Welcome to The Nonprofit Fundraising Exchange, a podcast from IPM Advancement. Our mission is to help you raise more money so you can make the world a better place.
Today’s topic: Fundraising during COVID-19 — Practical Strategies for Success
In this episode, we discuss:
- How are organizations staying relevant during COVID-19?
- Should you be mailing right now?
- Whose voices do you feature in your messages to donors?
- What are boards doing differently?
- Can your organization not only survive but thrive during this pandemic?
- What can you do beyond asking for money?
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As we record this episode, the effects of COVID-19 have touched almost every community in the United States and around the world. For most of us, stay at home orders and the closing of nonessential businesses has been in effect for up to a month or more. Nonprofits specifically are feeling the impact. In a study from the Nonprofit Finance Fund published this month, 60% of nonprofits reported that they were experiencing “destabilizing conditions that threaten long-term financial stability.” With the cancelation of fundraising events and general economic uncertainty, many nonprofits are wondering, “How do we keep our mission moving forward so we can continue to serve our community?” In today’s episode, our goal is to provide practical advice that nonprofits can use right now to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and survive the economic effects of this pandemic.
Let’s meet our panel.
Rich: Hi, this is Rich Frazier. I’m the Senior Consultant for IPM Advancement.
Russ: This is Russ Phaneuf. I’m the Managing Director and Chief Strategist with IPM.
Samantha: Hi, this is Samantha Timlick. I’m the VP of Client Services.
Curtis: And I’m Curtis Schmitt, thank you all for coming together today to talk about this important topic.
Pivot and Adapt to Keep Your Mission Relevant
Let’s start with a question lots of nonprofits might be asking themselves right now, especially if their work is not directly related to health care or other urgent COVID-19 related needs in their community: “Should we even be fundraising right now? And if so, how can we do so effectively?”
Russ: So Curtis, let’s acknowledge that there are all kinds of different nonprofits that are doing all kinds of different work right now. And yes, some of them are doing work that’s related directly to COVID-19. Others are doing work on the periphery. One example that I recently saw was an organization that targets neighborhoods that aren’t served by traditional groceries and supermarkets, and they address the issue of these “food deserts” that are in urban areas. And that organization has actually taken kind of a lead role during this pandemic, just because of the type of work they do. Now, basically, everybody in their service areas are in need of their help. It’s not just their target audience that they originally were engaging. And so you might see your nonprofit being pulled into this in different ways. And I think that’s worth acknowledging. And, again, there’s just such a wide array of organizations that — you might be doing a lot more than you realize, and I think that’s important to look at.
In terms of what you could do right now, I think the most important thing for most, at least 501(c)(3)s that we work with, is to look at your donor value proposition and make sure that that donor value proposition is really strong. There are a lot of forward-facing, experientially-based organizations. And it’s time to take a look at whether you’re providing value to donors, even in the context of what’s going on. You know, this isn’t necessarily going to last forever, but we have to make it through this period of time, where you need to keep your mission relevant, and keep donors engaged, even if that’s just kind of being fully transparent with them and telling them what’s going on. And giving them a peek behind the curtain and just simply being honest with them and keeping them engaged.
Rich: So you know, I really like what Russ said about being transparent with donors, because it’s so very important that organizations, nonprofit organizations, let their donors know that, “Hey, your investment in us is still a good investment.” Right? So pivot and adapt are two of my favorite words right now, because we’re seeing a lot of examples of how nonprofits are figuring out how to keep delivering on their mission. But a lot of them are having to change their delivery method and adapt to this changed world. One example that I can give you is children’s museums. Across the country right now, they are providing interactive activities on social media. They’re actually sort of sharing educational resources for parents, moms and dads who find themselves at home being schoolteachers while we’re all sort of under this stay at home or quarantine order. And so they are often anyway, the museums are often the source of teaching methods for STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. They’re regularly developing additive curriculum for schools anyway, but here, they’re just cutting out the middleman and they’re delivering it right to the home. They’re providing activities to keep kids engaged, to keep them learning and to provide some relief for mom and dad in a time of, you know, at a time that can bring some high stress in the household. One particular example, the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville, Arkansas, not only has been providing online curriculum and activities, but they even went a step further. They partnered with one of their sponsors, 3M, and provided 300 N95 masks to a local hospital. So you know, just some examples of how organizations are pivoting and changing their delivery methods and staying relevant in their communities. And I think the takeaway here is that nonprofits — they’re often the ones who are leading some important conversations in communities across the country. Those conversations don’t have to stop, right? So their roles as thought leaders, don’t stop. You just have to pivot and adapt to this sort of new reality that we’re in.
