Coping in a Pandemic: Essential Nonprofit Philanthropic Strategies

coping in a pandemic

How will you and your nonprofit make it through these difficult times?

Two words: 

EMPATHY.

INNOVATION.

These are the two qualities most needed in today’s topsy-turvy world.

I’d like you to think of them as your newly essential communication and fundraising strategies. Apply them to everything you do for the duration of this uncertain, challenging time. Do not send out an email, a newsletter, an appeal, a social media post or anything else without first running them through the screen of these two approaches to connecting meaningfully with your constituents.

Let’s begin with empathy.

You’ll get nowhere unless you begin by taking stock of what is likely running through the minds of those who rely on you. Those you serve (clients, patients, students, families, members, ticket buyers, visitors, volunteers). Those who serve them (staff, volunteers, donors, vendors, community partners).

Trying to talk to folks now about what you talked to them about last month – or even last week – will seem painfully irrelevant. It could even seem downright insensitive.(Kind of like the ads we still keep seeing on television for cruises, vacation spots and restaurant buffets. I mean… really?!?!).  

‘Business as usual’ is not where our heads are at.

Yet, in fact, those who rely on you and your organization are desperately longing for things to get back to normal. This includes your supporters. People need a little hope. A sense that if we tend the garden now, flowers will bloom again next spring. It may take a while, but it will happen. You, and your donors, will make it happen!

I’d love to share with you a poem written by the artistic director of a special local theater company of which I’m on the board. He is fond of calling the theater an ‘empathy gym.’ I found the poem comforting, and I hope you will be able to relate it to your own organization. 

We are alone
Yet we are together
Our countries are closing borders
Yet we are one in humanity
We are afraid
Yet we will
Prevail
We feel helpless
Yet if we listen closely
To the silence
We can hear the heartbeat of the world
 
Our empathy gym must close for now
Yet we will return
And let our time together practicing compassion
inspire us to remember
That when we give love and understanding
We will thrive.

[If this inspires you, feel free to show your solidarity HERE.]

Do what you can to begin with love and understanding.

Philanthropy, in the truest sense of the word, is what’s going to save you now. Never forget the roots of the word ‘philanthropy.’ It means ‘love of humanity.’ That’s what has always saved us. Communities that care for one another survive. Reach out to everyone who can help. It’s true we get by with a little help from our friends. 

Of course you need major donors right now. So you’ll want to reach out to any wealthy, loyal supporters you have who may be able to provide some significant additional support. Let them know how much you value and appreciate them. Don’t fear you’ll look greedy. They may or may not be able to give more; they won’t be surprised you asked. In fact, they may be more surprised if you don’t.

Also — and this is important — don’t neglect anyone on your lists at this point in time. Specific, manageable 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. Giving is something that will bring people joy.

Let’s take a look at innovation.

Remember, this is not ‘business as usual.’ Status quo is generally a bad way to manage if you want to thrive, not just survive. Right now? Doing things the way you’ve always done them won’t work at all. Pretty soon every nonprofit and their dog will be sending out messages specifically related to this crisis. What will get your messages to stand out? Certainly not your same-old emails and appeals. Try to add in a little bit of something extra. Something authentic. Something relevant. And something attention-grabbing. Novelty. Fun. Inspiration. Prayer. Social action. Whatever is best suited to your particular brand and community.  

Now let’s remember where all this empathy and innovation is headed… ensuring you’ll be there for people when they need you! Today, tomorrow, next month, next year – perhaps to infinity and beyond.

Put those woes aside and do what you need to do for coping in a pandemic. Do what your supporters need you to do. Be a philanthropy facilitator!

Don’t allow fear or despair to stand in your way. Navigating fear and change is tough. But… in tough times, the tough get going! Of course, as good as that sounds, staying tough when you feel like crying isn’t always easy. So please allow me to share this inspiring article from a coach and friend of mine, Tara Mohr: Navigating fear & change during the pandemic. First, take care of yourself. Then, take care of those who rely on you. You’ll find some suggestions below.

