If you look for bad news, you’ll find it. There’s plenty of handwringing going on. A recent report, “Fundraising Impact of COVID-19,” from CCS Fundraising finds 63% of 1,183 responding nonprofits between April 20 and May 1 report a decline in fundraising since the start of the pandemic, while 25% report a “significant” decline. Fully 80% of these same respondents expect the rest of 2020 will see fundraising decline, and 50% believe the decline will be “significant.”
The problem with data like this is twofold: Respondents are self-selecting so may not be representative of the entire sector. More important, the data doesn’t explain the reason for the decline. It’s presumed to be due to a host of factors. For example:
- Donor incomes are down due to job losses or cutbacks.
- Donor assets are down due to economic instability.
- Donors are giving to frontline responders in lieu of traditional charities.
Taking data like this at face value allows nonprofits to duck their responsibility to fundraise effectively. I get it. People are worried. Business as usual isn’t. Everything is more challenging than it was several months ago. And it’s really difficult to focus on working even harder than before.
When you expect the worst it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If these are your presumptions, it’s easy to talk yourself into cutting back on fundraising. After all, what’s the point? Wouldn’t it be better to cut expenses, tighten belts, hibernate a bit and just tough it out until it’s over?
This can lead to the demise of your nonprofit. Which is why I don’t look to studies like this one to inform fundraising strategy. In fact, I always go back to the fact fundraising is an honor and a responsibility. If the ends you serve are righteous, and you are depended upon, you must figure out a way to stay strong. Today, more than ever, fundraising draws meaning from ends served.
If you care about your meaning – your raison d’etre – you owe it to yourself, your constituents and your community to carry on. Yes, it’s in the face of adversity. But if you make the right choices today you’ll reap the rewards tomorrow.
I was recently asked two related questions for a Virtual Summit for Nonprofit Changemakers in which I’m participating in the early Fall. I’d like to answer these questions here:
What changes have you seen in fundraising since quarantine started?
Many organizations are asking, and communicating, less.
This is the saddest thing I’m seeing, because if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Period. While this is born out of ‘well-meaning” assumptions that “we shouldn’t be bothering people now” or “people are pressed for money now, so they can’t give,” you should never – ever – assume on behalf of other people. People can say ‘no’ for themselves.
In fact, many of your donors are starved for meaningful connection – and action opportunities — right now. Especially from you. They cared about you before the pandemic. They still do! If presented with a compelling appeal to help you stay alive, or transition to new forms of programming, many will jump at the chance to do so. People feel isolated and helpless in the face of what’s happening in their community and world. By helping you, donors become both connected and empowered.
Many organizations have launched special emergency coronavirus-related appeals.
Some are adding “Coronavirus Relief” or “Coronavirus Resiliency” funds to keep operations afloat. Or to directly respond to issues created by the pandemic (e.g., healthcare, homelessness, emergency shelter, food and aid, domestic violence prevention, education, animal rescue, etc.). The smart ones have added factors to increase urgency and leverage by announcing matching funds and challenge grants.
Some have created new programs for which they’re seeking special support. Frontline responders may be asking for help to ramp up services. Arts, culture and educational organizations may be asking for help to pivot to digital programs.
Some organizations are connecting more often, and more personally, with their donors.
Because people can’t go out, they need other people – like you! — to reach out to them personally. There are many different ways to virtually connect and give your donors a little boost. Personal is the gold standard, and recent data shows this personal touch today makes a difference to your bottom line. One of the best strategies is simply to pick up the phone and check in with folks one-to-one. Thank them for their past support. Ask how they’re doing. Ask if you can help them. Ask them if they have any questions about how your organization is doing. If they don’t pick up the phone, let them know you’ll send a follow-up email so the two of you can connect.
While you can’t connect individually with every donor, you can absolutely invite people to group get-togethers. Like ‘Zoom town halls,’ conference calls, Facebook or Instagram Q & A, Google Hangouts, YouTube events, and so forth. You can also send folks checking-in emails that offer a contact email and/or phone number to which they can respond. Guard against “noreply@” email blasts as these only frustrate folks who want to respond.