Curtis: Samantha, let’s hear from you. What is your perspective on this question of what nonprofits can be doing right now, in terms of fundraising with what’s going on?
Samantha: Yeah, you know, I would just echo everything that Russ and Rich said about adapting and sort of looking at the value proposition and making sure that it’s relevant. And I certainly want to echo what Rich just said about don’t stop because my message would be: Don’t stop mailing. We know that direct mail is a huge fundraising vehicle for most nonprofits. And maybe this isn’t the time to launch some big, new, untested effort. But if your folks are used to hearing from you via direct mail, you shouldn’t stop now, fundraising or otherwise. So on the fundraising side, yes, we know results may be down. But what we’ve learned from the dot-com crash, areas like New York after 9/11, after the 2008 housing crisis and other financial challenges is that if you stop now, you’re never going to make up for the ground that you lose. So don’t get me wrong; this is a pandemic. We have not been through this before. But we have to look at guidance based on what we have seen. Your mission isn’t going away, the people you serve are not going away, and you need money to fund that work. And when it comes to these messages to your donors, it’s not just about the dollars that you bring in the door right now. It’s also about staying in front of people so that when things get better, and they will get better in some form or another, those people will remember you.
The Role of Digital Fundraising during COVID-19
Beyond direct mail, another sort of concrete strategy for reaching out is through digital. Online engagement is way up. People are home, they’re sitting in front of their computers more. I saw a general trend the other day that said Facebook engagement is up like 30% right now, not just for nonprofits, but in general. And in my own experience with clients, you know, click-through rates are up, general engagement is just way up. And so there is an opportunity to make sure that your content is out there. Again, whether you’re asking for dollars or not, showing people that you are there, you’re engaged, and you’re still out there performing your mission. I also saw another recent study that said that only about 4% of the nonprofit’s followers see their content in their feed, unless those posts are boosted. So even if you don’t have the resources, or you’re not ready to launch a full digital campaign with paid ads, you will be better able to maintain relationships and connections and engage with your online audience if you’re putting a few dollars behind boosting some posts. So that would be my general recommendation for concrete strategies for taking what Rich and Russ talked about and getting those in front of the people that they need to be in front of.
Russ: So I’d like to tag on to that. I think Samantha brought up some really good points, and one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately has been just the timing of this. You know, we tend to look at annual giving, especially in more of an almost academic year kind of way of strategizing drop dates and things like that. And this year, this summer period that’s coming up, this late spring into summer is going to be really, really important for people to continue messaging. It’s almost like a lot of nonprofits take a break. And you know, again, it might not be true with certain nonprofits, like museums, and especially children’s museums; summertime is a boon time for a lot of those folks. But there are a lot of other organizations that tend to look at the calendar more from Labor Day through June 30th. And I think that this summertime, for this year especially, is going to be really, really important to continue that messaging to do what Samantha was talking about by just engaging people, whether it’s by direct mail, it might be by digital — preferably, it’s both — and any other ways that you might communicate with folks.
Authenticity and Transparency with Donors
Curtis: So let me ask, what about the organizations that are kind of on the far end of the spectrum where their mission is very much unrelated to what’s going on with COVID-19. An example might be a theater or a museum. What can they be doing right now, if they’re, you know, if it’s not very clear how their donor value proposition is related to what we’re experiencing right now.
