits out there that are prepared to weather the crisis.

MCW Projects’ Melissa Cowley Wolf told me she’s spoken to many arts institutions, both large and small, “that have done the hard, innovative and honest fundraising and community engagement work pre-COVID—and not relied mainly on earned revenue.” These organizations “feel optimistic, and are taking the time to retool their programs to best align with this moment.”

That said, asking fundraising teams to pump the brakes when there’s (theoretically) money for the taking is antithetical to how the system was designed to operate. “There are organizations where the fundraiser gets to keep their job if they’re productive, and the organization wants to tell the board, ‘Oh, we’re not stopping, we’re doing great things,’” Greer said. “And so they keep doing what they always did—call 400 people this week and do smile and dial. That is ridiculous.”

It’s ridiculous, Greer argues, because it may not be the most optimal use of a development team’s finite resources during a time when many donors are focusing on giving to health-related causes or dialing back giving entirely.

“Given the time and energy it takes to be a fundraiser, you better have the optimal chance of success,” she said. “If you don’t have a good chance, it takes the fundraisers the same amount of time and energy, so why not wait a month or two when their chance of success increases and they’re likely more efficient?”

For an organization to be able to say, “‘We don’t need to raise money right now,’ requires them to have a come to Jesus moment,” Greer said, “and most organizations don’t want to do that now.”

In some cases, development teams may find themselves securing donations without lifting a finger. Wolfman said he has seen a steady stream of inquiries about estate planning and language for specific bequests in writing a will. “It seems that mortality is now top of mind for many people in a certain age group and with certain medical conditions,” he said.

“You Never Want to Take Someone’s Agency From Them”

“Giving money is a concrete way to make a difference,” Fine told me. “It makes people feel good. Assumptions that people can’t or won’t give will hurt organizations and donors. You never want to take someone’s agency from them.”

Organizations located on the bottom of Wolfman’s “hierarchy of philanthropy” have taken Fine’s advice to heart. “All fundraisers should still solicit donations,” Lyric Opera of Chicago’s director of development Daniel Moss told me. “Our organization’s mission hasn’t changed. We are providing a relevant service to our community, and our donors want to help make this happen. Lyric—and the arts—are a vital part of our community, even during this difficult time.”

Thomas Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sam Whiting that the organization is appealing to the community “to support us through donations, large and small.” SF Jazz’s executive artistic director and founder Randall Kline said, “We are in the middle of a campaign asking people who have already purchased tickets to donate that amount back to SFJazz or turn them in for credit.”

Some fundraising experts applauded the gumption exhibited by these leaders. “Retracting during an economic crisis is not your best move,” said development professional Amy Eisenstein. Fundraising executive Adam Clevenger said organizations should ask themselves, “My mission didn’t stop, why should my fundraising?” And Tim Kersten, CEO of fundraising consulting firm RKD Group, encourages teams to “stay engaged with your donors and prospective donors through the mail. Continue your donor acquisition efforts.”

A cynic may argue that fundraising consultants are financially incentivized to ensure that organizations—and their clients in particular—keep the wheels turning no matter what. But development directors like Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Lori Stevens also agree—with a caveat. “It’s OK to fundraise and ask now with a tone that is appropriate,” she told Forbes contributor David Hessekiel.

The “Educated and Passionate” Ask

Echoing Stevens’ comments, everyone I spoke with agreed that if fundraisers move forward with the ask, they must do so in an “educated and passionate way,” to quote Fine. What does this look like?

First and foremost, it means asking donors how they are. “Start every conversation with, ‘How are you?’” Greer told me. “Be willing to listen to how they are.” This sounds like intuitive stuff, but as a donor, Greer told me that even during a pandemic, fundraisers she’s spoken with often skip the pleasantries and barrel ahead with the ask.

“The fundraiser has to understand that the person on the other end of the phone is going through hard times,” she said. “You have to be willing to be human and talk to a donor as a human and have that conversation.”

Similarly, longtime fundraiser Kathy LeMay told me, “For fundraisers, this is a time to radically listen. Listen like you’ve never listened before. Don’t try to talk someone out of what they’re feeling. Don’t talk through them. Don’t talk around their experience. Make room for what a donor is going through. If your organization holds a solution they are seeking, this will get revealed.”

Marjorie Fine agrees. “The most important thing isn’t the pitch, it’s listening,” she said.

An “educated” ask is also informed by a donor’s previous giving. Fine told me that fundraisers should ask questions like: “Why did they start giving to us? How do they like to give? Do they give at the end of the year? Via phone call? Do they chit chat first? Be mindful of these things,” she said.

Meanwhile, a “passionate” ask is informative but measured. “We must be transparent with our challenges and opportunities,” Moss said. “We need to be even more articulate when describing what we are doing and/or not doing. We must tell our donors how we have changed now, and how we will continue to evolve in the future, and why we need their support to make this happen.” The tone should be “urgent, but not ‘the sky is falling,’” Fine said.

Defining Success

As we’ve seen, development directors’ cost-benefit analysis around whether to make the ask includes subjective inputs like an organization’s relative impact and donors’ idiosyncratic giving habits. Getting a handle on what constitutes “success” is no different.

Fundraisers will feel inclined to gauge success based on their conversion rates. Experts told me this is a shortsighted approach. Instead, fundraisers should first “do no harm”—to quote Fine—by focusing on retaining existing donors. “Keep them in the know,” she said. “Keep them knowing that what they do matters.” Philanthropist Jaimie Mayer agreed, telling MCW Projects’ Wolf, “Don’t try to solicit new donors, rather, double down on those already invested in your organization.”

These comments from Fine and Mayer suggest that fundraisers—particularly those not on the front line of COVID-19 response—should take with a grain of salt the advice of fundraising consultants like Kersten, who encouraged organizations to keep donor acquisition efforts going strong. The risk of overwhelming prospects and donors is real.

“Right now, everyone has a slight level of constant stress,” donor Lisa Greer said. “If you are going to send donors something every day, it will, by definition, make them more stressed out.”

Regardless of whether fundraisers explicitly make the ask, meaningful donor conversations lay the groundwork for future engagements, and quite possibly, potential gifts. (A follow-up post will explore how fundraisers can best cultivate donor relationships if they aren’t openly dialing for dollars.)

“If this person isn’t in a position to give, you still want to keep that relationship alive no matter what,” Fine said. “Hopefully, they’ll be back at a better place later. Stay in touch, but move on. Our job is to ask, and that donor’s job is to say yes or no.”

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