Rachel Cyrulnik, Chani Adams, Lauren Cotton, and Sharon Weiss Greenberg
It started theoretically: Nonprofit leaders wondered whether and how Covid-19 would impact their work. But quickly the reality set in as organizations started canceling events planned for months, and fundraisers panicked as the stock market hits record lows.
Amid all the bad news, there is one bright spot: Nonprofits that have been strengthening relationships with donors, communicating clearly and openly, and making the most of technology have been preparing for a crisis like this for a while.
Prioritizing these practices — even if you start now — and staying on top of your donors’ preferences will help you respond to destabilizing events, whether an epidemic, election, or natural disaster.
To help you provide donors with consistency and a common purpose during this crisis, here are answers to some key questions nonprofits are asking.
Is it tone-deaf to ask for money now or in the coming weeks?
Most of your donors are being negatively affected — albeit to varying extents — by the crisis. Your organization is probably better off waiting for them to regain clarity and stability before asking for gift commitments.
With the exception of emergency campaigns related to the crisis, we recommend deferring major solicitations at present. During the next few weeks, check in on donors to see how they and their families are holding up and share stories about the impact your organization is having during this crisis.
If a solicitation is in progress, ask donors how they want to proceed. If you had a solicitation planned, postpone it for four to eight weeks and then re-evaluate. When the time is right to ask, whether it is during the peak of the crisis or during recovery, here’s how to handle the conversation:
- Begin by acknowledging the difficult situation that the coronavirus presents for all, especially those with significant investments in the financial markets.
- Put your relationship first. Emphasize the long-term nature of your ties, and if a donor can’t commit to a gift, offer other ways to support the organization. Be prepared with specific examples such as participating in cultivation calls. Be there for them, and they will be there for you.
- If appropriate, make your case for support, emphasize your long-term vision, and explain why your work needs support now. For instance, if you work with a vulnerable population that needs immediate help — such as the homeless or people with developmental disabilities — explain how your organization is helping.
- Be flexible. Consider offering donors the option to defer a pledge payment or extend a payment schedule due to the economic uncertainty.
What should I do about my upcoming gala or fundraising event?
Think about how to go virtual; it could enable you to share content with a bigger audience. One organization that holds its yearly conference this month announced its first-annual “Virtual Mega Event” and touted the ability to participate from the comfort of home. The group took a gamble and announced a virtual-only conference before it had figured out all of the details. But it divided and conquered: Some staff members worked with advertisers to adapt their sponsorships and others hammered out the programming. It took just one week to convert the event.
If you planned to hold a silent auction or appeal during an in-person event, move it online using a platform such as BiddingForGood. While set-up is somewhat time-consuming, an online auction has several advantages. First, the website (and others like it) has its own pool of consumers searching for goods and services for which they can get a tax-deduction for the amount contributed that is above fair-market value. Attracting these new supporters can be a big benefit to organizations that are struggling to find new donors. Some other advantages: Virtual auctions reduce other work such as preparing signs and delivering items to a venue. Assisting with creation of a virtual auction can be a great way to engage volunteers, too.
If you do cancel an event, don’t automatically offer a refund. One synagogue handled cancellation of its communitywide holiday dinner after incurring all of the expenses. Its leaders were candid about the cost and offered three options to congregants who’d signed up: a full refund, a 50 percent refund, or a 100 percent donation. More than 80 percent of the congregation opted to donate the ticket cost.
How can I cultivate relationships when people won’t meet?
Zoom is your new best friend, or FaceTime, Skype, or WhatsApp video. Donors may view videoconferencing as more formal than a casual meet-up for coffee, so be sure to set a relaxed tone by opening your session by sharing an anecdote or by asking a few questions to break the ice. If you are not familiar with videoconferencing and feel uncomfortable, test the platform with friends or family to calm your nerves.
Continue to provide personal treatment. Consider software such as Zoom, Cisco Webex, Google Classrooms or Hangouts on Air, or Facebook Live to host virtual events and hold town-hall meetings to give key supporters updates on your work. A number of these platforms are offering premium services for free during the crisis. If your donors hesitate to use such programs, consider setting up a hotline or online chat to answer donors’ questions about using videoconferencing software.
Communicate with supporters via social media. Your donors will likely be spending more time online seeking updated news. Think creatively about how to get their attention through a mix of impact stories, polls and surveys, status updates, and entertainment.
Focus on social-media platforms or communication channels on which your nonprofit has the highest engagement. Use videos, infographics, and images online to continue demonstrating impact. Make sure your offerings look great and are functional on desktop and mobile. Repurpose and be resourceful. For communications content, not every story about impact needs to be new. Think about what your donors need from you. Reassurance? Comfort? Distraction? Use content you already have and even intersperse posts from other organizations that align with your mission.
How do I convey an ability to persevere through trying times?
Reassure donors that you still have exciting plans for the future, that your cause is operating from a place of optimism, despite the current uncertainty. While acknowledging that this crisis is unprecedented, share fiscal contingency plans to give donors confidence that you can weather a financial decline.
If your organization has a track record of persisting in the face of adversity, highlight it. A contingency plan may include tapping an endowment or reserves, partnering with other organizations to streamline services, or temporarily freezing non-essential programs. It is critical to be transparent with your donors.
Leaders should identify opportunities to address budget gaps if giving falls below anticipated levels. These contingency measures should be summarized in a short statement to be shared with donors both individually and through organizational communications. The statement should address how or whether the organization will:
- Make up for any lost revenue or interest.
- Pay back any loans secured or reinstate programs and services. It may ask for more from donors post-crisis.
- Cut the budget if need be.
- Assure donors you are making strategic choices to deliver your core programs and services.
How can I keep my donors engaged?
If you have volunteer work that can be done remotely, such as editing, artwork, or social-media promotion, seize the opportunity. Perhaps you could build a social-media committee to help boost your content and broaden your online constituency. This could be a good opportunity to engage younger constituents and introduce fresh perspectives and creativity to your work. If you do tap supporters for this, be sure to properly thank and recognize their contributions.
While we all prefer predictability, there are times in our lives — personal, communal, and now global, when chaos encroaches. Humankind is resilient. Nonprofits exist to offer hope, help people cope, and make the world better. Let’s use this challenging time to do just that.