State Policy Network
Work in tough times…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.

This is the longest Tip for Highly Successful Fundraisers, Managers, and Leaders I have ever written because I have a lot to share.

First, let me thank my personal and professional friends for sharing their thoughts with me. Susan Ross provided an article last week by Mary Moss (they lead Moss+Ross) that was a great outline that I have adapted here. It also included some advice I have provided here. To see the Moss & Ross article click here.

In addition, interactions over the past week with Jeff Tarnowski, Andrew Delmege, Gabe Joseph, Robert Kornegay, Brian Sischo, Paul Jalsevac, Kevin Gentry, and Stephen Clouse have provided additional ideas and insights contained in this Tip. I’d like to thank them for their contributions and insight to this Tip.

In my last Tip, I discussed our work with donors during turbulent times—specifically our major gift donors. I encouraged you to have, at the forefront of your mindset, a sense of being donor-centric, donor-sensitive, and to put your donors before their dollars. Let your donors know you care. If you have not read that Tip, I strongly recommend you do so before reading this Tip. I should mention, I received more feedback and questions from that Tip than any this year – Click here to read it!

Today, I want to discuss with you how we do our work in tough times. If you have any questions, let me know, and I will do my best to answer. I already have more than a few questions, and I will try to answer you as soon as I can. In addition to the overarching mindset of putting our donors before their dollars, I want to advance another principle today that I believe will surprise you. In today’s environment, I encourage you to think like an entrepreneur.
What is that about, Ben?
It is about asking yourself, “where is the opportunity in this?” I am not talking about taking advantage of others or advancing your personal agenda at the cost of others. I am talking about asking where the opportunity is in this—to strengthen knowledge of your nonprofit’s mission? To strengthen the work you do? To strengthen your nonprofit’s message? Where is the opportunity to improve relationships with your donors? To share useful information with your donors?
It is a natural inclination of many to go into a protective mode, withdraw into a cocoon and become frozen. The nonprofits that advance in this situation will look for opportunities. They will have this search-for-opportunities mindset while staying exceptionally focused on their donors— putting donors before their dollars.       
I have lived through some tough and frightening times.  

There are two elements common in all these:
1. They were all bad, frightening, and very unsettling.
2. We recovered from all of them.  
We will recover from COVID-19 too.
Here is how all of us should go about our work of fundraising, managing, and leading nonprofits in these tough times:

  1. Don’t assume: I have talked with donors over the past week that have had zero percent of their assets in equities. Others have been 30% invested, 50%, 85%, and even 100% invested. I have talked with successful business leaders whose businesses are crashing, some who are maintaining, and others whose businesses are growing as fast as they can keep up—all because they have either the wrong or right products or services at this time. Is business up or down? Are investments dying, or, as one donor told me, “you know what? I have been totally out of the stock market.” Ask questions to find out how your donors are being impacted by these times and how they are dealing with it. Do not assume. Empathize. Based on what you learn and the engagement of your donor, make the decision then to ask or not to ask for a gift now. My previous Tip covered this in detail; read it if you have not. 
    • Along these lines, some of you are in the middle of meaningful conversations with donors. You may have recently asked for a major gift and left a proposal for the donor’s consideration. Another donor may actually have an outstanding pledge. You may have sent yet another donor information s/he recently requested. You may have had a donor meeting with agreed-upon next steps. I encourage you to pick up where you left off, BUT present options. Ask the donor, does s/he want to keep moving at the planned pace, or do they prefer to take a pause until health and wealth concerns are clearer?  Give the donor options and listen to the donor’s preferences. In times like these, it is wise to truly let donors decide the pace. Don’t assume. Respond accordingly.
  2. Stay calm. Be flexible: Our lives and our perceptions of reality are changing daily, sometimes hourly. My schedule has blown up as I am sure yours has too: 
    • Staying calm allows you to hear correctly and communicate accurately. Calm instills confidence in you as a person and a fundraiser. Peggy Akers, my assistant at Roanoke College would always bring a calm reassurance to my frantic, scattered thinking before a big meeting or event. I appreciated that greatly. Your donors will appreciate your calm.  
    • Flexibility is necessary because things are changing. We must go with the flow. Meetings, events, decisions—all changing quickly. I had two weeks of travel blow up. But you know what? We have been able to get each meeting rescheduled and held either by phone or the internet. Flexibility is making it happen. And making it happen is what highly successful fundraisers do even when the timeline and schedule changes.