Russ: I think there’s the tendency to want to tie yourself in some way to this for some people. And I think that’s probably not a great idea if it’s not authentic. It’s important to stay in your lane, to be supportive of your community and do that in a very honest way and do it in a way that doesn’t come off as you’re tying your can to this wagon. It’s just, there’s too much downside risk to, you know, to a strategy like that where you’re really trying to engage people based on a false premise. And I think we saw that early on with some organizations that — really as soon as maybe mid-March, I started seeing appeals, generally through email or online, that were basically saying, “COVID-19 is here, it’s a terrible thing, we’re going to be hurt by it, please give us money.” There were no specifics attached to it. There was no direct correlation between the Ask and what was happening other than, you know, this terrible thing was going to happen. And I think that’s an ineffective way to do it. What we’d really like to see from organizations that we work with, that are out there, is try to think outside the box. You know, can you be more supportive of similar organizations or organizations in your community? Is there a way that you can kind of demonstrate some leadership? And, again with transparency, get out there and say, here’s what we’re doing, have those conversations with people about what’s going on and be honest.
And I think right now a lot of — especially theatres and those organizations that engage people experientially, they’re really struggling with this. The folks that I’ve talked to, they want to put into place some kind of technological solution that kind of helps them bridge that gap between actual in-person performances and getting content to people and getting experiences to people. But most organizations just aren’t getting that support. They’re not there yet. They’re not that far along in the evolution of that. And so I think that, again, it just depends on what kind of organization you’re in. But you have to really dig deep and look for those opportunities to engage people and keep that conversation going. And if you can’t do something of tremendous value, if you can’t kind of recapture or create a new way experience for people, that’s just something we’re all going to have to work through, and just know that you’re not alone in that struggle.
Curtis: Speaking of transparency, which I think is a really important issue, how much should organizations that are struggling right now, how much should they tell their donors about exactly what’s happening? And what’s the best way for them to communicate that information?
Rich: So I’d like to jump in here on that one because it kind of piggybacks on what Russ was just talking about with a lot of arts organizations or music organizations, you know, those types of organizations who are not able to sort of find a direct tie to COVID-19 — right? — in a way that we can impact the community and they’re really sort of shut down. And the example that I have is, it’s a music performance organization whose summer tour was shut down by COVID-19, and all of their income is shut down from this tour being shut down. And so I think every organization is going to be different, right? And so transparency, it has to be authentic. And that’s going to be key. And I think that we have to give our donors credit for supporting the things that they support, right? So, you know, donors who support theater are always going to support theater; donors who support music are always going to support music. Now, we may find that in a time like this, that some of their interest or their priorities may shift, they may shift to something that is more immediate and more pressing to their local community or to a worldwide global pandemic. And that’s okay. We give them that flexibility. Let’s let them do that. But I think it’s very important that organizations are transparent to the impact that COVID-19 is having on their organization and that they let their donors know that, “Hey, your investment in us is still relevant.”
Let me just sort of share with you what this organization did. So again, it’s a music performance group that gets most of its revenue from ticket sales, event revenue, and souvenir sales throughout the summer. And it was totally shut down. And so the executive director put out a message to its donors, volunteers, staff, and performers — basically just started out with, “Hey, I wanted to check in with you. How are you doing? I wanted to make sure that everything’s okay. If you’re not, let us know, here are some resources” — because it always comes from a place of caring about our friends, right? — “And then I wanted to share with you about the resiliency of this organization because we’re going to come out of this on the other side better, stronger, faster than we were. But I want to share with you first about some of how our members, how our performers are doing and how they’re connecting with our staff through online technology. So they’re all doing these zoom calls. And so our instructional staff are still meeting with our performers and they’re still having these clinics. But here’s the hit on our organization, here’s the hit on our fundraising, here’s the hit on our earned revenue, and we still have these continuing expenses. But there’s good news because we don’t have any debt. Our board is strong, and they’re exploring every opportunity for SBA loans or cutting expenses. And we’re making plans not just to survive, but to thrive. And here’s how you can help, donor. Here’s what we what we’re asking you to do, is to step up and make a gift of this, this, or that; or make a recurring gift, a monthly gift.” And I’ll tell you the result of this appeal that went out has blown every other fundraising appeal out of the water. It’s more than tripled what they have raised in the past from any single appeal. I know every organization is going to be different, but what that tells me, and what Samantha was referring to earlier, is that in a time of crisis, our donors are going to support the organizations that they support.
