By Kelly R. Young
Amid all the other ways that COVID-19 is affecting the fundraising landscape—donors losing jobs, cancellation of major fundraising events, etc.—how does a recession impact fundraisers and philanthropy? How is COVID-19 impacting the fundraising landscape overall? What should fundraisers do in the midst of a global pandemic?
To help answer these questions, we asked two nationally renowned fundraising experts and adjunct faculty members of The Fund Raising School for their opinions and insights into the ever-changing fundraising landscape.
Kay Sprinkel Grace, FAFP, author, and international speaker is one of the most respected voices in the fundraising profession. She was recently named the 2020 Outstanding Fundraising Professional by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Since starting her own consulting firm, Transforming Philanthropy, in 1989, Grace has helped nonprofit organizations raise billions of dollars to reach their annual and campaign goals through strategic support of their fundraising and board development efforts.
Karla A. Williams, M.A., ACRFE, consultant, teacher, author, and speaker, has inspired organizations across the country to accomplish unlimited goals with limited resources. She motivates her students and colleagues with her keen sense of the donor environment, her propensity for challenging assumptions, her principled participative leadership philosophy, and her unique classroom levity. Karla is an organizational consultant with more than 35 years of professional nonprofit leadership. Her firm, The Williams Group, has assisted over 300 nonprofits to develop strong donor-focused cultures.
Are we able to draw any comparisons to the Great Recession of 2007-09?
Grace: There is an important distinction in that the Great Recession was an economic crisis only; this is a health crisis. I believe there are some parallels in donor behavior in seeing that people want to give and make a difference. As fundraisers, we need to communicate the need and show the impact of how giving is making a difference.
Williams: I believe these are two different scenarios, and we cannot overplay economics with a significant health crisis. We may not want to use the recession as an example to learn from, but rather learn to monitor what is happening and leverage what is going on to better communicate with our donors.
How is COVID-19 impacting the fundraising landscape?
Grace: I see the greatest impacts in major donor fundraising and the importance of communicating impact. What donors need to see during times like this is that their social investment is making a difference. As fundraisers, we need to adjust and be creative. We need to think differently too. While we are continuing to social distance and hold meetings and events virtually, how can we personalize a very cold platform, such as Zoom? Something as simple as using the Gallery view on Zoom and identifying people by name can feel more personal. Just when you think you have mastered your craft, something new evolves. Recognize it, accept it, and adapt. Our industry has not changed; the tools have.
Williams: What COVID-19 has done to philanthropy has disrupted people’s perception of health and safety, and when people are uncertain about their future, their giving slows down. COVID-19 has created unintended circumstances that affect people’s ability to stay focused and to be optimistic. The uncertainty that we are experiencing affects people’s attitudes and behaviors that will absolutely affect philanthropy. Giving is very therapeutic and allows people to be a part of a solution. Our role is to continue to communicate with them and invite them along the journey to solve the issue at hand. I advise fundraisers at this time to continue to foster and safeguard all relationships, because those who are holding tight right now may give in the future. In the absence of giving, maintain relationships.
What should fundraisers do amid a global pandemic?
Grace: To be successful right now, organizations need to show flexibility, innovation, and acceptance to change. We need to refrain from using the term “that’s the way we’ve always done it” because the one thing that COVID-19 has taught us is nothing is the same. Relationships with donors that included in-person solicitation meetings are now being done virtually. Events are now online, and we are finding new and creative ways to engage with a variety of audiences. Nonprofits tend to be apologetic when calling on a donor or making an ask, when now is the time to stand boldly and demonstrate how the needs we meet as a sector are profound. People give to us because we meet needs, not because we have needs; show it. Protect partnerships by being open, honest, and transparent.
Williams: Now is the time to over-communicate with donors. They will choose how much and what they want to listen to. Call them to ask how they are doing, not to ask for money. Send weekly updates from your executive director. Highlight success stories. Drill back to the basics and show your impact. Keep donors informed; the good news and the bad news, but at the same time show hope instead of despair and desperation.
Treat all donors in a way that shows you are grateful for their partnership no matter the size and type of gift. As fundraisers, we are guilty of focusing on the donors who give the most. However, we need to focus on everybody and every gift. This is an opportunity to have donors serve as champions for you, not just with a financial gift, but as an influencer who can share your message of impact in the community. We need to consider fundraising as a full-blown profession, backed with research. We should not apologize for asking for money but demonstrate the need and the impact of a gift, whether that is a gift of time, talent, or treasure. I believe philanthropy is love of humankind, and that love needs to be nurtured. Cultivation is critical.
The takeaway here? Rather than view this pandemic as the demise of fundraising efforts, fundraisers need to look at this as a time to pivot in the way in which they raise money while seizing an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with their donors. Connections are even more important in this time of social distancing. We are all learning to change and adapt, and fundraising is no different.
Kelly Young, president of Baise Communications, is an award-winning public relations counselor with 25+ years of experience in working with nonprofit and small businesses. She has worked in nearly every capacity of public relations throughout her career and has a proven track record of success in media relations, social media, brand management, communications planning, and community relations. She has built a strong reputation within the community and is sought after for her industry expertise and thought leadership. Kelly is a natural storyteller and an enthusiastic advocate for causes.