  3. Ah yes, don’t forget about communication. As things evolve, we must communicate:
    • Use whatever means to communicate—there is more than in-person. Take advantage of technology. A variety of internet video services have already reached out to me as a way to connect with donors.  
    • Make sure everyone is on the same page—they know what you know, and you know what they know.
    • With donors and stakeholders, it is important for them to know what you aren’t doing, but it is more important for them to know what youare doing. What changes have been made in how you deliver your programs and services? I received a great letter from a recent client about how they are going about their work—what they are doing to still deliver their excellent services to those they benefit. It was a great letter. If you want a copy, let me know. Another client had a conference call with their CEO and invited their top 75 donors. Of those invited, 48 listened and were brought up to date on important matters and allowed to ask questions. This is a great opportunity to let your constituents know of your strength and where there are opportunities for them to help others. They care about your organization and those you serve.
    • Speaking of letting your donors know opportunities to help—a number of nonprofits have reenergized or started “emergency funds” to provide special emergency services for those they benefit. They are letting their best donors know about this, as well as broadly spreading the word digitally. One of my clients reported receiving a six-figure gift, while another reported receiving hundreds of donations.  
    • A donor I spoke with today wanted to know if others are giving. As soon as he knew how others were stepping up, he did too. Let your donors know others are making donations. 
    • This is a great time for stewardship. Let donors know you care about them. Make personal phone calls. Send texts and email. Longtime Tipsters know I am a fan of handwritten notes. This is a great time to send one. As long as it is safe to send and receive mail, think about what a nice touch a personal, handwritten note is at a time like this.
    • Speaking of stewardship, the faith-based nonprofits I work with have been very intentional reaching out to their donors to hear their prayer requests. What a wonderful way to serve their donors.
    • Be creative in your communications. I know of nonprofits that are already advancing audiobooks and sending video messages to their donors. Get with it.
    • As for sending emails, I have heard open rates have gone higher. Captive audiences are simply more likely to read emails. When you have something meaningful to share, communicate it.
    • And here is a bright idea from a highly successful fundraiser—let your donors know you are open for business, receiving and processing gifts. Communicate.

  4. Update Your Message to Connect Your Donors to Your Mission and Those You Serve: Consider how today’s situation impacts your work and those you serve. What is your nonprofit doing to help those you serve? Put it in today’s terms to be sure it has appeal to donors and informs about the impact of your mission. Relate your impact today to your mission. Make your message inspiring so that donors will be encouraged to keep giving.

  5. Make a Decision Now on Your Travel, as well as Spring, Summer and Fall Events:
    • I am not traveling until X date. Be specific in your travel plans. Make plans for who you want to meet virtually in the meantime and how you will make that virtual meeting happen.   
    • Special events are getting torched. I advise canceling out to a date certain and making decisions about future events on a date certain. Have set dates to evaluate your plans. Put certainty where you can. Of course, we have to take into account public health concerns, volunteers, sponsorships, logistics of planning, getting people to attend, as well as a financial risk. Personally, fall dates are feeling more certain to me than spring for sure and possibly summer too. Here is an idea I really like: When an event is canceled, ask people to consider making a gift instead of automatically sending refunds.  If you have canceled an auction or a fundraising event where people bought items or made donations in the past, ask them to make that an outright gift this year.

  6. Identify Fundraising Priorities and How You Will Raise Funds: Priorities become more essential than ever in times like this as is clarity about your fundraising priorities. This is especially true the more staff you have. All of my clients are raising gifts for their annual funds. Some are raising funds for special and urgent projects. Anyone with a project near completion is looking for ways to bring the project to closure.
    • Are you in a campaign?
      1. Clearly, if you are near or at the beginning, check in with your lead donors. Anticipate that they are going to ask you to pause. I am conducting a feasibility for a client that is planning to launch a campaign. One of their likely donors told me today, “If you stuck your head out from behind that stump today, people would ask, ‘What in the world are you thinking?’“ Listen to your leadership. Use this time to build a stronger plan.
      2.  If you are in the middle or near the end of a campaign, communicate with your leadership and donors about how you are going to proceed. My clients near the end of a campaign are doing the calculations and will probably do their best to wrap it up. Let me interject a specific perspective from 2008. A number of nonprofits suspended their campaigns, then restarted them. In the end, the ones I worked with all raised the funds desired
      3. The rules here: Listen to your donors. Do the math. Never make campaign decisions out of fear or hast. Do the smart thing for the long-term good of your nonprofit.

  7. Put Your Energies Into Work You Can Control: You have time to do other work? Use it to your advantage. Review your fundraising plan for this year, update it. Something not working in your internal operations? Identify it and go to work on strengthening it. It may very well be time for that internal assessment of your fundraising operation (Focused On Fundraising does this for our clients). Read those books you have stacked on your credenza (or the ones on my credenza). This is not the time to do nothing. It is time to make your fundraising organization stronger. 

  8. Be an Optimistic Realist: Up to a few days ago, I was thinking this situation was going to turn around in a few weeks. That was probably being an optimist. I am not thinking that way now. I have become an optimistic realist. We all have to take the long view. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great writers of the last century wrote a journalistic essay titled “On Living in an Atomic Age” in 1948. There was this new threat called an atomic bomb and, as you can imagine, people, especially people in Europe so near to foreign threats, had deep and present fears about that “atomic age.” Here is an excerpt of what C.S. Lewis wrote:

“…The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
The lessons from more than forty years of fundraising teach me 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. Tough times—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. These times also provide an essential opportunity to get our act together in messaging, organizing and doing the preparation for the next run.
That run may be slow coming and slow unfolding. It also may be fast coming and fast unfolding.  I do not know. But I do know that run is coming.   
Let me encourage you, as C.S. Lewis encouraged us, to continue to do the “human things.” Be kind to others. Do something nice for a stranger. Your internal happiness will be brighter than their smile. As I encourage all fundraisers that I coach and mentor—be the brightest light your donors see—or hear from—this day. 
Your thoughts—and questions—are welcomed. Thx ben.

Ben can be reached at

Categories: Best Practices
Organization: State Policy Network