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To Ask or Not to Ask - Today's Nonprofit Coronavirus Question

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It’s not insensitive to ask right now. It’s totally appropriate. Just as always, people can decline. But don’t deny them the opportunity!

Most every donor has in their heart a desire to help and do good deeds – and sometimes this desire is especially strong during times like the ones we’re in. The heart wants what the heart wants. The heart doesn’t change.

Finding some sort of balance should be at the heart of your asking strategy today. Be sensitive to how your donor may be feeling. Some are facing economic collapse. Some are too afraid to act right now. Others have seen a diminution in their stock and bond portfolio, but will still be fine. 

Talk to your donors about how they’re doing. Do so with sensitivity and empathy. Show you care about them. As people, not just donors. Let them know you’ve no idea how this pandemic may be affecting them, personally and professionally. Listen and empathize with what they tell you. Depending on what you do, you may even be able to help them. At least put out an offer of help, and a listening ear, should they need you in the future. Then… share with them the situation for your organization and those who rely on your programs and services.

Ask donors for their permission to invite them to be a hero at this time. Gently ask them if it would be possible for them to support you today with a special gift. Tell them you don’t know how much they might be able to give, but… you have a fundraising goal to meet. Can they contribute? Some will say no. Others will say yes. Still others will say “no, not right now, sadly… but please come back to me later and I’ll definitely make a gift.”

Okay. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

WHO should you talk to?

  • Committed consistent donors want to stay that way! It’s actually one of Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Influence that affect human behaviors. Folks are social creatures bent on creating and sustaining social bonds. If they’ve said “yes” to you once they’re more likely to do so again to demonstrate their consistency and commitment. This principle is also known as “foot in the door.”
  • Begin with recency as a criteria. Those who’ve given to you in the past year are your most loyal, committed supporters. Lapsed donors may give. But they’re not your priority right now as your percentage return on investment will be low.
  • Talk with major donor prospects you need to ‘qualify’ to be included in your cultivation (moves management) portfolio. Whereas in ordinary times they might not have had the bandwidth or inclination to open the door you’ve got your foot in, today is extraordinary. They just may want to build a relationship with someone right now; it might as well be you!
  • Talk with purchasers of services who may be willing to forego a refund and convert to a donation. I’ve talked with organizations having great success with this strategy for cancelled performances and fundraising events. And, to some extent, canceled spring and summer camps. If they’re not willing to forego the full refund, perhaps you can agree to a split – and maybe offer some sort of ‘gift’ as a token of your appreciation. It could be first dibs on camp spaces next year. Or upgraded seats once your arts organization is back up and running. Or it can even be as simple as a downloadable certificate you send them that says “I Helped Save [Name of Your Organization] during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic!” Grab some other creative ways to thank and reward your donors HERE.

WHAT should you ask for: 3 types of emergency asks:

1. Support for shortfalls.

Be transparent about the shortfall you’ve identified for the next 3, 6, and 9 months. You can even project this out longer if that’s a likely scenario for your organization. We’re in a marathon here, not a sprint. Don’t just say “times are tough and we’re going to need more money.” Set a goal so donors can step up to the plate to help you meet that goal. This will not only be more helpful to you, it is also more satisfying for your donors.

2. Specific, urgent response.

Be clear what funds will be used for. If you had an event planned, for example, you may want to announce all funds raised will go for a specific purpose rather than ‘general operating support.’ This will seem more timely and urgent; therefore, more compelling. Consider setting up a “COVID-19 Response Fund.” This reassures donors their money will be used as they intend.

3. Membership PLUS.

A “Please renew your membership” message is fine, but also ask if people will consider an additional, one-time emergency gift to support you during these difficult times. Explain why you need this. “Because … you’re experiencing a shortfall… needing to ramp up emergency response efforts…” and so forth. This holds true, also, if you generally rely on income from tickets or subscriptions.

WHEN should you ask?

Now, now, now! You still have time to ask while folks are feeling a genuine need to be helpful. As a philanthropy facilitator, your job is to offer people the opportunity to find joy, meaning and purpose. Now is your golden moment. This is not crass, manipulative, sleazy, greedy or any such negative thing! Fundraising, as my mentor Hank Rosso (founder of “The Fundraising School” now part of the Lily School of Philanthropy at Indiana University) used to say: “The gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.

Don’t worry about intruding on a time when folks have their own worries. Go gently into this good night. You should never presume to make someone else’s decision. People can say ‘no’ for themselves. And, in fact, I’ve found the times people are facing their darkest hours are precisely the times they most want to connect with and help others.

HOW should you talk to folks?

