Four Truths for Fundraising During Times of Uncertainty

By March 11, 2020March 24th, 2020Industry Trends & Commentary

As fundraisers, we thrive on asking the big questions. In recent days, however, we find ourselves on the receiving end of questions equally significant. What may be the effects of COVID-19, the upcoming election, and market fluctuations on the nonprofit sector and the communities we serve? How do we continue to approach donors during this time? And, perhaps most glaring, should we approach donors at all?

These are the right questions to ask. It is our job as fundraisers to consider the concerns, needs, and perspectives of donors and to shape our asks accordingly. It is equally our responsibility to frame our response with the appropriate level of sensitivity, transparency, and boldness that cultivates trust and nurtures relationships. Four fundraising truths inform this most important work of deepening connection and honoring mission during times of uncertainty.

  1. We have been here before. In addition to concerns for health and safety, part of current speculation is the potential effect of a pandemic on the global economy, and as a result, on philanthropic giving. Albeit with a different cause, our industry faced and emerged from this threat during the Great Recession just over a decade ago. Historically, while significant market downturns do impact philanthropic giving to some extent, the losses in philanthropic dollars are never as dramatic as the market downturns that drive them. For instance, the recession of 2008 resulted in a decrease in giving of 7%, considerably less than the 38% decrease the S&P experienced that same year. And yet, though giving did decline, experience tells us that the decline was at least in part due to a pause in asks. Had fundraisers continued to ask with the confidence and clarity with which they were asking before the market downturn, the nonprofit sector would have seen even less of a decline in giving.
  1. Our missions do not pause. No matter the external forces at play, need does not cease during times of uncertainty. If anything, the needs of those served by the 1.5 million hospitals, universities, schools, social service organizations, and religious communities nationwide only intensify during times of crisis. When the national mood oscillates between the unpredictable at best and the frenzied at worst, nonprofits continue to serve. The richness of the nonprofit sector in the U.S. knows no day off. In fact, humanity depends on it.
  1. Humans are wired to give. Even during the status quo, individuals pursue the gratification of giving. Numerous studies demonstrate the positive and compelling effects of gifting one’s time or resources. Scientists describe the “helper’s high” and the “giver’s glow” as the neurological response, visible on brain scans, that accompanies making a gift of self. In such studies, the “glow” results regardless of the impact of the gift, or the level of need. Imagine the multiplier of a gift tied to impact, especially when beloved missions face an external threat. This impulse towards goodwill must not be ignored.
  1. Our words matter. Donors want to give, and it is our responsibility as fundraisers to keep asking. As with any crisis, however, tailored and targeted donor communications are integral to our response. Proper stewardship demands as much, and it need not occur in person. Moving forward with confidence and clarity requires a refined approach that speaks to the concerns and needs of our donors and leverages the use of technology to replace face-to-face communication if needed. Regardless of setting, address anticipated questions head on, invite donors into a conversation, and execute asks from the heart; donors will respond with theirs.

During windows of uncertainty, with nonprofits’ missions as relevant as ever, fundraising must continue to be a priority. Moving forward with planned activity is vital, for humanity depends on philanthropy. When viewed in this light, the answer to the weighty questions we face becomes immediately clear. Fundraisers cannot afford to pause. Without philanthropy, not only does the world we envision slip further into the distance, but the world as we know it ceases to exist. Staying still is not an option.

Elizabeth Zeigler is the President & CEO of Graham-Pelton and can be reached at 1-800-608-7955 or ezeigler@grahampelton.com.

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