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Campaigns During COVID-19: How Nonprofits Can Forge a Path Forward

by Victoria Jones and Karen Lieberman-Daly

Posted May 7, 2020

While getting through the pandemic is top of mind for all of us right now—and health and safety issues are most immediate—it’s  important to remember that in six months, twelve months or two years, you—and your donors—will be on the other side of this crisis and much more focused on the financial impact. We will, undoubtedly, be facing even greater challenges than we faced in the financial crash of 2008. There are lessons learned from this and other crises that can help us navigate our campaigns today.

Don’t make long-term decisions in response to a short-term crisis.

Ride it out a little. While your leadership and campaign committee may be so hyper-focused on COVID-19 relief right now that they cannot imagine how you will “revert” to plans you had just 60 days ago, remember, your mission remains the driving force behind donor engagement and loyalty. Even if you have to tweak it a little, or a lot, it will still be relevant for your supporters. Resist pressure to shut down your campaign prematurely. The campaigns that folded in 2008 missed the groundswell of support that began to emerge in late 2009 and grew exponentially for the next 10 years, and they forewent plans carefully laid that were important to their long-term sustainability.


Time can be your campaign’s friend.

Today’s campaign timelines—and even fundraising priorities—are more elastic than you or your leadership may think. The length of a campaign can expand and contract as circumstances demand. And funding priorities can also adapt. Donors will respect you for thoughtfully moving in one direction or another to create more realistic, more responsive, and more successful plans. This was one of the most important lessons learned in the market crash of 2008. Most donors are now OK with a campaign taking five, seven, or even ten years and expect that over these periods, priorities are likely to evolve.  As long as your campaign’s intended impact is upfront and you are transparent with donors as you adjust to new or emerging needs, the timing and details of your campaign are yours to decide.


Beware of the word “pause” and be careful to use it well. 

If you have had to turn your attention to other things during the pandemic, and most of you have, set milestones and conditions around which you will redefine the timeframe and criteria for getting back to your campaign more earnestly. If recalibration is in order, do it, but be engaging donors in conversations as you go so you hold their attention and avoid a big ramp up when you’re ready to move your campaign forward again.


A mini campaign within the whole can keep some momentum.

Some organizations are choosing to concentrate their campaign focus right now on one particular priority and return to a broader campaign agenda when the COVID-19 emergency subsides and potential donors settle into the “next phase” of a new normal. For example, two of our clients were very close to the sub-goals of a capital priority when COVID-19 hit. Their leadership evaluated their campaign options and rather than pause entirely, decided to focus all campaign efforts on raising the dollars needed to complete an important building project. Soon after that decision, one of our clients quickly received a $1M gift—solicited virtually—that raised the confidence of their campaign committee. Our clients are now closing in on their goals. 


Your goal may be more doable—or even rise—during the pandemic.

For some the pandemic is underscoring the importance of their organization and its campaign objectives. This is particularly true for organizations on the front lines of battling the coronavirus. Depending on where you are in your campaign cycle and the extent to which you are attracting new donors and new major gifts, you may be positioned to exceed your campaign goals with an even stronger case for support and an expanded and engaged donor community. While seemingly counter-intuitive, this may be the exact right thing to do.


Philanthropy will rebound. It always does.

In 2008 many donors stopped communicating even with the charities they cared most about.  Thinking we were doing the right thing, we fundraisers, to some extent, let that happen.  Fortunately, we learned! That is not—or should not be—happening right now. We have myriad examples that illustrate donors are committed to your long-term mission: five- and six-figure gifts are arriving unsolicited, virtual galas are sold-out, and Zoom donor conversations are resulting in six- and seven-figure gifts. How long will it last? We don’t know.  But we do know how to be nimble and stay connected thoughtfully so that we can seize opportunity at the first possible moment.


New Normal 2.0: virtual cultivation and solicitation.

Almost all of our clients are deep into virtual donor communication. Our nimbleness in going virtual is certainly a testament to our ability to be adaptable, creative and tenacious. One-on-one and small group virtual engagements are allowing us to inform and steward donors in ways we would never have considered just eight weeks ago. The intimacy and convenience that Teams, Zoom, and other virtual platforms permit has brought donor conversations to a new place.  What is more, virtual solicitations are becoming more and more frequent, and more and more successful. Many of us believe virtual donor communications will have a solid place in our communications toolbox long after the pandemic is behind us. If you haven’t seen it, this article from Chronicle has many good tips for managing in a virtual office.


Don’t change your goals, change your strategies. 

After the crash in 2008, many donors were not immediately inclined to make long-term commitments, a response reinforced by their financial advisors. This required organizations to change their donor approach to more of an “installment” plan – an initial commitment, another when the donor felt better about their financial circumstances and the organization’s ability to deliver, and often even a third to help finish out a campaign. In the end, most donors came in where they were originally projected, but it took a while and was a bit nerve-wracking for campaign teams. In many campaigns then, the top donors did not show themselves until we could “add up” multiple commitments at campaign’s end.


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. Visit our COVID-19 Resources page for useful information and insights.