Asking Now: Fundraising with Empathy through COVID-19
Uncertainty is pervasive during these times. Concerns exist around health and wellness, employment and paychecks, and how to even interact with people during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraisers are asking questions like: what does this mean for our major gift efforts? How can we send out appeals during this time? What are we supposed to do now? Many are feeling frozen by uncertainty through this situation. While our current environment is unprecedented, this is not the first-time uncertainty has permeated society, let alone the nonprofit fundraising landscape.
There are many lessons learned from past experiences that can help guide an organization through this crisis. The key is to take these lessons and correctly apply them to the current situation dependent on the types of donors with which the organization is interacting. The common thread while fundraising during trying times is empathy. It is critical for nonprofits to be more donor centric than ever before. Donors want to support their favorite causes and it is imperative that organizations show these donors that their funds will be well used through the current situation. Be upfront and honest about what is and is not possible for your organization at this time.
Although nothing quite compares to our current situation, crises have impacted the nonprofit sector and fundraising efforts before. The 2008-2009 recession is similar in correlation to the economic impact felt across the nation today. That said, many nonprofits were still able to continue raising funds during this time. According to PR News, in 2008 -2009, individuals made up 80% of charitable contributions. Overall, individuals have always given more than corporations and grant making foundations, and in 2008-2009 we saw that trend grow. From this, we were able to learn the importance of individual fundraising during a crisis. This means that organizations today should continue to focus and be strategic around donor centric fundraising.
The growth and publicity of COVID-19 relief funding gives the impression that corporations and foundations are prime prospects for cultivation and solicitation right now. In some instances, this may be true, but it is important to remain focused on individuals. Generally speaking, individuals support philanthropy more than institutions do, and individuals typically do so with more flexible and unrestricted giving. Additionally, their emotional connection to your work will make them more likely to prioritize support during economic downturns.
Asking Right Now
It is okay to be soliciting donors for gifts right now. Your mission remains important and many donors are still connected to your organization. However, it is important that potential donors be cultivated through a deliberate and specific process and one that differs from what you were doing just a few months ago. To cultivate a donor for an ask in the current environment, donors must move through the stages described below. Some will move quickly and others not at all.
- Communicate authentically: Take this time to connect with your donors. Show your donors that you care. Pick up the phone, send an email, use tools such as social media, surveys, discussion groups, etc., to engage with your donors for no other reason than to see how they are doing and how they are being impacted by the pandemic.
- Be transparent about the impact on your organization: Be sure donors and prospects understand how the pandemic is impacting your organization and what you are doing differently because of it. Discuss how your organization is evolving and providing services in a new way. Keeping your donors updated will keep them engaged with your organization.
- Ask for permission to ask: Right now might not seem like the best time to make an ask, however, it is important that fundraising not halt. After completing the first two stages of outreach, you understand their situation, and they now understand your situation as well as why you must move forward. Things are different now and the simplest way to ensure you don’t offend a donor by making an ask in this environment is to ask their permission to ask.
- Make the ask: Once permission is granted, go ahead and make the ask. Clearly lay out the critical needs of the organization and solicit support as you would normally.
When reaching out to different donor types, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Annual Donors: When making individual phone calls is not practical, mass communication is fine, but it is important that the tone expresses empathy and addresses the specifics of the current situation. The email blast you scheduled two months ago may no longer be appropriate, but that does not mean you should cease all communication.
- Major Donors: An easy question to ask, do they have a Donor Advised Fund? Since the money has already been donated, a gift from a DAF would have no impact on their current financial situation. Gifts from DAFs have increased 20% from this time last year. Times like these are why DAFs were created and now is the time to ask your donors to give through them.
- Board Members: Maintaining the relationship and confidence of your board is more beneficial now than ever before. Keep them involved in the strategic direction of the organization and ask them how they would like to be engaged. Ask how this is impacting their philanthropy to also better understand if your organization can integrate them further into your fundraising efforts.
While every prospective and current donor should experience the stages described above, each of your donor types will experience these stages differently. Fundraising is about people and relationships, and this is a great opportunity to remember that we are all human. Reach out to your donors and check in with them. Some may be struggling and hearing from an organization they support could help. Others might still have resources, and this is a great way to remind them you could use their support during this difficult time. Every conversation will be different; at the very least, you may connect with a donor you’ve never spoken to before, and at the very best, they make a gift.