Don't let Chicken Little Help with Your Annual Campaign
A nonprofit faces a financial crisis. The sky seems to be falling.
The temptation is to put those money woes at the top of the list as to why you and your volunteers are fundraising. The urgency provides the case for supporting the annual campaign, right?
In the long run, though, that “Chicken Little” approach isn’t what’s best for your organization.
To bring another animal into the mix, crying wolf — even if there really is a wolf — can only work so many times.
Sure, the money can roll in. It did with a local nonprofit affiliate I once assisted, as an internal consultant working for a large national organization. They were telling people they’d be closing without a cash infusion.
The support they received showed the community valued the organization’s work. But the campaign’s focus on shaky finances led to tremors of doubt about the group’s future.
Donors wondered if the nonprofit would be around past this particular campaign. The seeds of doubt were sewn: Would I be throwing away money if I give next time?
(Spoiler alert – they went out of business less than a year later.)
And if you want to be donor centric about it, then align all of it with what the donor is trying to accomplish with their philanthropy. How are you helping meet the donor’s goals and dreams for their community?
Like that 90s rap tune, you need to show potential donors, “This Is How We Do It.”
What programming do you offer? What are the success stories you have to show its effectiveness? What statistics at hand make the case that you’re making a difference?
That’s not to say you avoid mention of the cash crunch. You and your volunteers must be prepared to answer questions about the issue, front and center.
You need to remain calm, confident and truthful.
One of my favorite movie scenes is at the end of Animal House. Take a look for a laugh. What I am suggesting is the opposite of Kevin Bacon’s character Chip Diller’s panicked plea. As the parade turned into a riot, the scared look on his face convinced no one to “Remain calm! All is well.”
Panic spreads like a bad cold. People don’t make good decisions when they’re afraid.
Rather, it’s imperative to be cool as a cucumber. Everyone looks to the CEO to lead in situations like this. Here are a few things you may want to consider:
Work collaboratively with board, staff and key donors to develop a 90-day plan
If you are embarking on any kind of fundraising campaign during this time, be prepared to share this plan with those who ask to see it
Collaboratively work with board and staff to ascertain what caused the monetary hiccup in the first place
Include these answers in your campaign FAQ document, train volunteers how to use this tool (and how not to use this tool)
Train your campaign volunteers to walk that fine line by not making your crisis the center of your case for support but not running from, hiding and obfuscating the truth
When asked by potential donors about the crisis, volunteers now can say with certainty: “We came up with a short-term fix. We figured out what led to the problem. And we have a plan in place to prevent the crisis from happening again.”
Transparency is what your volunteers AND your donors deserve. Nobody likes to feel they are being deceived.
Money matters aside, potential donors have been left wary by one-too-many nonprofit controversies.
Take a moment and try to imagine how donors would feel if you shaded the truth about how you would be using their hard-earned money? Consider how social media can spread rumor and innuendo if you remain tight-lipped.
Adults want to be treated as adults. They CAN handle the truth.
Remember, too, that those who give to your nonprofit are making an investment. The return they seek comes from the social capital the work their money provides, the good that it does.
Playing up a potential closing for a short-term gain can put long-time supporters through an emotional wringer.
I still can picture one donor brought to tears when she heard her favorite nonprofit might shutter its doors. The donor felt this like the loss of a loved one.
They felt they were making a difference. Now they weren’t so sure.
They had convinced friends to donate to the organization. Now they were embarrassed to face their friends.
When trust evaporates, it devastates.
Nonprofits need to stop believing philanthropy comes from the head. It comes from the heart, and it can take a mighty long time to get over a broken heart.
So, in the aftermath of your crisis, arm your volunteers with facts. Presented with a consistent clarity, those facts will serve your annual campaign well.
It will take training a special set of volunteers to do so, not a Chicken Little among them.
Erik Anderson, CBCS is a consultant and coach who specializes in nonprofit fundraising and organizational development issues. In his 20+ years of working on the frontline of the nonprofit sector, as an internal consultant for Boys & Girls Clubs of America and currently as an external consultant for his company The Healthy Non-Profit LLC, he has helped raise tens of millions of dollars in support. He has also helped countless CEOs, fundraising professionals and board of directors develop bigger organizational muscles and grow their sense of sustainability.