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Covid-19 Has Reshaped Big-Gift Fundraising: Let's Hope It Lasts

Posted: 2/22/2021

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

By Abby Falik

It was a bright Sunday morning in the Before Times. Over coffee, my dear friend Courtney and I shared a sense that we were teetering on the edge of something unknown. Was it OK to hug? Should we sit farther apart? It was still early March, and we hadn't crossed the Covid-19 threshold.

I'd just returned home to the Bay Area from a flurry of back-to-back cross-country trips and was gearing up for a whirlwind of spring travel: Vancouver, Britain, Senegal, New York — all in the next six weeks. But it was starting to look like my trips would all be canceled.

Courtney, who knew how much of my professional life depended on travel, asked how I was feeling. "Is there FOMO?" she asked. "The opposite." I answered, honestly. "I feel complete and total relief."

It's true I felt relief at the prospect of getting to slow my roll, but I also felt an undercurrent of anxiety. I feared missing out on the opportunity to drive dollars to Global Citizen Year, the nonprofit I founded and lead. We had just completed an ambitious, five-year growth plan and were preparing to kick off a $50 million fundraising campaign.

The travel on my spring docket included meetings with our top fundraising leads. The encounters would lay the foundation for relationships I hoped would be fruitful for years.

But an itinerary that made good sense in February made no sense by March. As a fundraiser, being unable to show up in person felt like a disaster.

Surprisingly, it wasn't.

For the last 10 months, I've barely ventured beyond my square mile in Oakland. Yet my team and I have raised more new dollars than I ever would have imagined. During this period, seemingly insurmountable constraints became opportunities I might never have uncovered otherwise.

Forget Protocol

Before Covid, our fundraising — in fact, pretty much all fundraising everywhere — depended on face-to-face meetings. The traditional wisdom is that asking people for money should always take place in person. Period.

I'd spent a decade jumping on planes to meet donors on their time and turf ? at a ranch in Aspen, an airport lounge in San Francisco, or a hair salon in New York City. I'd hop on red-eyes at a moment's notice to have breakfast on another coast or in another country, knowing that showing up in person was a requisite part of asking for a gift.

Suddenly, showing up was no longer an option.

By mid-spring no one had anywhere to go; many people found themselves with a disorienting amount of time on their hands. Calendars cleared; meetings that normally took months to schedule landed within days.

Meanwhile, something else had begun to happen. People I'd been trying to meet for years started reaching out to me— asking for a call as they explored opportunities to make an impact with their dollars. As the stock market surged, those with more money than they needed saw that I offered a scarce resource: the opportunity to make an investment in a better future.

As the power dynamic shifted, I was struck by the fact that in video calls, everyone gets the same two-dimensional box with intermittent sound and iffy lighting. Pedigree, title, wealth, and social status are leveled. On Zoom, we are all exactly the same size.

Vulnerability Is a Strength

Fundraising is almost always about projecting confidence and a compelling vision of the future. I'm used to talking to seasoned philanthropists, and I've trained myself to convey a contagious certainty: This is where we're going. The train's leaving the station. Are you on board?

The pandemic flipped the script. No one was certain about anything; to pretend otherwise would have been discrediting or delusional. The old currency — performative confidence — was devalued. Authenticity, directness, and, surprisingly, vulnerability took its place.

As we sat in a shared freefall, we shared some certainties: We are all humans — mortal and subject to the whim of a tiny virus — and our fates are truly inextricably linked. From this soft and honest place, I was able to say, "I don't know what happens next, but with enough financial runway, I know my team will find a way to expand our impact." From this pitch, which would have seemed absurdly vague just months before, money flowed. People weren't funding a plan or a promise; they were investing in potential and possibility.

More Presence, Less Performance

Asking for money (on my end) and giving it (on the donors' end) are about inspiration and trust. Despite the formalities, it's actually quite intimate, and it's always more effective when we focus on the relationship and not the transaction.

But there's no denying that fundraising is often performative. In February 2020, I showed up (as I'd done countless times before) in a corner office with sweeping views of Central Park, polished and poised at 8 a.m., despite a time-change that felt three hours earlier.

By April, there was no room for pretense. A typically buttoned-up, suit-and-tie executive showed up in his workout clothes and a baseball cap. Kids and pets wandered through the background of formal meetings (making me question what we mean by "formal" anyhow). People are people, and they were coming as they were.

"How are you?" most conversations begin as they always have. But now it's no longer a rhetorical question. The better part of calls with donors are often spent on real updates, which no one is sugar-coating.

Post-Covid, showing up to raise money will no longer mean always showing up in person. Rather it means showing up as a person.

I listen with my whole heart as I hear stories of a daughter anxious and depressed after learning her senior year of college would take place on Zoom; an aging mother hospitalized with cancer whom no one could visit due to Covid restrictions; a fresh divorce that left one woman toggling between loneliness and freedom. I also listen as we grapple with our extreme privilege — the whiteness and wealth that insulate us from the systemic inequities the pandemic has laid bare.

What historically felt like a performance has become more simply — more powerfully — about being present. Even the no's (and there are always plenty along the way) have been delivered with new compassion and care.


Swinging Bigger, Without Constraints

Under the old "rules" of fundraising, you didn't ask someone to give you money on your first date. There were standards! Propriety! A tacitly agreed-on playbook. But the pandemic distorted everyone's sense of time. Why wait to make the ask if it was unclear whether we'd even have a chance to talk again? I was off script and so were our donors.

Hemmed in by social distancing, it became imperative to think with fewer constraints. We had a 10-year track record, a stellar team, and a big vision. While I had to let go of the road map, our compass was clear. My job was to ensure that philanthropic capital was not a constraint to growth, and I began making bigger, bolder asks without apology. Donors stepped up their support, with fewer strings attached. "I see you and I trust you," they seemed to say. It was liberating ?and I hope it's here to stay.

Across philanthropy, inspiring examples of a bold new approach to giving are emerging. Jack Dorsey "open-sourced" his grant making so it's 100 percent transparent via a Google spreadsheet. MacKenzie Scott upended protocol by giving away nearly $6 billion with unprecedented speed, heart, and humanity.

While it's too soon to say whether these new ways of giving are a fad or a lasting trend, it can only bode well. Ending racial injustice, curbing our climate catastrophe, and preventing the next pandemic require philanthropic partners who are committed to solutions that match the size of the problems we're solving.

Post-Covid, showing up to raise money will no longer mean always showing up in person. Rather it means showing up as a person -- confident, yes, but humble, whole, and human, too.

Don't get me wrong: I can't wait to get back on a plane. There's nothing I love more than a long flight, unplugged and inaccessible to the world, suspended in the expanse above the clouds.

But Covid-19 has raised the bar on what warrants a plane trip — which is a win for the climate, as well as for my physical and mental health.

It has also raised the bar on relationships. If we can shed the formalities that distance us — grand lobbies, polished waiting rooms, layers of assistants and fancy clothes, we can break free from our prescribed "roles" to focus on the real work: aligning values and vision with the resources needed to change the world.

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