nonprofit leadership stratgies

In a recent article I discussed three strategies to successfully fundraise mid-pandemic. Here I’d like to look at some of the principle underlying nonprofit leadership strategies that serve as pre-conditions to successful fundraising, crisis or no crisis. As true as these tenets ever were, they hold particularly true during a crisis.

1. Lead with Your Why

Your mission matters. If you were passionate about what you did before the pandemic, you should be equally passionate today. Maybe even more so, because your mission may be threatened. Protect it! Act like the Mama Lioness protecting her baby cub. That’s your job. Don’t leave it there to die.

Your raison d’être did not go away. Whatever you do, you’re a frontline responder in doing that thing. Dig deep to find the underlying vision and values that fuel your mission. If yesterday you wanted to prevent people from dying from cancer, that’s still true. If yesterday you wanted to lift people’s spirits through the arts, that’s still true. If yesterday you wanted to develop self-esteem in children, that’s still true.

The emotional connection to your cause will inspire people to stick with you. Tell your authentic ‘today’ story. It may be similar to yesterday’s story; it may be different or slightly reshaped as you step things up, back or sideways. Describe what you’ll need to do more of, or pivot to do, to position your mission in light of emerging community realities due to this pandemic. But don’t drift away from your mission. It’s what brought supporters to you in the first place. 

“Set yourself aside, and let the case walk in.”

Henry A. Rosso, Founder, The Fundraising School


  1. Be transparent and authentic. Try to tap into whatever is happening in the news that makes what you do especially important in today’s environment. It may be direct frontline service. It may be indirect, yet related, service such as addressing inequalities having outsized impact on certain populations. It may be aspirational, inspiring, therapeutic or preventive. It may be finding a cure for another debilitating disease that’s just as much a threat today as ever. 
  2. Spring from passion. This is the heart of a meaningful case for philanthropic support. As long as you lead with this, specific, manageable philanthropic requests will be particularly well received right now. I’ve never in my lifetime heard so many people asking: “What can I do to be of service?” You have a golden opportunity to answer this question for people – and give people the power they have trouble finding on their own.

2. Experiment

Innovation is having a heyday. And it’s about time! Status quo fundraising is never the best you can do. IMHO it almost always leaves money on the table. Now that you can’t do some of the things you used to do (like in-person events), you have a real opportunity to consider other fundraising options that may offer you an even bigger bang for your buck. 

Strategies I recommend you take a closer look at include peer-to-peer fundraising and monthly giving clubs. Both pack a punch in terms of attracting new donors, leveraging and upgrading support levels and donor retention. And more than ever you need a blueprint to drive a dependable source of income so you can plan confidently for the future.

People don’t want to hear it’s ‘business as usual.’ That’s not credible. And it doesn’t make you look smart either. So think expansively, not myopically. 

“Every day – and especially when you are getting caught up in fear and worry – ask yourself what you can do to be of service. For example, you can call those in your community who might be feeling particularly afraid or lonely. You can find a way to support a small business that is being hard hit. You can do a video call with someone who could use a pick-me-up and put your adorable dog in the camera frame for them to see, giving them something to smile about for a few moments. And you can think about – or pray on – how your knowledge, skills, personal strengths or other resources can be of service during this crisis, and then act on your ideas.

Tara Mohr, Coach and Author, Playing Big


Establish how you’re adapting your approach to the current situation, and share! Pull back the curtain and tell folks that, with their help, you are: 

  • Ramping up services to meet emerging needs.
  • Delivering services from a physical distance. 
  • Protecting front-line staff and beneficiaries.
  • Consolidating or collaborating with other organizations.
  • Sustaining staff jobs.
  • Providing furloughed staff with benefits.
  • Pivoting to virtual programs.
  • Engaging in special fundraising campaign(s) to support today’s vital work.

3. Be Courageous

I’m hearing too many nonprofits ‘leading’ from fear and timidity. “Our constituents will become annoyed if they message them too frequently.” Not if you do it the right way. Don’t shirk your duty to fundraise to sustain the programs and services on which people rely. Be brave, use some of the tips above, and move forward with pride!

Don’t make assumptions. Beware the board president who tells you he thinks his friends would not respond to an email right now. He is not his friends. Beware the marketing director who tells you folks aren’t opening your emails, so likely they’re unwanted. That’s one assumption among many reasons folks don’t open emails (e.g., poor subject line; wrong sender; lands in spam; bad address; sent at wrong time; right message for wrong people, or vice-versa); don’t assume the reason is because you send too many.

Don’t fear complaints; they mean folks are paying attention. Don’t worry if you receive a few grumbles. That’s good news! People who bother to complain are people who care. And, in my experience, you can often turn a frenemy into a friend by simply listening. If not, the complainers who don’t come around are not the folks you’re likely looking to for support right now. If you hadn’t tried something new, they wouldn’t have given. They’re not giving now. Same difference. No loss.


    1. Define your problem before you seek its solution (see here). It takes courage to name the elephant in the room, yet the time you spend doing so will be well spent. And when it comes to fundraising, worth its weight in gold.
    2. Connect with your passion; express it. This is what has always moved people to join you, and it’s no different today. Don’t let fear cause you to lose sight of the light that leads your way forward.

“Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.”

Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.