Campaigns: What Now?
Authored by: Craig Shelley
With the COVID-19 pandemic coming on the heels of a long and significant period of economic growth, many nonprofits are now finding themselves in the midst of aggressive comprehensive growth, capital or endowment campaigns. While over the few past weeks we have focused first and foremost on the personal well-being of our staff and constituents as well as the operational considerations needed to advance our mission in significantly new circumstances, for those organizations in or on the verge of launching campaigns the question has become, what now?
We’re experiencing two simultaneous and unique events: a pandemic and an economic downturn, which for the first time is driven by our own need to essentially shutter large portions of our economy simultaneously. The pandemic is an unprecedented experience. The cause of the economic situation is unique. However, once social distancing and other pandemic-specific protections are lifted, we’ll be dealing with an economic situation that, while different than recent recessions, presents a fundraising environment that we have experienced before.
I would caution us not to panic or immediately lurch in a new direction. Making fast decisions is crucial in a crisis, but campaigns are necessarily long for just this reason. Significant fundraising campaigns are typically designed to take place over 3-5 years for several reasons, but a key rationale has always been to avoid being at the mercy of specific economic circumstances. The physical, emotional and economic impacts of this pandemic are still to be determined, but the fact that recent economic downturns have tended to be short remains relevant. A 3-5-year campaign will inevitably include different economic cycles that, over time, even out the financial impact on your donors. While the timing might be particularly challenging for your campaign and, as many of those in campaigns in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis experienced, necessarily lengthen the overall campaign, the current situation won’t doom your campaign long-term.
Right now, communication is your number one priority. You should communicate broadly with your donors and prospects focusing first and foremost on your concern for their health and well-being. Explain the steps you have taken and the immediate reactions and adaptations your organization is undergoing to move forward. In addition, make sure your board members and campaign leadership are fully briefed and have input on your path forward. Now more than ever, nonprofit management is a team sport. If you haven’t done these things yet, please stop reading and do so right now.
Next it is important to segment and communicate one-on-one to several key campaign constituencies.
- Those that are currently paying off pledges: Tier these donors based on pledge size and immediacy of next payment, and then assign the appropriate staff or volunteer leader to have a conversation with them. The message needs to start with your concern for their well-being and your recognition that circumstances have changed, but make sure to reiterate that the needs and priorities of your nonprofit and community have not. With that in mind, a very blunt and tactical conversation about their pledge payment schedule needs to be had. This includes, assuming your cash situation will permit it, your willingness to adjust payment schedules and sizes with the ultimate goal of retaining the full value of the entire pledge.
- Those that have been solicited and are considering their response or pledge paperwork right now: This is probably our most skittish audience at the moment. Even if three-weeks ago they committed verbally to a significant multi-year pledge, this has been three-weeks like no other. As with any conversation at this time, start with your concern for their well-being and that of their family. For those whom are most directly impacted by health challenges within their immediate family, or with their livelihoods – those in hospitality or other businesses that have seen their cash flow literally go to zero overnight – the conversation basically stops there. You should signal that when the timing is right you will continue the conversation about their gift but recognize that obviously priorities have changed for them. You don’t want them to answer no or with a lesser pledge right now, so best to ensure they know you no longer expect an answer on the pre-existing timeline. For those less immediately impacted, the ask or their prior verbal commitment is still on the table for discussion. Tread lightly and ensure they know you recognize things have changed and are open to different pledge schedules (if you are accepting multi-year pledges explicitly say pledge amounts don’t have to be equal each year and that the donor can make smaller payments now with larger ones in out years). Don’t provide an opening to a lesser amount unless they request it. Keep the conversation focused on terms and not gift size.
- Prospects you have yet to solicit for leadership, principal or major gifts: What do you do with the prospect you are scheduled to meet next week and with whom you’ve made the perfect moves and primed for the ask? Unfortunately, you are no longer asking next week. A prime purpose of campaigns is to solicit prospects for their largest possible gift to your mission. Now is not the time to do that. As pandemic measures lift and the economic picture becomes clearer, even if in its clarity we define a recession or worse, it will be time to make new asks. Unless you absolutely must, it is best not to solicit large gifts now, but to instead use the time to express empathy, share information, clearly communicate that the campaign is continuing forward, perhaps with the organizational needs now greater than ever. Smaller solicitations, particularly if your organization is on the frontlines of the crisis or amongst those most severely impacted, are completely appropriate and with tweaks in messaging should continue. But for those solicitations that would stretch a donor and prove transformational to your work, it is important to tap the breaks for the next 3-6 weeks.
If you have been on the verge of launching a campaign, likewise, now is a time to proceed cautiously but not to come to a full stop. There are a few areas where you can focus attention now to ensure you are well positioned to be more aggressive in moving forward in 3-6 weeks.
- Campaign Leadership: If you were approaching the active launch of a campaign your first step would have been to secure volunteer leadership; that shouldn’t change. Prospective campaign leaders should be close to your organization and its leaders and have already been socialized to the idea of the campaign. If you planned to secure their participation or to hold your first meeting of the leadership in the weeks to come, you can and should move forward. Their familiarity to your work and the importance of maintaining some momentum makes them ideal candidates for meetings over Zoom or other video conferencing platforms.
- Lead gift prospects: As I mentioned above, new solicitations of this significance should be put on hold unless absolutely needed over the next few weeks. But remember, now is not the time to avoid contact with these prospects. Ensure they are recipients of your authentic empathy for their personal situations and well versed in your organization’s response. Importantly, ensure they understand how this will increase the urgency of the campaign you are still planning to launch and look forward to discussing with them when some normalcy returns. Be deliberate about reaching out and conversing via video or phone with these prospects now. Don’t make an ask but ensure they know what you are thinking and that you are thinking of them. Also be sure to listen and understand how this crisis is impacting them and might need to impact your solicitation plans longer term.
- Fine tune your case for support: Rare is the organization that thinks their campaign case for support is entirely perfect. Now is a great time to work towards that perfection. Tighten the language, but more importantly reevaluate your nonprofit’s needs coming out of this environment and ensure your campaign priorities align. How has the urgency or relevance of your mission changed based on the COVID-19 pandemic? Adjust your case to lean into the positive stories and circumstances.
Overall, campaigns that were vital to a nonprofit four weeks ago are even more vital now. They should not be cancelled or even paused; they should continue in the weeks ahead with a donor centric approach that moves carefully and with authentic compassion. The long game of donor relationships continues, and solicitation schedules adapt. Organizations with a strong case as well as the leadership and fundraising resources to articulate that case to the right audience will still reach their ambitious campaign goals.