As I write, we are about to mark the six-month anniversary of the day the World Health Organization announced that the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe would be called “COVID-19.” Since then, all of us in the world of fundraising have faced ever-changing challenges as we’ve worked to inspire donor support and discern a path to recovery.
As we continue this work, I’d like to share a few insights I hope will be useful, based on my own experience over four decades in fundraising and on the experience of our firm over the past few months as we’ve partnered with nonprofits experiencing the current moment in different ways.
My focus: how to control the damage we are seeing and to seize the opportunities that this challenging time—like all challenging times—presents us with. To explore this question, I am going to focus in turn on three groups of nonprofits, each impacted differently by the crisis.
If You’re Thriving…
Let’s start by looking at those fortunate organizations that in recent months have found themselves thriving. These are nonprofits that have been thrust by circumstances into the heart of the action and into the public eye. Typical of this group are agencies and institutions focused on food insecurity, homelessness, job training, and, of course, certain kinds of health care and medical research.
Many of these have not only seen record demand for their services, but also record support. The challenge they face is to sustain the momentum. This means converting gifts into donors—one-time spontaneous acts of generosity into committed benefactors. The key step in this process is to secure that all-important second gift from each donor. Organizations looking to do so not only have to make the right asks at the right moments, but also rapidly ramp up their stewardship and cultivation. They have to aggressively report on their success and impact.
One of S&W’s clients that’s now implementing these measures is Philabundance, the Philadelphia area’s largest hunger relief organization and one that is very much thriving. In this recent article, members of the S&W team working with Philabundance describe their approach, particularly in screening the influx of new donors in order to feed the mid-level and major gift pipeline.
If You’re Struggling
A second category of nonprofits—perhaps the majority—I can best describe as struggling. Many have seen their operations significantly curtailed, including arts-based and visitor-based institutions, from zoos to historical societies. For these, earned income in the form of ticket sales and memberships has taken a serious hit in a way we’ve not seen in past recessions. For some, this has meant the need for layoffs. For most, it has also meant that they are simply not on the radar—not in the forefront of public focus or donors’ minds in the way they would hope.
In response, these organizations need to assert their presence and relevance through aggressive multichannel marketing. This may mean offering new classes online, launching birding expeditions members can join via mobile phone, or bringing guests into museum galleries for virtual interactive experiences—all successful tactics we’ve recently seen and strongly applaud.
Of course, these organizations need to be equally assertive in appealing to their donors. The key here is to focus on past loyal supporters and to be completely transparent in doing so. These are the people who not only believe in your organization’s mission, but have ranked it as a philanthropic priority. They will be the key to weathering this storm.
If You’re Fragile…
One of the most unfortunate ways in which the present crisis differs from those we’ve seen in the past is that this event has not simply stressed nonprofits, but has pushed a number of them right to the brink. In many ways, these fragile organizations are like those I’ve described as struggling, except more vulnerable and more deeply impacted. Some have seen their services discontinued. Many have been forced to make deep staff cuts. None have the resources to weather current conditions over the long term.
If your nonprofit is facing this situation, the first step is to turn to your Board. This is the circle of people more deeply committed than any other to your organization’s mission, well-being, and future. I hesitate to say that you need them now more than ever, but this is truly a now-more-than-ever moment.
Next, look to your top donors—the 25, 50, or 100 individuals and institutions that have supported you most faithfully and significantly over the years. Aggressively re-engage with each of them. Remind them why they have given to you in the past and underscore the critical importance of their support now.
Finally, consider new and possibly radical steps such as organizational mergers. These go beyond business as usual—and also beyond your control as a fundraiser, but they can help your work in important ways. Philanthropic investors want to see a return on their investment, and they are inclined to reward bold and resourceful actions like these.
No Matter Who You Are…
I recognize that grouping the entire nonprofit world into three categories is a crude generalization at best. In reality, every organization has been affected differently by recent events and must respond differently.
That said, there are also steps I believe that every organization should take, whatever the details of their situation. These range from doubling down on stewardship to updating your philanthropic messaging in order to connect your mission clearly to this moment. These are clear necessities.
The single most important action, however, is to plan—to engage in an immediate, accelerated update of your strategic plan. In doing so, I recommend you employ the tools of scenario planning, developing not one, but multiple roadmaps to follow, depending on the course the pandemic and the economy take. Planning now is essential not only to guide your organization forward but also to inspire the confidence of your donors. A solid action plan presents them with fundable opportunities for impact.
If your organization is too focused on tactical matters to think strategically, that needs to change—and you can help. Become a voice of leadership on this key matter and take your seat at the table.
In these difficult, unprecedented times, development professionals have the opportunity and responsibility to play a vitally important role. Ordinarily, our work may enable organizations to grow, achieve progress, and fulfill their missions in more powerful ways. Now, it may be essential to their survival. All of us at S&W applaud your commitment and wish you success as you step up to the challenge!