Having been kicked out of our fundraising comfort zones so suddenly and so thoroughly by COVID-19, what do we do now?
You’re maybe just getting your home office set up in a way that doesn’t drive you crazy and maybe your kids are finally settling into their new reality of homeschooling.
Now, how are we supposed to raise money in this new remote world?
To solicit or not to solicit?
That is the first question. I’m seeing a huge divide out there on blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. One camp says “Engage only. Don’t solicit.” The other camp says, “Keep soliciting.”
Don’t assume. Don’t project.
Let me probe the semantics with you for a moment. In your mind, change the word "solicit" to “presenting the needs of your institution” or “ask” for short. Now, doesn’t that feel a little bit better?
See, the problem with this debate is that we are making decisions from a place of fundraiser discomfort. We are reeling and trying to adjust and projecting our own uncertainty onto our donors. We shouldn't assume that they are uncomfortable or don’t want to give. We should not rob them of the opportunity to help during this crisis because we are uncomfortable.
So, where exactly do I fall in this debate?
Present the needs of the institution.
Ask when appropriate.
This is the same advice I would always give. Lead with relationship and deeply care for your donors as people. Connect with them over the mission and values of your institution. Communicate clearly the priorities of your organization right now. (Hint: the first should be the health, safety, and welfare of those your institution serves and the employees of the organization. Everything else follows that.) If you are at a point in the relationship where an ask seems correct and natural, ask.
Dangerous advice for small organizations
The advice to completely put all asking (and usually they use the word “soliciting” to make other fundraisers feel sleazy and uncomfortable) is dangerous, especially for small organizations. Check the work history of the person giving any advice to cease solicitation and if you work for an organization much smaller and more fragile than they have, feel free to keep scrolling. Large institutions with big endowments can weather this storm without asking. Small organizations won’t be able to do that.
Donors want to help in a crisis
The second reason that stopping all asks is bad advice is that donors often actually WANT to give during a crisis. I’ve been a phonathon caller after 9/11, ran a phonathon during the economic downturn of 2008, and did relief fundraising after an EF-4 tornado hit my personal home and the campus of the university I worked for. Donors, when they are able, rush in after a crisis and support the organizations that mean the most to them. They want to buoy you up right now.
Lead with care for people
Yes, you want to value long-term relationship over short-term revenue. That’s true. Patience follows naturally, when you value your donors as people. Donors may need to wait several months for the stock market to rebound. Others may not have head-space to talk right now, especially if loved ones are ill or vulnerable. All of that is okay.
Lead with care for people, but don’t let your fear and discomfort lead. You also have a fiduciary responsibility to your organization, especially if your institution is small and needs the revenue.
Again, it's pretty simple: lead with care for people. Present the priorities and needs of your organization. Ask if appropriate to the life-cycle of that donor relationship.
Ok, now what?
If you’ve decided to continue doing some fundraising, how exactly are we supposed to execute our plans? Here are 8 ideas that I’ve been trying out (or planning for) at my day job:
Even if your institution is one of those that has a large endowment and can get by without immediate contributions, are there immediate relief needs for those you serve and/or your employees? Many universities are starting emergency relief funds for students who cannot get home right now and perhaps have lost their sources of income. My institution will start relief campaigning next week. We will do it almost all digitally, with a letter later in the month (done through a mail house that is still in operation).
Giving Tuesday (COVID-19 edition)
Have you heard that there will be an extra Giving Tuesday on 5/5/20 to help donors and organizations respond to the COVID-19 crisis? Now is the time to be planning how your organization can participate. Here’s the info on that plan.
Facebook lives are a fantastic way to connect with folks. The president of my institution (a Unitarian Universalist and multireligious theological school) went live at the same time every day last week to talk with our graduates and friends. She discussed hope and resilience, offered prayers and support, and clearly presented the priorities of the school right now (the health, safety, and welfare of those your institution serves and the employees of the organization, followed by her long-range plans and vision).
Then, each day she did very soft asks for recruitment and fundraising (alternating days). (To be fair, we are better positioned to continue recruitment than most higher education institutions because we’ve been doing some form of distance learning since 2001.) The video replays of the lives that we have boosted are doing very well and it is driving folks to our virtual open houses and our giving landing pages.
Virtual Event Landing Pages
The school I work for relies on “house party” style events for donor acquisition and unrestricted support. When we had to cancel one of those in mid-March, we made the event virtual using Zoom and created a landing page specific for those prospects, with pictures, language, and a student profile video we already had from previous years. We also created a specific giving page associated with and linked to the landing page. While the actual virtual event had only around 12 folks, those folks shared it with the rest of their congregation, and we had over 60 visits to the landing page. It’s small but it’s a place to start and didn’t require much time or effort.
Boost the $h*t out of everything
If you’re a fundraiser, you’re not traveling right now. That means you have some money in your budget to boost EVERYTHING you do digitally. One or two saved plane tickets can pay for some tremendous boosts of your Facebook live replays and other digital promotions. You can also buy ads that push folks to your relief giving pages.
Zoom Meetings with Major Donors
Zoom provides a platform that is almost as good as being there. Offer your donors Zoom or phone as options. If they aren’t comfortable with Zoom, phone is good. I’ve had two discovery visits and a dozen or more significant other major donor visits in the last two weeks without leaving my house.
Here’s how most of these meetings have gone:
(Oh, and BTW, I secured millions of dollars from these visits because I didn't stop asking. Most are verbal commitments that will be finalized later but I secured hundreds of thousands of dollars that will come in by the end of this fiscal year.)
Presidential small group Zooms
For the next steps with my discovery visits and for several of my donors that haven’t had a significant amount of contact lately, I’m putting together a small group Zoom session with our president and 4-5 donors. This concept was uniformly popular among the donors and my president is very excited to connect in this way.
Digital Contingencies for Live Events
Our largest fundraising and acquisition event of the year takes place in June and we are worried that it will not happen in person. It is a highly structured fundraising breakfast event. We are developing our plans to make this event digital as a BYOB: Bring Your Own Breakfast on Zoom. We may use the webinar feature in Zoom to deliver this more seamlessly. I will post more as plans become clearer and we know about results.
This time is a tremendous opportunity to pivot and innovate in ways that will stretch our creativity. We can absolutely do this together!
What techniques are you utilizing to connect with donors? Are you raising funds for relief? What have you tried and what are you planning to try? Where do you fall on the debate of “to solicit or not to solicit?” Let me know in the comments.
Comments and questions are, as always, welcomed and encouraged!
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Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.