Your job:

  • Reach out. You can send an email or text first to let folks know you’ll be calling to check in on them.
  • Check in. Begin by expressing genuine concern for how they’re doing. Let them know you want to be sure they’re okay. Because they’ve always helped your organization be okay. Show you care about them as more than just ‘donors.’
  • Appreciate your donor. Thank them for being there for you. Share from your heart to theirs. They care. You care. Mutual caring is more needed than ever.
  • Present the need. Supporters want to know how your organization is faring right now. They’ve always been interested in what you do. They’re no less interested now. Let’s say you’re an arts organization, and you’re concerned donors may think this isn’t ‘essential’ right now. Wrong. Arts donors do believe the arts are essential. Probably now more than ever.
  • Give the donor permission to say no or yes. Be gentle approaching the topic of philanthropic giving right now. Understand some of your donors won’t be able to continue giving at last year’s levels. While some donors may actually be able to do a bit more. Let them tell you.
  • Let the donor know how you’ll continue to be in touch. Relationship building today is, more than ever, the name of the game. If you have plans to keep updating folks on your program (and fundraising) status, let them know. If you’ll be sharing on social media platforms, tell them. Be clear about how they can best communicate with you.

Your opportunity:

  • Get in touch with your essential mission. Remind yourself why your work is so important. This makes it easier to express the vitality of your work to donors. Passion for your cause has always been your best friend. It still is.
  • Share stories you hear from your supporters. Perhaps one of your donors is a front-line worker. Ask them to tell you what it’s like in the trenches. Get creative in figuring out how their story is related to your mission. 
  • Get testimonials from frontline workers and others about how essential your work is. You can do this, after a fashion, even if you’re not a medical, healthcare, science, child care, animal rescue or food delivery organization. For example, arts organizations can solicit feedback from folks who appreciated a virtual theater broadcast, streaming music or shared video uploaded to YouTube. Environmental organizations can share beautiful nature photos; then ask folks to comment on how these made them feel. 

Your fundraising in a pandemic logistics:

  • Don’t meet in person!
  • Email, phone and snail mail are your best tools. For donors who use social media, that’s another option – though maybe a bit less personal. You’d be amazed how much people want to talk to you right now!
  • Consider text as another form of ‘talking.’ I recently had a board member I was enlisting to make calls say to me: I’ve had it with phone solicitations, even for causes I love. So: how do we get people to take the call and listen? Maybe there’s a way to mix means of contact? If there’s a fresh new way to approach this, that’s what I’m after, something novel and irresistible. So… I looked it up and found 95% of texts are opened within 3 minutes! Different strokes are appreciated by different folks.
  • Try out digital tools that enable you to see people face-to-face. There is a power and beauty in seeing people’s faces. If your meeting is with someone you would ordinarily invite for coffee, lunch, dinner, a tour or some other form of contact in which you could assess their interest, passion, boredom or other emotions via their body language, then using a meeting application is your best bet. Zoom, Ring, Skype, and Facetime are among your options.

We are together, on one planet.

There’s no escaping the fact our fates our very much bound to one another. It’s time to take stock. Go back to the basics. Figure out what’s really important, and what really doesn’t matter much.

We all need to know we’re not alone. Think about your personal and professional mission. How can you be of service? Even if it’s one small thing, think of how you can share your gifts. It’s the human thing to do during a time when folks are feeling fearful and isolated. Make a phone call. Sing someone a song. Write someone a letter or a poem. Schedule a virtual coffee date. Video yourself doing a little dance. Take a photo of your cute pet and share it. Most important: just check in.

You are, as always, on the front line of making the world a better place.

Whatever you do, and however you may have to put activities ‘on pause’ right now, people need you.

  • Your staff needs you now to be honest with them, to support them as best you can, and to give them meaningful work they can do safely.
  • Volunteers and donors need you now to connect with them right now and help them in whatever way is humanly possible.
  • Your beneficiaries and members need you now to continue your frontline mission and innovate so you can offer programs and services in new ways.
  • When the disease abates, everyone will need you again to continue your vital mission – be it saving lives, supporting families, children, seniors and vulnerable populations, rescuing animals,  saving the planet, preventing injustice, promoting equality, finding a cure, educating, informing, entertaining… you wouldn’t be in business if your mission didn’t matter.
  • There’s a need for what you do – yesterday, today and tomorrow — evidenced by the support you’ve generated up to this point. Never forget that. Your community doesn’t want to let your mission die any more than do you.

Stay healthy. Stay sane. Stay empathic and compassionate. Take some deep breaths. Muster every resource at your disposal. Call on your friends for help. Help your friends. Soldier on.

You can’t do everything, but you can do something. Do what you can.

If everyone does this, and pulls together, it will be enough.

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