Do not stop fundraising! Do not stop communicating!

You and your donors are in this together. Treat them like family.

This is absolutely not the time to stop building donor relationships. In fact, if you’ve not had a good donor communications plan up to this point, use this pandemic as an excuse to start one!

The philanthropic exchange has always been a symbiotic one. You need donors; donors need you. We’re in this together. Always have been. Always will be. Coronavirus is just one more problem to be addressed – and everybody helps.

What’s changed is that, today, coronavirus is just about the ONLY thing on people’s minds. When you talk with your family, do you pretend you’re living in the same world you lived in two months ago? Of course not! If you want to seem in touch with reality, your story and appeal has to be all about the current threat – and how you’ll pull through together — to be perceived as relevant and supportive.

Whatever your mission, part of your business is to create a supportive community.

Do that! Here are a number of ways to build and strengthen your ties to supporters.

1. Build community using your e-newsletter, blog and social media. 

People today are hungrier than ever to hear from people they care about. Don’t worry about building big, jam-packed tomes with tons of content either. You don’t have time for that, and neither do your constituents. Quick and nimble is the order of the day. Plus you want folks to actually read what you send, right? People would rather hear from you a bit more frequently now, with just the current news (let’s face it; the news changes hour by hour). Work on your email subject headlines to encourage folks to open your email (abandon generic titles like “April Newsletter” that scream ‘business as usual.’)

2. Ask for donor feedback. 

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.

3. Send straightforward donor-centered appeals.

There’s no need to throw fundraising 101 skills out the door. The rules still apply. You should always make appeals about the work you do and the outcomes accomplished. Not because of how great you are, but because of your donors’ support. Never send an appeal that says “We need.” People don’t give because you have needs, but because of the needs that are met due to the generosity and caring of your valued supporters. 

4. Create community virtually among committed supporters who care deeply about what you do. 

You can raise money and create community simultaneously. Last week I shared a concrete example of one public school who did this in spades by quickly pivoting from an in-person to a virtual event. They had a lot of fun, no doubt made some new friends, branded themselves as both innovative and caring, and even exceeded their fundraising goal. 

Finally, here’s a little summary ‘fundraising in the time of coronavirus‘ advice:

  1. Don’t pretend things are normal. That fundraising copy you’d already prepared to send out in April just may not sit right with folks today. Perhaps you were intending to raise funds for a special project? That’s a great idea in normal times. Right now, however, may be your best chance ever to raise money for your general operating budget – without which you may not be able to keep your doors open.
  2. Be honest with your supporters. 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!
  3. Don’t abandon those who rely on you. Know that it’s not just your clients and staff who need you now; your volunteers and donors need you too! Send them reassuring, inspiring messages. Begin every communication with “How are you?”
  4. Ask for the urgent help you need. Make it easy for folks to support you by putting a ‘Covid-19’ response message front and center on your website; send folks via link to a special landing page you’ve created just for this occasion. Also send this message every way you can think of: email; social media; mail; text; phone call. Use the media at your disposal wisely and well. If it makes sense for you to start a ‘Covid-19 Rapid Response Fund,’ do so.
  5. Stay as upbeat as possible. Remember, people are worried. It’s not just you. While supporters want to help, they also need help. A reassuring word can go a long way. Let people know you’re there for them, and look forward to continuing to be there for them for a long, long time. This will pass, and folks need to know you’re committed to weathering the storm and sticking around (hopefully, with their help!)
  6. Thank, thank, thank. Thank people for everything and anything you can think of. For past support, today’s support and tomorrow’s support. For spreading the word, advocating on your behalf and simply keeping you in their thoughts and prayers. For simply being good and caring people.

Peace and good health to all.

[NOTE: If you want more concrete examples about fundraising and coping in a pandemic, please enroll in Clairification School. I’ll be sharing as many ingenious ideas as I can find, because that’s how we learn.]

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.
Claire Axelrad
By |2020-03-20T13:49:17-04:00March 23rd, 2020|COVID-19 / Coronavirus, Philanthropy, Strategic Planning|

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