Some organizations are being more transparent than ever before, treating their donors like insiders who can handle the truth and help them problem solve.
There’s no need to throw fundraising 101 skills out the door. The rules still apply. You should always make appeals about the specific problem at hand and the specific way your donor can help. It’s never just about “We need money.” People don’t give because you have needs, but because of the needs met through their philanthropic support. If you’re having trouble meeting needs right now, don’t hide this fact. In fact, if you’re used to leading with the story today you probably want to lead with the realities of the situation you’re facing.
Reshape your case for support to focus on what donors want/need to hear about how you’re adapting your work to the new reality. Perhaps you need to ramp up services. Or you’re delivering services from a physical distance. Or you’ve pivoted to online programming. Or you’re dedicating to protecting workers, sustaining staff salaries and providing vital benefits. Be as specific as possible. No “these are difficult times” without following with “this is how we’re adapting to this present situation.”
Be honest with supporters; set a specific fundraising goal so donors can step up to the plate to help you meet that goal. Believe it or not, they’re likely worried about your situation too. How is coping in a pandemic currently affecting those who rely on you for services or their livelihood? Tell your current story. It’s likely more compelling than it’s even been! Yet remember people don’t want their money going into a black hole. Let folks know specifically why you need them to step up to the plate right now. Use the magic word “because … you’re experiencing a shortfall… needing to ramp up emergency response efforts… increasing your ability to deliver programs virtually” and so forth.
Share any good news you have to offer. It may be you got a PPP loan to tide you over. Or it may be you have a new plan to pivot programs to a different format. Good news will offer donors hope, and make them feel better about your prospects for survival. This will make them more likely to stay on board.
Some organizations are surveying donors to learn more about their interests, concerns and preferences.
It’s a great time to send an engagement survey that asks folks what they value most about your mission. This reminds them why they care about you, and also gives you valuable information to use in your fundraising – today and tomorrow. You can also ask questions about when they believe they’ll be willing to again engage with you in person (if you’re an organization (e.g., a community center, school, camp, arts organization or volunteer program) that tends to gather groups together. Find more survey tips here and here.
Some organizations are innovating appealing new ways to deliver programs and services.
Virtual events are the newest entertainment medium. They can also serve as fundraisers, before, during and after the fact. Arts organizations are hosting virtual play readings, tours of museum exhibits, talks with choreographers and the like. Educational organizations are zooming classes of all kinds for folks of all ages. Social justice organizations are hosting interactive town halls to discuss issues of the day. Health care organizations are sharing “how to” videos for staying safe and taking care of others. The best send follow-up emails with sharable links to videos and donation requests. Find ideas for virtual events here and here.
Virtual volunteering is also coming into its own. People are sewing masks, calling seniors to check in on them, tutoring children online and more. This is a wonderful way to keep supporters connected while bringing meaning to their lives. And when you give others purpose, they tend to want to reciprocate. The best send follow-up emails with reports on all the great impact being created and donation requests. Find examples of volunteer opportunities here.
Some organizations are taking advantage of the opportunity to enrich their digital skills and presence and update their website.
Poorly designed home pages are a huge wasted opportunity. Often this is the first place potential supporters encounter you. You can win them over or turn them off. At the least, today is an excellent time to update your home page content (add a Coronavirus Update blurb at the top), or perhaps even rework your navigation so it’s more user-friendly and donor-centered (i.e., it’s easy to find out why you should donate and how).
Hard-to-find donation buttons and generic, dull landing pages are often the cause of money left on the table. Savvy nonprofits today are redeploying program staff with digital skills to help them spiff up important elements of their website.
Nonprofits who haven’t changed their social media strategy since they slapped up a Facebook and Twitter page in 2010 are learning to communicate via multiple online channels. Many have known this was a good idea, but it remained on the back burner because no one made it a priority. Today, since people can no longer connect in person, the need to communicate digitally has risen to the top of the list.
