An informal survey among five fundraisers I know across nonprofit sectors illustrated that this group is resilient, nimble, thoughtful, and deeply committed to helping the organizations they serve meet their missions—especially during a pandemic.
As fundraising consultant and philanthropy leader Yolanda Johnson said, “Fundraisers are the beacons of light and hope that illuminate the path to the good work needed in the world today.”
Three questions framed the conversations with the fundraisers.
- What fundraising strategies worked well during the pandemic?
- What did you do in 2020 during the pandemic that you might continue in a post-pandemic world?
- What kept you moving forward and positive during the crisis?
Granted, although the pace of vaccinations has accelerated, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across society. Nonprofits may experience financial hardship into the future as the country recovers from this crisis. Yet, each of the fundraisers expressed optimism and hope during our conversations.
Meet the fearless five:
Theresa Butler-Porter, CFRE, holds the role of philanthropic relations at Lakefield College School, a co-ed boarding and day school for students in Grades 9-12 in Lakefield, Ontario.
Trish Jackson is interim senior VP for development and alumni engagement at The New School in New York City, NY, a role she began in November 2020 working for a new president who had started in April 2020.
Katie Prine is senior director of philanthropy at Second Helpings, a food recovery and hunger-relief agency in Indianapolis, IN.
Bente Weitekamp is vice president of development for Community Health Network Foundation in Indianapolis, IN.
Diane Wortis is director of advancement at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA, a role she started in February 2020, just before the pandemic changed everything.
What fundraising strategies worked well during the pandemic?
Theresa said that the ability to recognize that “we are all in this together” grounded her conversations with Lakefield’s donors. She enjoyed the opportunity to engage people who really cared about the organization, especially the “silent supporters” whose voices are not often heard. “Donors want to know what is going on,” she said. As a fundraiser, Theresa asked, “How can I help you help us?”
For Trish, multi-generation Zoom meetings with families took off during the pandemic. She relayed that one development officer set up a meeting with an 80-year-old donor who then invited his son-in-law to join the meeting. The son-in-law serves on a board of one of the New School’s units. The son-in-law invited his husband, the 80-year-old’s son, who invited his sister to join the meeting. Ultimately, the father, mother, their two children, and both in-laws participated in the meeting; once the original meeting was set up, the rest happened organically.
Second Helpings moved donor activity online. Working with Google docs, Katie and her team made thank you calls to donors. She hosted “meals” online with small groups of donors and found that video worked well to keep the donors engaged. Donors who had not previously attended live events joined the Zoom gatherings, which received “rave reviews.”
Bente shared that Community Health Network had the first COVID patient in the city at one of their hospitals. At first, the foundation put fundraising on hold but within a week, they recognized the need to fundraise through the crisis.
An urgent appeal in the early summer raised funds for behavioral health because they realized that it was “an epidemic within the pandemic.” The foundation was flexible and nimble and focused on grassroots efforts to raise funds.
Diane also had great success with small virtual events. Mahaiwe, a presenting arts organization, has access to many talented arts experts. In one instance, Mahaiwe engaged a Julliard lecturer on opera to shift his regular Metropolitan Opera performance lecture to Zoom
Ninety donors “showed up” for that lecture, almost three times the number who attended the in-person lecture. The Zoom opera lecture has continued on a biweekly basis for the last year, and Mahaiwe has received many new gifts from appreciative donors as a result.
What did you do in 2020 during the pandemic that you might continue in a post-pandemic world?
Theresa said that because she was working at home and had fewer distractions, she was able to be more intentional about the amount of time spent with donors. She was more proactive in talking with donors about philanthropy, which has resulted in larger and more frequent gifts.
Taking the time to understand better what moved them to support the school initially has paved the way to ensuring that future conversations are focused on what best serves the donors’ priorities and align with the school’s vision for the future.
As a VP of advancement, Trish said the pandemic showed that people can successfully work remotely. With a big picture perspective, she envisions that the New School and other higher education institutions will be more willing for people to work remotely; this approach opens up the talent pool tremendously. Further, she said the New School is looking at limiting their rental space footprint and will encourage staff to participate in hoteling rather than have assigned office space.
Katie said that she will continue the video component they started with donors and use it for committee meetings, too. The Zoom engagement expands Second Helpings’ audience beyond central Indiana.
Bente anticipates that the foundation will continue to be nimble and aware of the tone and sound of things. Foundation staff did more personalized stewardship; for example, a fundraiser would call and tell the donor “your gift arrived today and thank you” instead of waiting to acknowledge the gift after it was processed. She said that the extra attention goes a long way.
Like Katie at Second Helpings, Diane will continue to engage small groups via Zoom. In RSVPing to a virtual major donor event planned for April 2021, a donor at her winter home in Florida said “you made it easier for me to join you.”
Diane senses that the arts may continue to host hybrid events in the post-pandemic world, an approach that may attract younger and new audiences who might not have been able to afford to attend live events.
What kept you moving forward and positive during the crisis?
Theresa found her constant interaction with donors refreshing and energizing. She approached fundraising during the pandemic asking “how can I make people feel seen?” She found that success brings more success; success is an “adrenaline pump.”
When donors were encouraged to participate, to further understand the challenges and the opportunities, both short and long term, they were more likely to commit to an ongoing role in the fulfillment of future strategies. At Lakefield, it is the current—and future—students who will benefit most from these enriched philanthropic relationships.
For Trish, who began the interim leadership position in November 2020, everything was new and that excited her. New School leadership provided her a clear roadmap for her work, including a mandate to provide healing, leadership, and mentorship to the development staff who had not been laid off early in the pandemic. Despite a 50 percent reduction in staff, the New School raised more in the past year than it had the year before.
Katie, who is passionate about Second Helpings’ mission, was motivated to move forward because she knew she was making a difference. She said that the staff, which is also mission-driven, relied on each other a lot and worked together harmoniously.
For Diane, her Mahaiwe colleagues kept her moving and strong. When she was overwhelmed, she knew she could call any one of them for help and support. The younger staff kept her on track, too, especially with technology.
Working in healthcare, Bente and her team were at the heart of the crisis. Like Katie, the mission kept her focused and motivated. She knew the patients needed them to raise the dollars and that the foundation needed to support internal caregivers such as nurses and environmental service works. That her work is all about people helping people sustained Bente during the pandemic.
The two-minute video below highlighting the health care foundation’s work in 2020 is an uplifting reminder of the important work fundraisers do every day. Thank you to the fearless five and all fundraisers—beacons of light who make the world a better place.