State Policy Network
Times of volatility…tips for highly successful fundraisers

By Benjamin R. Case, CEO/Senior Counsel of Focused On Fundraising. This post was originally published by Focused On Fundraising and has been shared here with their express permission.

“With this market, this gift may have to be delayed,” said a donor just the other day to a highly successful fundraiser I coach and mentor.

Working with donors in the good times—when markets and asset values are up—is easier than working with donors in times of considerable market volatility, uncertainty, and when assets are losing value. 

In other words, these days are tough for fundraisers. But think about it, for some of our donors, these days can be very unsettling, truly very hard, discouraging, and have a significant negative impact on their net worth and their future.

I have more than once been through these market gyrations, times of considerable uncertainty, and even calamity. Let me share with you some suggestions—not only from my experience—but also from the experiences of many highly successful fundraisers, managers, and leaders I have helped through these tough times. 

  1. Always, always, always put your donors before the dollars. In other words, never make the dollars more important than your donors. It is critical to start with that frame of mind.
  2. When a donor expresses concerns about the markets, the future of their company or their job:

    A. Listen: As one illustration I read recently stated, “incline your ear.” I can just see a fundraiser leaning his or her ear toward the donor to hear what is being said accurately. Incline your ear, listen carefully to your donors, and not just their words, but also their motivations and their heart.

    B. Empathize: Let the donor know you understand their concerns by your body language and your words.

    C. Ask questions: You should ask questions that are appropriate for the relationship you have with your donor:
    • The questions may be more general, such as, “what concerns you most about times like this?”
    • Or the questions may be more specific, like, “what impact are you seeing/expecting to your work/company?”
    • Or even more personal, “how is this impacting your portfolio?”
    • Understand that asking questions is not only an opportunity to learn more about the donor’s financial and business situation, but it is also a chance to see more deeply into their personal values. Ask appropriate questions and listen to the answers.
  3. After putting your donor first, listening, expressing empathy, asking questions to clearly understand the donor’s concerns, then you may or may not decide to ask for a gift. If you decide to ask for a gift because the donor is clearly ready and comfortable considering a gift at this time:
  4. If you decide to ask for a gift because the donor is clearly ready and comfortable considering a gift at this time:
    A. Thank the donor for their willingness to step forward now.
    B. Clearly state the opportunity and the impact a gift of $X will have at this time.
    C. Ask for the gift.
    D. Be prepared for the donor to express additional concerns over the timing and/or the amount. Be ready to state another benefit or significant impact of the gift at this time.
    E. Then be ready to suggest the donor make a pledge for that amount and pay the commitment over a period of time.
  5. If the donor is clearly not ready to make a gift at this time:
    A. Express your gratitude for their support/involvement over the years.
    B. Let the donor know you are most concerned about the donor’s well-being, their ongoing involvement, and their support of your nonprofit.
    C. I like to suggest a time when I am going to check back with the donor to see how everything is going—not to solicit a gift—but to see if the donor is in a better place mentally and financially. The most critical portion of this is to be sure to follow-up. Then, once they are in that better place, that is the green light to discuss their next gift.

There will always be periods of tough times—yes, we are facing one of those periods now. However, don’t forget that markets will stabilize and rebound. The sun will rise in the morning – and if it doesn’t, then we all have more significant problems to deal with.

Times of volatility, uncertainty, and bear markets provide an essential opportunity to strengthen relationships by showing you care more about the donor than just their dollars.

PS: Two additional thoughts to consider:
1. Do not inflame the already sensitive donor by expressing your irrational fears, the latest rumors, etc. Your work is to understand where the donor is, not to make the situation worse.

2. Last thought: I do know leaders of nonprofits and fundraising who have purposefully instructed their fundraisers to stop asking for gifts. They’ve asked that they just go by to visit/listen to the donors and let the donors know you care about them. In situations where this has happened during times of significant turbulence, the donor relations improved, and gifts compounded in the future. But you must be with the donor again, as noted above in 5.c.