If there’s a silver lining to the times we’re in, it’s forcing nonprofits to revisit their mission statements and cases for support to update them and make them more relevant and compelling. Resting on one’s laurels has never been a smart strategy, but today folks have no choice but to do otherwise. That’s a good thing.
These times are also forcing nonprofits to rethink communications and fundraising strategies. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of simply repeating what you’ve done before. But the ways folks access information have changed since the digital revolution, and continue to change at a rapid pace. Since ‘shelter in place’ went into effect, old ways of delivering information and connecting with supporters to build relationships no longer worked. So nonprofits had no choice but to improve their digital communications skills. That’s a good thing.
In my next article I’ll explore the new things you’ve adopted you will want to continue post-pandemic. And if you haven’t adopted them yet, I’ll clue you in. What are you waiting for?!
Which of these, if any, are things you’d like to see continue after?
All the best strategies you’re innovating now, and having success with, should be continued.
This is your pandemic silver lining! It’s taken this quarantine crisis for some nonprofits to do what they should have done before. For example:
- Send brief, regular updates to keep donors abreast of the impact of today’s news and events on your clients, programs and services.
- Send donor-centered appeals with clear, singular calls to action that make donors feel like heroes – or at least very, very good people.
- Call donors to thank them. And expressing gratitude more frequently, in a variety of formats.
- Set up one-to-one meetings with major donors (albeit virtual ones) to ask them for special support.
- Take time to research and qualify formerly back-burnered major donor prospects.
- Pivot to digital ways to connect with donors, such as online events, social media, Zoom get-togethers, social media forums, etc.
- Send donor surveys to engage constituents and learn more about them (and recording this information in the database so it can be used for subsequent communications, cultivation and future solicitation).
- Ramp up monthly giving programs to upgrade and retain more donors.
- Engage in P2P fundraising campaigns to leverage existing supporter networks.
- Clean up the donor database to avoid bad addresses, deceased, duplicates, incorrect salutations and other errors and inconsistencies.
- Make website and donation landing and thank you pages more donor-centered and user-friendly.
How should you change your fundraising moving forward?
Stop looking for bad news and reasons to eschew fundraising. The best strategy to assure your short and long-term survival – crisis or not – is simply to ask for the philanthropy you need to stay afloat.
- With clarity
- With specificity
- With relevancy – to the current time and to the targeted constituent
Nothing else really matters.
While there is no single ‘best’ fundraising strategy, I’ve zero doubt if you combine these common-sense approaches you’ll be successful.
- Define your problem before you seek its solution (see here). The time you spend doing so will be well spent. And when it comes to fundraising, worth its weight in gold.
- Proactively connect with supporters. Nothing will happen if you don’t put yourself and your mission out there. Repeatedly. You can’t count on folks finding you or supporting you just because your cause is a good one. Nor can you count on just a few emails and appeals doing the trick. There’s just too much competition for attention. The early bird catches the worm. The squawking bird causes folks to listen. The quiet bird doesn’t bother anyone, but is easily ignored.
- ASK! If you’re not asking, you’re not giving folks opportunities to feel good about themselves. You can’t build a relationship with folks who don’t feel good about their association with you. Nor can you count on winning the game if you never take a shot. Since other nonprofits are asking, your constituents may switch their loyalties to those who gave them a ‘feel good’ pay-off at a time they really needed one.
- Be personal. The most successful fundraising is built on human relationships. People give to people, not institutions.
- Be transparent and authentic. Specific, manageable requests will be particularly well received right now. 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. 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.
- Lead with an attitude of gratitude. When you make this philosophical shift it forces you to think very specifically about what you’re grateful for. It takes your focus away from thinking of donors as ATMs and moves you towards treating them as people Ask “What’s in this for the donor?” But don’t stop there. Keep asking. “What else could be in this for the donor?” Do it again and again. The more meaningful you can make giving to your cause, the better your chances for sustaining your donor’s giving over time.