And I think what we’re also going to — let me just sort of finish this point — what we’re also going to see is a lot of organizations — springtime is a time of galas, right? Galas are being shut down. And so we’re facing folks who have bought tables or tickets, and we’re having sponsors who maybe have purchased sponsorships. So organizations are going to have to figure out how to deal with that. And so you basically have three choices. Do we refund all of that money? Do we offer the ticket buyer or the sponsor an opportunity to give it back as a contribution? Or roll it over into next year? And I think that we have to be transparent in that communication. I think we ask them, “Will you consider making this a donation, or at least making part of it a donation, and then we’ll refund the rest?” I’m not a big fan of rolling it over to next year, because then you’re still going to take a hit to the cash flow in one year or the other.
Samantha: To jump in on that, Rich, I think that the bottom line there is we don’t want to make any assumptions about our donors. And so I think the best thing to do whenever possible is to ask your donors what they want. So in your example, I know a couple of different organizations who have taken the “giving the donor an option of what to do with their gift,” and the vast majority of donors are just making a straight donation as opposed to taking back the money that they would have spent on their ticket. And some donors are even stepping up and giving an additional gift recognizing that there are others who are pulling back. So again, the bottom line there is just never assume that donors want to be asked or they don’t want to be asked or what they want to do. Give them the opportunity to tell you exactly what they are looking for.
Rich: Give them the opportunity to say yes. Never say no for your donor, right?
Samantha: That’s right.
Russ: And I think now is the time for folks not to be timid. You know, we haven’t had this kind of giving fatigue set in yet. This is still very fresh for a lot of people. And that giving fatigue and pandemic fatigue is coming. And it’s going to be real. It’s going to affect how people engage with you. And right now is an opportunity to be bold, and to just be honest and authentic and ask people for help.
Curtis: And I think one of the strengths in the example that Rich gave — to your point, Russ — was that the Ask was presented as an invitation to join a strategy that was well thought out.
Russ: Yeah. So and that was that was in contrast to the earlier example that I had, where it was just very general. And you know, everybody’s affected by this. You can’t just say, “COVID-19 is a horrible thing, we’re really being hit hard by it, please give money.” That’s just not enough.
Rich: Yeah, the woe-is-me story never works. You really have to come into it — find some place of strength in your organization to present to your donor.
Utilizing Different Voices to Communicate with Donors
Curtis: Speaking of strength and presenting this message, who should be presenting this message to donors right now?
Russ: Every organization has kind of its short bench of folks that communicate with donors and prospects. And typically that’s a CEO, president, executive director, leadership. Sometimes it’s the chair of the board. And then less frequently, it’s folks who are fellow donors, maybe celebrities that you might have engaged with the organization. And I think in this situation, because you’re going to have to get out there and message more frequently — you know, not every appeal and not every communication with people should be an Ask, first of all. And in order to get out that much content and not have it be repetitive, I think it’s important to just have a diversity of signers and have a diversity of voices. And that might range from that executive director to that board member to that celebrity to the people you’re actually helping; those stories right now as this thing is unfolding are really important. Let’s not silo ourselves off as the helpers helping the helped. That’s a really important point for organizations to embrace, is that, you know, this is not a white knight riding in to save the day. Don’t position your organization like that. You want to be embracing this idea of community and this idea that you’re connecting with people, and that you’re an honest partner in all of this with the people you’re helping, the people who really need your help, and the people who are giving to make that help possible.
