Fundraising in the age of pandemic

Miracle on 34th Street (1934)

The main question I’m getting right now is “how do I ask”?  The situation is often a dire one, the organization will stop work, let go of employees, not meet basic needs.  That is real, and it is scary and it is some of the hardest conversations I’ve had in my entire career. I don’t know the answers, but below are some of the questions I am using to spark conversations with my colleagues in nonprofit.

I usually start from the hardest place first when opening this conversation up with my clients, and that is:

1. Are you sure your organization and its work is relevant to the frontline, life-saving work our communities are desperate for RIGHT NOW?  If the answer is no, do you have resources and opportunities that you can redirect toward the most urgent needs at hand?  In the same way we are seeing factories that made cars and widgets and clothes reorient their operations to creating urgent healthcare solutions and resources, can the work of your organization do the same?

2. Are there organizations in your community who can use your help?  Or the help of your donors?  Reach out, collaborate, share resources, amplify the collective work.  Now is not the time for scarcity thinking. Collectively, the U.S. nonprofit system is one of most abundant and well resourced in the world.  Even if you have a little, prepare to amplify those dollars and hands and connections to helping our communities live through this. Now is not the time to think only of our own work and to hoard donors and resources.  We will only thrive if we do this together, opening our work and resources to the collective good.

3. Have you created a game plan for the role your organization will play as the next wave?  Nonprofits, social services, higher education — all of these organizations will need to be here after the immediate health crisis is over.  They will be the ones to feed, house, care for, educate, empower, all of us who have been rocked by this experience. The entire ecosystem of nonprofit practice will be essential to helping us heal and thrive after the immediate threat is over.  Have you begun to think of how you will craft that fund? As hard as it might be, carve out some time for a vision session with your team members to imagine where the work of your organization will have the most impact. What funds/programs/initiatives that you have already can launch the next wave of recovery?  Make sure you have a complete giving list, with prices to implement and maintain, ready to launch when the immediate crisis has abated.

4. Think twice about a broad-based solicitation if you are not a front-line pandemic response organization/resource.  Then think three times, then don’t do it.  If you need to keep the lights on during this crisis, that conversation should be had 1:1 with only the inner circle of your donors; board members, key volunteers, loyal donors.  If you are not actively saving lives, wait for the next wave. Donors and prospects will remember how you lived your values during this time. They will remember how you made them feel.

5. This is about how your donors are suffering too, find ways to authentically (and not transactionally) reach out and care for them.  People are feeling frightened and isolated, and this is true for donors no matter their economic status.  How are you checking in with your community without asking for money or becoming too focused on what your organization is experiencing?  By placing your donors at the center of your conversation, you express compassion for their experience, you let them know that they are more to you than a check-book, they are a member of your community.  Yes, let them know in a real way what you are doing as a response to the pandemic, but make sure that’s not the central part of the conversation.

One method of engagement I am using right now is the Zoom video call, in a Jeffersonian Dinner format.  Have an expert or practitioner from your organization create a conversation topic based on the work at hand — for example, a Law professor hosts a Zoom video conversation for donors/alumni around the topic of how the legal profession may change and/or evolve after this pandemic ends.  You can read more about Jeffersonian Dinners in the book “The Generosity Network” by Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey C. Walker.  They have a chapter on the subject. Some general guidelines for the Jeffersonian-style Zoom Call:

1. This is not an ask, there is no solicitation at the end of it.  You may want to make that clear to anyone you are inviting.

2. The host facilitates the conversation around one central topic.  Pick a topic that draws the connection between the work of your organization and what the world is experiencing right now.

3. There are no “side” conversations.  Everyone is focused on the central conversation and only one person speaks at a time.

4. Keep the room small.  For in-person conversations, no more than 10 people.  For virtual conversations I have found that more than seven people can become difficult.

5. Make it as enjoyable as possible.  Encourage participants to bring their dinner / wine/ whatever.  I have also had good experience with organizations in areas with reliable pandemic-compliant restaurant delivery options to have a meal delivered so that all participants are eating something special together.

Let me know how you are fundraising in the age of pandemic.  I welcome your thoughts, insights, comments and suggestions.  I, like the entire profession, am learning as we take this unprecedented journey together.  I believe deeply that nonprofit professionals and organizations are going to be crucial to the recovery still to come.  We are stronger together, our resources mean more, are more abundant, more resilient when we combine them. We got this, not sure how, not sure when, but together, we got this.

Yours in stumbling joy,