Fundraising During COVID:
Full-Steam Ahead

by Victoria Jones and Karen Lieberman-Daly

Posted August 13, 2020

Let’s face it. COVID is here to stay for the foreseeable future. And, the sooner organizations embrace this new reality, the better the fundraising outcomes will be as we head into new school years, fall events, and year end planning. Many experts have been sending this message out loud and clear: It’s time to stop hoping and start adapting….in ways more cogent and longer lasting than what we may have planned for in March.

Take advantage of the late summer months and beautiful fall weather.

Summer is not what it used to be… Many donors have put travel plans on hold and the weather is on your side. Think creatively about engagement strategies that are possible now and will not be in a few months. Many of our clients are reporting that donors are amenable to an outdoor coffee chat, campus walks or outdoor tours of a new facility. One of our clients recently hosted a socially distanced picnic with a small group that was very well received. And, there is always a walk in the park.

Conquer your own anxieties and norms.

While spring had us all thinking that Zoom was best for donors we already knew, we now need to push ourselves to try – at least try – engaging a broader set of prospects virtually. We have talked a lot about ways to do this.  Now’s the time for experimentation.  As one of our clients said, “Our job is to keep these new donors any way we can…” It’s very likely that new donors will be even more open to engaging in virtual ways.

Resist the false narrative that the donor largesse of spring 2020 is not renewable. 

If you don’t try, it won’t be!  Many organizations experienced unparalleled fundraising success from March to June, much around COVID relief and also some genuine commitment to mission sustainability in tough times. Records were set in many ways, and some in unanticipated ways. Several of our clients raised more in their virtual galas than they have ever raised live. Some report that donors who stood on the sidelines for many years chose the heat of COVID to lean in. Two things: 1) The circumstances that precipitated this largesse have not diminished. COVID has not gone away. 2) Unemployment is dangerously high. But…remarkably… the stock markets are still strong. As a result, the majority of donors remain undeterred. In fact, a recent survey showed that more than 70% of donors intend to give at the same level or greater this year in comparison to last. Stay positive and capitalize on this intent.

Speaking of planning; now is the time!

Summer is traditionally a great time to plan. Given that we are operating in uncharted waters, planning is more critical than ever.  Hopefully by now we have all learned that virtual engagement requires even more detailed plans and strategies to be effective and successful.

  • For direct response, that means more frequent and more segmented communications.
  • For major donors, it means more tailored content and virtual engagement.
  • For all donors, increased social media activity acts as an important communication and engagement tool, and…
  • For special events, if you have yet to host a virtual event, now is your chance! Or, if you have already hosted one and are weary of ‘donor fatigue’ when you schedule another, do not fear.  Virtual events are working!  A couple of examples:
    • One of our clients raised 3x what it usually does at its virtual gala this summer.
    • A performing arts client had 4x their standard attendees at their virtual gala (100 live vs. 400 virtually) and exceeded all fundraising goals both before and during the event.

Many donors have praised the format, particularly when it is creative. They like the novelty and convenience of a virtual event and are actually asking for more! Find additional tips on how to make your virtual event a success in our recent interview with renowned planner Bryan Rafanelli.

What about campaigns?

In early spring, many active campaigns went “on pause.”  Pause is a curious, even risky, concept in a campaign. For some it equated to STOP!  It is much, much harder to reinvigorate a paused campaign than it is to recast the plan and move forward, albeit at a different pace. If you haven’t already, now may be the time to recalibrate and launch – or relaunch – your effort. 

  • First, refresh your campaign narrative (case) and your prospect pool. Both have likely been affected by COVID, racial justice, and/or a shift in operating priorities. 
  • Then update/revise your goals and objectives as appropriate.
  • Test your intent to move forward with your closest donors and prospects – a mini feasibility study of sorts.
  • Do not act desperate! Follow the advice laid out in this Chronicle of Philanthropy article on requesting donations during the pandemic. Help your donors understand your destination and their role in getting you there. Be patient. And, inspire donors by outlining what you’ve accomplished during COVID and what’s to come.
  • Phasing is a legitimate way to regroup. You may decide to call your progress to date the conclusion of Phase 1 and what lies ahead as Phase 2. This gives you some flexibility that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
  • Take lessons from what we’ve learned: Most of your donors understand and expect that the urgent needs that drive your campaign objectives are important. The worst-case scenario is, some may not be as ready as you wish they were. But, by engaging (or reengaging) with campaign prospects now, you can help them better understand the heightened importance of their mission-driven investment. In other words, get started!

Revisit our blog post “Campaigns During COVID-19: How Nonprofits Can Forge A Path Forward” for additional advice.

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.

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