Samantha: I agree. And you know, I think that sometimes I see two things happen with nonprofits, when they start thinking about who can be another voice, especially, you know, ideally, who can be a recognizable voice that that will really get folks to engage with the cause. And they either have, maybe they have celebrities on their board, or who are major donors or what have you. And they just get really nervous about asking for help, about asking that person to leverage their celebrity to benefit the nonprofit. But you look at things like The Tonight Show, and the guests that are coming on, and they’re doing exactly that, and it’s very effective. So if you were in that position, I would encourage you to recognize that everyone’s looking for a way to help, and that most individuals who are in that position in terms of being celebrities, they get it; they know that that’s part of the value that they bring in supporting your organization. So don’t be shy about it.
The other thing that I see is those nonprofits who say, “Hey, we don’t have celebrities, those folks are not on our board. We don’t have connections with any of them.” So it’s not just about that, it’s about any of your heavy hitting surrogates. So to Russ’s point, that may be your board members, it may be your major donors; these are people who have connections in your community and support your cause and who are passionate about it. What about your volunteers? What about the people who are directly impacted by your work? I mean, there is no more passionate voice than someone who can say with authenticity, “This is how this organization has changed my life, has made a difference for me and my family,” whatever that may be. So give those individuals an opportunity to share their voices. They don’t necessarily have to be opening their wallets right now. Obviously, if they can, that’s great, but there is a lot of benefit to having these other voices coming in during a time like this.
Assessing the Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Board
Curtis: So can someone talk about — because we’ve been talking about communicating with donors — what about the internal communication within the organization? Could somebody talk about how closely should nonprofit leadership be working with their board through this pandemic?
Rich: So we’ve been in this for what, five or six weeks now, right? And I talked to some of our clients to see how they’ve been handling it. And I think by now a lot of organizations have figured out that they need to be in constant communication with their boards of directors, right? So it’s a critical time for executive directors to be meeting with and talking to their board members as much as possible. I think, a month ago, when all of this hit, what we saw was shock and awe. We saw a lot of huddling and analyzing the impact of the COVID shutdown on the budget, on staffing, on the mission, and a lot of boards started meeting weekly or biweekly, if not with the full board than at least with the executive committee or the finance committee. And you know, they were trying to create some sort of a financial plan or a cash flow plan to see them through the end of quarantine, end of the fiscal year, the end of the calendar year, especially organizations as we were talking about earlier that had to shut their doors, museums, performing arts centers, and any place that’s open to the public.
And the real interesting thing is, this is the time when we’ve had to tap in and leverage those specialized talents on boards. So the bankers and the accountants having to navigate the SBA loans and creating those cash flow projections, the fundraising talent stepping up and helping with those special appeals and being the voice to the donors. We’ve had board members who are subject matter experts join the executive committee meetings or become special advisors to executive directors and CEOs. And it goes back to really being strategic about recruiting board members. In a time of crisis, this is when governance becomes really important. And we don’t want just warm bodies sitting around the table. We need people who have specific jobs and specific skills that can help this organization. So I think what we’re seeing, though, as a result of all of this is that a lot of board members are stepping up now, and we’re seeing a lot more participation from board. We’re seeing them turn the cameras on, on Zoom. We’re seeing them respond a lot more quickly to requests from executive leadership.
And here’s my hope: My hope is that board chairs and executive directors are becoming more cognizant of their, the way that they need to support one another. And I hope that boards are taking this as an opportunity for reset and introspection: What gaps existed in the organization pre-COVID that we can address and fill to become stronger as we move forward? And how do we shift from merely surviving to thriving? I know, I know, I know how hard this has been for a lot of nonprofits. And undoubtedly, we’re going to see some that probably won’t survive. But for those that do, my hope is that they see this as, they take this as an opportunity to improve the way they operate and improve the way that they govern.
