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What should I change about my fundraising in light of COVID-19?

Jamie Klobuchar
March 11, 2020

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

Our phones have been ringing off the hook in the last few days with current and past clients calling to ask us for advice. We’ve also had clients let us know they are canceling events, recommending staff stop all non-essential airplane travel, and moving large meetings online.

Although the U.S. has not faced a pandemic like this in recent years, we’ve been through our share of disasters and many of us have experience with the fundraising fallout. In my years in philanthropy, I’ve watched the impact of events like September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession of 2008, and I have learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share with you:

1. Hit the pause button and take a deep breath. I don’t mean this to sound condescending, but panic and quality decision-making do not go hand in hand. Take a moment to slow down and converse with your colleagues and your board. Do your best to portray confidence and calm during this storm. After all, no one wants to donate to a nonprofit that appears to be in chaos.

2. A national tragedy or natural disaster will impact your fundraising. Unless you work for a nonprofit that is directly linked to the recovery efforts or to serving those in need following the event, you may see a decline in general donations from donors who do not have a strong connection to the cause. I was working at JDRF during the disasters I mentioned above. At the time of the September 11 attacks, our headquarters were at 120 Wall Street. Following the attacks, our entire phone and email systems were shut down across the country, resulting in 80 chapter offices without technology during our busiest fundraising time of the year. Our Walk to Cure Diabetes program was hit hardest and several of the biggest (i.e. most lucrative) east coast walk events were canceled. What we learned was that our corporate sponsors, major donors and families who had loved ones with the disease still donated. We saw a drop-off in the donors that sponsored other walkers or that did not have a connection to type one diabetes. That informed our strategy for the remainder of the fiscal year. We had to stay focused on retaining gifts from our closest donors and ensuring they had an excellent donor experience (yes, time to brush off those stewardship plans on the corner of your desk).

3. If you are hosting an event, you may need to cancel or postpone it depending on the recommendations from the CDC or your local government (see Chicago here). It is important that the board and professional leadership begin discussing options now and create a communications plan to reach out to attendees. Avoid last-minute cancellations if possible to minimize the risk of upsetting your attendees. We recommend having two communications plans - one for if the event is a go and the other for if you need to cancel. This will allow you to easily roll out either plan as more information becomes available.

4. Just because you cancel an event does not mean you need to return the donations that have been made to date or stop fundraising (see #2 above). It just means that you need to change your messaging and strategies. More often than not, your donors will be understanding given the situation, and those closest to you will still support you. As a fundraiser, you must schedule conversations with your donors right now and refrain from making assumptions about what they want.

5. Don’t put a stop to your capital campaign, but do re-evaluate your campaign plan and timeline and adjust as needed. As I said previously, world events (like a looming pandemic) will impact your fundraising, especially if you are in the community phase of the campaign where you are seeking support from donors who are less connected to your work. That does not mean you should put a halt to your fundraising. It means that you must approach your work with sensitivity to what is happening in the world around you and realize that some of your donors may be impacted more directly than others. It may mean that you send an eblast that gets overlooked because of the more urgent news of the day. That can’t be helped and you just need to do your best. Again, what is important here is not to make assumptions about what your donors may be feeling or whether they intend to give. Don’t assume that they will be offended by receiving a call or email from you or that they will stop giving to you if you ask them to buy a brick for your pathway. Instead, pick up the phone and have a conversation. 

We recently had a conversation with a client in Nashville that is well into the quiet phase of their capital campaign. In the wake of the recent tornado, the organization was able to serve the community and therefore broaden its reach. This provides a new opportunity to connect with folks outside the typical network who may end up being prospective donors to the campaign. If you can connect with your community in an authentic way during times of crisis, it only helps to build relationships you might not otherwise form.

You should also schedule a conversation with your financial advisor and facility planner about contingency plans if the global markets continue to slump (causing the economy to follow) and donations to the campaign begin to wane. You may be able to establish a new approach to your building or renovation project that would allow you to keep the momentum going while slowing down construction. You might consider offering donors a longer payout period for major gifts.

6. A diverse revenue stream is critical for your future success and survival. Organizations who rely on a single event, donor, or grant to provide 25% of their revenue or more are the ones most at risk during times like these. It’s easy during times of positive economic growth (and world peace) to put this issue on the backburner. I would be lying if I said I had never been guilty of this before. If your nonprofit falls into this category, it’s time to develop a plan to change it. (And if you need more reasons why diversification is important, read my blog from a few months ago about recession planning.)

7. Learn to put technology to good use. We’ve had a number of clients cancel fundraising events and several are planning to host their auctions and paddle raise programs virtually. We recommended that a client who recently built a large thermometer for their school lobby put a digital version on their website. And, if you’re like us and moving many of your meetings to video, check out this great blog from Beth Kanter about how to facilitate effective virtual meetings. If you are my age (or older), using some of these technologies may intimidate you, but try to look at it as an opportunity for growth or to get closer to the millennials on your team who know more than you do about these great tools. You could even reach a new audience of potential donors just by meeting them where they are - online.

There are many great minds working in the nonprofit sector both as volunteers and paid professionals. Reach out to your peers to ask questions and brainstorm. By nature, I am a collaborative person, and I believe that our collective wisdom makes us all stronger. You may need to stop meeting at Starbucks and start using video meetings, but even virtual meetups during times like this will ease your stress and give you the support to carry on. And, carry on you must! You are doing important work. You are saving and changing lives.  

Please reach out to me if you have any other questions: I’ll send you a Zoom link so that we can “meet-up” and discuss.