Check-Up Clinic: Advice
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Now is Not the Time to Stop Fundraising
by Valerie Vanderneck
Twice this week, I have heard from nonprofit organizations that boards of directors have "forbidden" them to conduct any type of fundraising during this period of Coronavirus-induced uncertainty. Last week, several agencies told me they have no reserves, but still think it would look bad to fundraise right now. Here's the thing: It would be worse to go out of business because fundraising was nixed during a time when organizations arguably need it most.
That doesn't mean, however, that all nonprofits should be out there pushing hard and fundraising with reckless abandon. It makes a difference whether your nonprofit's mission is one that is directly impacted by the Coronavirus crisis (like health care, food banks and agencies that help cover bills for people who've lost jobs) or has a mission that is tangentially affected because of drops in numbers of patrons (like visual and performing arts organizations). The type of organization you are should inform the way you raise funds in this environment.
Supporters will completely understand when food banks appeal for funds right now. They can pretty much pull out all the stops. Organizations like those in the arts, education and historical preservation still need to raise funds, too. These organizations should just display sensitivity in how they go about it. In most cases, they should tone down their messaging in deference to the current global crisis; don't try to compete with the urgency of agencies that are delivering front-line COVID-19 response services. If you would normally send out a direct mail piece the first week in April, consider waiting a few weeks or sending it by email instead — and make sure the language you use shows that you understand what people are going through and that you appreciate their support in whatever way or amount they can give it.
What Nonprofits Can and Should Do
- Communicate with your supporters (donors, volunteers, staff) early and often.
- Be transparent about what your organization is doing to either deliver services or to stay in business until things turn around.
- Use this time to thank, share positive mission stories, let donors know the good that has been/is being accomplished because of their support and build relationships in general.
- Evaluate the fundraising activities you already had planned to see if they are still viable, and be willing to make changes if necessary. Keep in mind that the main constants people are currently experiencing, which are informing their actions and decisions, are uncertainty and unanticipated (and in most cases, unwanted) change.
- Review the options available to you in online fundraising, invest in what you need to do online fundraising well, then begin using those vehicles for fund development.
- One example of this would be text-to-give. If your in-person special event could not be held due to physical distancing requirements, you may be considering ways to run a virtual version of the event. If you can do it using Zoom or another similar online tool, great! Be creative about ways people can give during the virtual event — like employing text-to-give.Some donor management systems even include text-to-give as a part of their fundraising system offerings, so you may not need to embark on a vendor search to obtain the appropriate tools, depending on the systems you already have.
- Peer-to-peer fundraising is another option. If you were going to have a luncheon with "table captains" that were charged with helping to raise money from the people at their table, consider trying a peer-to-peer campaign where that table captain creates their own fundraising page and raises money on your behalf. Just be realistic about the monetary goals you set, and do not expect this one fundraising campaign to make up all of the organization's budget shortfalls.
- Be sensitive and compassionate. You will still be telling the story of your organization's mission, but if it is not a life-or-death type of mission, don't try to make it sound as though it is. The sky is falling-inspired fundraising tactics are ill-advised right now. People want to help make things better if they can; not feel depressed by what they can't control.
When the Board Forbids Fundraising
Now let me address board trustees/directors directly. Please do not hamper nonprofits' ability to survive this time of crisis by voting to cease fundraising. Honestly, until I heard it from nonprofits this week, it never occurred to me that a board of directors would vote to cease fundraising. Why? Because ensuring that their nonprofit organization is financially sound is one of the core responsibilities of a board of directors. Fundraising must continue; it simply needs to continue in a way that is sensitive to the current local, national and global climate.
If your organization has cash reserves put aside for a rainy day — today is that day. Use reserves if you need to; just do it in a strategic way. When you are evaluating options that will lead to overall financial viability and sustainability, make sure you are considering multiple scenarios. There isn't a single magic formula, so be willing to combine a variety of tools.
What Boards of Directors Should Do
- If your organization has a reserve, use it strategically.
- Continue intentional and sensitive fundraising efforts.
- Work in partnership with your CEO/executive director and fundraising staff — rely on their knowledge of industry best practices.
- DO NOT hamper your organization by voting to suspend fundraising. If you have already done so with the best of intentions, undo it as quickly as possible.
- Take part in your agency's effort to communicate early, often, and as transparently as possible, while keeping messaging focused on the mission.
- Participate in donor appreciation and stewardship (cards and phone calls are always appreciated).
- Ask the CEO/executive director to provide talking points to the board of directors on how the organization is handling the current crisis (or work with them on creating the talking points).
- Know the organization's emergency public relations policy, and adhere to it.
- Educate yourselves about the relief options available to nonprofits like forgivable loans for employee retention, employment tax credits and disaster-related bridge loans.
COVID-19 is unchartered territory for us all. But fundraising during times of crisis and disaster is not. The best thing a nonprofit organization can do during times of great upheaval is to ensure supporters, clients, staff and the community know you are still there and still working in everyone's best interest. What you do right now, during this global health emergency, will be what people remember about your organization for years to come. Make sure what they remember is a fiscally responsible nonprofit that did its level best to be open, honest, and to make business decisions that will ensure the organization has a post-Coronavirus future.