Samantha: We hear from clients frequently that, you know, maybe the board isn’t — they’re not exactly sure it’s where it needs to be, or they feel like they don’t have the support of the board, especially when it comes to fundraising. And I think that crises like this, I mean, talk about something that really puts the board under a microscope and helps expose some of those gaps, as you put them. So look at this as an opportunity. Maybe right in this moment, you’re not able to address some of those things, but make a mental note and recognize that if they’re a problem in big situations like this, they’re actually a problem all of the time. Just maybe it’s not always as obvious.
Engaging Your Donors through the COVID-19 Pandemic
Curtis: So there’s this idea that that keeps coming up. It was in our previous episode, it came up today, this idea of caring about your donors. And I think it ties in with the point that Russ made about — I don’t know if you use the word stewardship — but you were talking about not every message, not every time that you speak to your donor audience, including an Ask. And that leads me to this idea that there’s a real opportunity here for nonprofits to help the donors, help the people in their community who might be feeling really uncertain and scared right now. You know, donors are people; information is coming out daily about what to do and what not to do. So what can nonprofits do right now in terms of stewardship to support their donors through these uncertain times?
Samantha: I’d like to take this one. And I’d actually like to address it on two levels, the major donor level and the annual fund level, and recognizing that there may be some crossover. And the nice thing is that this really just continues to build on what we’ve been talking about. So going back to the transparency we were just discussing, and Curtis, the point you just made about donors being people. And it really starts with keeping your donors in the loop. You know, with your major donors in particular, personal check ins are key. Ask them how they’re doing, treat them like family, because they really are, you know, they are a huge part of moving forward your mission. So recognize that and reach out to them just like you would a friend or a family member, and just have a conversation about how they’re doing. They’re not just a revenue source, and that’s really what they need to be feeling and hearing from you at this time.
I read an article where they interviewed a woman recently, who was a major donor to several charities. She had a lot of money in the stock market. And when the market dropped in 2008, she wasn’t able to give as she had been. And in fact, I think she said that she had at least one major pledge that had come due that she wasn’t able to fulfill at that moment. And one of the nonprofits that she supported reached out to her. And they recognized her situation. And they invited her to attend their annual gala at no cost to her as their guest. And in doing that they really cemented their relationship with this woman. So when the stock market came back, which it always has, she increased her giving to that organization significantly, even shifting dollars that she had previously earmarked for other nonprofits, because she didn’t hear from them during the entire point of the crisis. And she says that to this day, she’s still giving to this organization, that she plans to be a lifelong donor. So, you know, that’s an example of how stewardship, how reaching out, not talking about the financial benefit that your major donor is bringing to you and just connecting with them on a personal level, what a difference that can make for that person and thereby build your relationship with them. You know, not with the intention that when things get better they’re going to be able to give to you, but that’s certainly what happened in this case.
Now, for annual fund donors, and even for prospects, I think a really great opportunity here is to give them something to do other than donate. So I’ve seen some animal-related nonprofits that are out there asking folks to share stories about when they have adopted a pet and explaining sort of, you know, that whole experience. We have a client who is asking people to write notes of encouragement to families staying in their facilities. So in addition to actually sharing those notes with the families, they’re posting them on social media, and they’re sharing them with other supporters via email. So they’re creating this feedback loop where donors are seeing, you know, they’re given an opportunity to engage in a non-financial way, and then they’re sort of seeing the positive impact of that. And they’re really building this groundswell of action and interaction that probably wouldn’t happen on its own. They needed to sort of plant the seed and get it going. It’s a good way to let people get involved, even if they can’t give right now; it’s a good way to show that your organization is engaging your community beyond asking for money. And that you’re, you know, for this organization, they’re really living out their mission in real time, in a way that people can support and interact with it. And going back to the fundraising side of things — because I just can’t help myself — this also is providing this organization with a list of warm prospects who are more inclined to take action in the future. So I can envision a follow-up appeal that includes a thank you note from a family who received a letter, and then asks for a donation. Our experience is shown outside of things like COVID, that if we can get someone to take a positive action on behalf of a nonprofit, they’re much more likely to make a financial contribution the next time we ask, so it’s really one of those everybody wins situations.
