By Lawson Bader, DonorsTrust, and Rebecca Painter, State Policy Network
The spread of COVID-19—and the response to it—is a situation evolving daily. What we do know is that nonprofit think tanks are now operating in the environment of a serious, widespread crisis that is disrupting day-to-day life, including the philanthropic decisions that donors will consider this year.
Philanthropy hasn’t seen this much uncertainty since the recession of 2008. The COVID-19 pandemic is a slightly different scenario because, this time, a public health crisis has created economic uncertainty and the market has reacted accordingly (it was the opposite in 2008). The encouraging news is that the 2008 recession motivated many organizations to prepare for future financial crises, and in general businesses are in a stronger position to weather it, and, more importantly are in a stronger position to recover more quickly than in 2009. Even so, there are a few critical steps that nonprofit think tanks should take now to ensure the health of their philanthropic relationships and plans.
Stay (virtually) near, dear, and clear. Each of us is experiencing a wide range of emotions—anger, anxiety, confusion, frustration, etc. The most important and immediate step you can take is to go about your fundraising business as you otherwise would have done. Your priority, however, is to reach out to your donors and let them know you care. While visiting donors in person may not be an option for the near term, make it a priority to clear your calendar and start making calls. Ask how they’re doing. Inquire about their families. Handwritten notes are also a powerful, genuine way to show you care—especially when you need to touch base with donors who give primarily through the mail or who you may not know as well. Handwritten notes are a fantastic way to include your colleagues in donor outreach. State Policy Network’s development team organized a “Donor Appreciation Day” among SPN staff and asked them to use part of this day to write a few notes to donors. To make it even easier, they shared a few suggestions about what to write. Keep it simple, but realize this is a time to invite your colleagues to build your organization’s culture of philanthropy.
Now isn’t the time to rush asks, but you can invest in long-term relationships by showing your donors you care about their personal well-being and appreciate their partnership enough to clearly and consistently keep them updated on your organization’s work. More on that below.
Take an inventory of your projections and funding sources. Evaluate how much of your organization’s resources come from stock gifts, donor-advised funds, foundations, legacy gifts, etc. Some of these will provide more reliable over the next six months than others. The next key step is to understand the full giving pictures for your top donors. Identify who these top donors are and consider how their personal situations, businesses, and finances are being impacted. Are they responsible for aging parents? Do they work in an industry that could suffer from economic downturns? Consider how these factors may affect your anticipated cash flow, and take into account the historical trends of when you receive gifts throughout the year. This crisis may not mean those gifts will disappear, but it could mean their timing and amount will shift. Identifying these variables will enable you to begin planning what your organization will do if you have to go without or face delays for any of these projected sources.
Keep your donors connected and informed. This is a great time to ramp up your donor cultivation efforts. Donors need information, too, and your organization can be a voice of confidence and calm in the midst of confusion and uncertainty. Share with your donors how your organization is supporting your local communities, championing state-based ideas to solve problems, and encouraging entrepreneurship. The next few weeks are a good time to have your CEO and public-facing team members make calls. Help donors stay in touch with other organizations doing good work. In the absence of in-person events, donors will have fewer opportunities to connect with the donor community. Regular outreach can help donors stay close to your organization and the state-based Network and take heart that states can take the initiative to advance solutions while DC is all but shut down or unresponsive.
Make it easier for your donors to contribute to you. Have available your wiring and bank instructions, brokerage accounts, and ensure you have the ability to accept ACH transfers. These will be critical if there are interruptions among government and private delivery services and if your office is closed and unable to receive physical deliveries. If need be, update your website with the appropriate information.
Focus on the long game. Now is not the time to make cuts to your development team or efforts. Companies that are experiencing economic challenges often increase their marketing and advertising to avoid losing significant market share. You do the same. If you had plans to hire development talent, move forward. How you treat people in hard times matters just as much—if not more—than how you treat them when times are good. Your organization will come out of a crisis even stronger when you protect and dedicate your development resources to cultivating donor relationships during tough times.
Above all, remember there’s no need to panic. Times of crisis naturally require us to re-evaluate our plans and determine how to navigate situations outside of our control. For development leaders, this ability is a timeless and valuable skillset, regardless of whether a crisis is facing your organization. We must carry on this important work.
If you are an SPN member, please visit our Member Portal to access additional resources related to COVID-19 and philanthropy.