COVID-19, the Economy, and Nonprofits: Responding to Client Questions

by Victoria Jones

Posted March 19, 2020

It is an unsettling time to be sure. What should nonprofits do to be both good citizens and financial stewards of their organizations?

Amid the chaos of these last weeks and dozens of client calls, it is inspiring to hear incredible stories of human kindness and generosity – financial and otherwise. There have been many of them. Fundamentally, people care deeply about taking care of each other. We know from history that as a society we will get through this crisis, and there will be a day sometime soon when things settle, balance is restored albeit in a new norm, and philanthropy is strong. This has been proven true with both empirical research and anecdotal stories dating back to the Great Depression. See Giving USA’s research (below) to assure yourself that this is true.


Naturally, boards and senior leadership are highly focused on the safety and stability of their communities, constituents, employees, and organizations. At the same time, staff are seeking ways to execute long-standing plans and achieve pre-determined goals. We gathered our consultants this past Monday to hear how our clients are navigating the complexities of the situation and what questions are top of mind. Here are some of the most frequent client concerns, and some thoughts that we hope are helpful.


It is prime annual fund season. Is it callous to ask for financial support over the next couple of weeks?

It depends.  For some, it will make perfect sense, and for others it may appear tone deaf. If you have a specific and urgent case that requires philanthropic support, then ask. Providing support for homeless or low-income families with children who can no longer attend school, helping students with emergency support as they are forced to vacate their dorms, or supporting displaced workers in the face of a forced shut down are good examples of appeals that will get attention. If you feel you should or must ask, ask well. Perhaps you consider taking a pass on inserting an ask amount and instead leave the donor to decide what they would like to do. Trust that they will do their best.


What if we are extremely dependent on the revenue from our big gala that we must cancel?

Galas have two purposes: they raise significant dollars and they tie us together. Both are important right now. Recognizing that most support comes long before the gala ever occurs, many of our clients are either well into their fundraising or in a position where they can ask their most loyal friends to sponsor anyway – and many are saying yes because they know how much their favorite causes need this event. Finding new friends will not be so easy and may be the piece that you abandon. Some clients are asking their guests to buy tickets to a “non-gala.” And the bravest are hosting virtual galas, asking their guests to sign on at xx o’clock on Friday to join in the celebration. One of our clients is even asking their guests to be prepared with a glass in hand to toast their organization! Online auctions are also an option. While not quite the same as being in a room, these virtual events will have some success in bringing a community together for a good cause.  


I really need to find a new Chief Development Officer asap. Can we anticipate that good candidates will be willing to make a move?

Yes and no. In our experience, some candidates will hunker down and decide that loyalty to their current employer is most important or staying where they are feels safest. Others may feel that now is the perfect time to rally behind a mission they are really passionate about or seek a new position to build their professional ladder. Interestingly, we are experiencing a higher than normal response rate to our outreach. People want to connect, especially those who are mission driven. This has allowed for deep conversations, strengthening our ability to engage candidates. So, in these unprecedented times, you won’t know if you don’t try.  


What if I am in a campaign and have big asks pending or waiting to be made?

Check in with your major donors simply with the intention of listening. You will gain far more if, instead of leading with a follow up to an ask, you reach out with the genuine desire to check in and hear what is going on in their lives. You will never lose by being compassionate and in fact, you might win exponentially when the day comes that your prospect is ready to make their campaign commitment. This week, many of our clients made phone calls – yes, actual phone calls! – to those typically most generous to their organization. They have reported many stories of appreciation and heard many things that will help them know when and how to make an approach at the right time. More than a few clients have reported that by checking in, it allowed their donors to express their understanding that the organization needed them more than ever at this time and inspired them to make their gift now.

We would also remind you that campaign timing is yours to determine. After the recession of 2008, many campaigns necessarily extended timelines by a year or two – we partnered with several of these organizations that realized great success. It is important to remind ourselves that we have control of many campaign variables.


How can we conduct a successful search right now?

Critical to conducting a successful search, especially for senior leadership positions, is ensuring a trusted process. More than ever, the search process needs to be customized to engage organizational stakeholders. Creating a customized, thoughtful process will not only improve your ability to recruit strong candidates but will allow for a much smoother on-boarding. Shortcuts should not be taken. 

And then there’s technology! Thankfully most of us have adapted to virtual work and e-meetings.  We have been quite successful in advancing a search’s progress by carefully moving a candidate through interviews via video conferencing platforms, such as ZOOM. You can manage single or group interviews this way with good planning. In addition, you always have the option of making an offer contingent on meeting each other in person to determine that your chemistry is as good live as it seems online. We have expertise to support our clients and candidates in making the transition to video conferencing go smoothly.


We were just about to launch campaign planning. What should we do?

Now may not be the moment to launch feasibility interviews; prospects are not likely to be of the mindset to give your institution their best attention. But, you can do all of the prep work right up to the launch of interviews and be ready to go the moment the clouds lift. You can develop your campaign pitch and create your best story, you can work through your prospect potential and determine the working goal that you will test in interviews, and you can take the time to explore whether your staff structure supports your campaign opportunity and your practice policies will support this new endeavor. Doing nothing will only set you back. In sum, you stand to gain a great deal by getting yourself up to the launch line. It may be a very good use of your time over the next couple of months.


How can nonprofit leaders plan for an organization’s future during a historic crisis?

We saved this question for last. We realize that we are still in the early days of the pandemic. But we also know that nonprofit leaders are a resilient and ambitious bunch. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been joining our clients in addressing real time challenges but also in conversations about what the future might hold. And here’s what we take comfort in: without exception, all are planning for ways to sustain mission delivery and come out of this crisis stronger. After 40 years of working with nonprofits, including during the challenging events of 9/11 and the 2008 recession, we are confident that nonprofits will find new and audacious ways to make significant impact.

All of us here at Development Guild recognize the critical role our friends and clients are playing in supporting the most vulnerable among us during this crisis. As we face these uncertain times together, it is our top priority to support you. Reach out with questions. Call if you want to brainstorm an idea. We are here.

Related Posts from our Blog