Russ: Yeah, and I’d love to add to that, too, this idea that, you know, you might run out of opportunities realistically to ask people for money over the next few months. What you won’t run out of opportunity to do is to build your file and engage people, and spread what you know about the organization and what you love about the organization, and what your donors love and what your board members love — spread that to the people who don’t know. I had a great conversation with the executive director of a very large theatre company yesterday, and her take on this was that this an experience that has really refocused a lot of people involved with the organization. And they are doubling down on their passion and their enthusiasm for the organization. And there’s a gap between what those people know and what those people feel in their hearts about the organization, and what someone who has maybe never even engaged with that organization, but who supports that cause maybe. For someone who has never been to that theater or one of their productions but loves theater, there’s an opportunity to get to that person and share that enthusiasm, share that passion. And they might not give right away, to Samantha’s point, but down the road. You know, again, this thing’s not going to last forever, and so now is a great time to build your file.
Open Questions Nonprofits Should Be Asking
Curtis: So we’ve covered a lot of ideas here in this conversation so far. Some of them are evergreen, they’re things that are good practice no matter what’s going on. Some of them are very specifically related to the way things are right now. Let’s acknowledge that this situation is changing dramatically, and there are a lot of unknowns. We may find ourselves — organizations may find themselves in a completely different position in a month or two months from now. So what are some open questions that organizations might want to consider or be asking to prepare themselves for some of these changes and some of these unknowns that may be coming down the pike?
Russ: So I’ll just jump in from the annual giving perspective and kind of go back to what I said earlier about the calendar. I think, based on what we know right now with how this coronavirus pandemic is spreading and how it’s so localized, and it’s happening differently in different states, I think it’s really, really important for folks to be looking at the calendar and look at ways to fill up that communications through the summer, and maybe even go out earlier with their “fall appeal.” And start thinking of things on an accelerated timeline. The CDC came out over the past week and the director of the CDC was already talking about a second wave of this and how it could be more detrimental to public health than what we’re dealing with right now. That seems to be the consensus among public health experts is that this isn’t just going to be a one and done event. And this is something that we’re going to deal with for a while, and we’re going to have waves of it. And I think that the tricky thing for nonprofits right now is to kind of thread that needle. And maybe put aside that idea of, “Well, this is what we’ve always done and we’ve never done it any different than this.” It might be time to just take a fresh look at your calendar, take a fresh look at your strategy. And as much as possible, try to leverage just the momentum that you have in engaging people right now and over the next few months. And try to look at things in the perspective that we could go through another cycle of this, and you want to be prepared for that. And you want to try to duck and move and be a little bit more agile than maybe you’ve been in past years.
Rich: I want to add on to that, Russ. You know, in addition to that, thinking about a second wave, we also have to rethink sort of what face-to-face fundraising looks like in major giving or capital campaign fundraising. You know, there was a great article published recently on medium.com about the gaslighting of America to come. And so, quoting from the article: “Billions of dollars will be spent on advertising, messaging, and television and media content to make us feel comfortable again.” Like none of this ever happened. And to an extent, you know, we probably all would wish that it never happened. We want to feel normal again, we want to go back to routine, we want to forget that this ever happened. But it did. We can’t ignore that. And being in quarantine or shelter at home for six weeks or longer, it makes a difference and it changes how we will impact and interact with one another. And I think to some extent, as you look around the country now, and some states are trying to open back up for business — how long that will last, we don’t know. But I think a lot of Americans are trying to go back to normal and I think to some extent, maybe they will gradually. We may get more comfortable moving about our communities, reuniting with friends and families. I think we’ll find that some face-to-face meetings will slowly come back online maybe with some modifications — we’re sitting farther apart at conference tables, maybe we’re wearing masks. But until we have that vaccine, I think that a lot of folks are still going to be cautious with face-to-face meetings.
And this is where once again, we can look for opportunities as fundraisers to embrace technology and use that to our advantage. Unfortunately, right now, the whole world is on Zoom or GoToMeeting or Skype. So people of all generations are using this technology. My 89-year-old mother knows how to FaceTime, so you know, this is — if you’re a development officer right now, now is the time for you to be the expert on Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting; learn how to be a great facilitator. How do you help others be more comfortable using that technology? And again, pivot and adapt. You make your solicitations and your presentations, you make those packets digital-friendly. If you’ve got that beautiful campaign brochure, now’s the time to make it an interactive slideshow. In fact, I think you can do some things with a Zoom presentation that may have been sort of awkward or inconvenient in a face-to-face meeting, right? So this is the time where you can incorporate a personalized video from one of your constituents to the donor, letting that donor know the impact that this campaign is going to have on him or her. I mean, look at what’s being done now on television. We’re seeing pop stars performing concerts from their bedrooms. We’re seeing Fortune 500 CEOs filming commercials on their iPhones. We’re seeing content created now that is coming across as really authentic. You don’t need slick and polish. You just need a cell phone and an authentic message. And I think the bottom line here for a while anyway, for some donors, is we’re going to have to be creative and look at alternative ways to connect with them. Authenticity is always appropriate.
Takeaway Advice for Nonprofits
Curtis: Great, so let’s go around the table and talk about takeaways. What’s something that we’ve covered today that each of you want nonprofits to take away from this conversation? Samantha?
Samantha: I think from a very big broad perspective, the takeaway here is that you can’t afford to do nothing. Nonprofits are leaders, and we have got to be out there making sure that we are continuing to have an impact on the people that we serve, that we’re continuing to communicate with our donors and followers and volunteers. And making sure that we’re having those authentic conversations and continuing to lead from a fundraising perspective. Organizations can’t afford to write off a year or more of fundraising revenue. So you’ve got to find a way to adjust and adapt, and make sure that you are able to bring those dollars in the door in a way that — again, it goes back to the authenticity — that you know you’re being clear with donors and communicating with them, and continuing to build connections even when you can’t be fundraising directly. But you can’t afford to sort of put your head in the sand and wait for this to pass because it’s going to take longer than I think any of us thought it might.
Curtis: Russ, what’s your takeaway?
Russ: So I think, embracing that sense of the unknown. We don’t really know what’s going to happen three, four, six months from now, and in light of that I think one of the most important things to do is just continue to engage people. Widen your circle as much as possible. Engage your donors, engage your board members. But open up those conversations, leverage social media, and really try to get out there to some new audiences if you can. And use this time to build your file. I think this is an opportunity — when we look back on this, this will be a period that is going to be a really painful chapter for a lot of organizations, but there’s going to be another chapter after this; and then there’s going to be another chapter after that. This isn’t necessarily the end for most organizations, and I think this time is just an incredibly important opportunity to engage people, to keep them talking about your organization, to echo all those things we talked about — about transparency and authenticity. I think it’s just incredibly important for people to be able to look at your organization and say, “That organization is doing meaningful work, they’re honest, they’re transparent. I like them. And when I get a chance, the next time I give and I have the ability to do that, I’m going to give some money to them.”
Curtis: And Rich?
Rich: You know, I said at the top of the podcast that pivot and adapt were my two new favorite words. I’m going to add a third, and that’s opportunity. Look for the opportunity in this. Unless you were completely unaffected by it, don’t come out of the other side of the COVID shutdown doing the same things that you’ve always done. Look for the gaps that left your organization vulnerable and fill them. Look for ways to connect to your donors better and do those things. Use this as an opportunity to change for the better.
Curtis: That wraps up our conversation on fundraising during COVID-19. Thanks to the panel for sharing their insights and expertise. If you liked this episode, please subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. And leave us a review. We also invite you to explore our growing library of online courses, whitepapers, infographics, and blog articles in the Learn section of the IPM website. That address is ipmadvancement.com/learn. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.