Check-Up Clinic: Advice

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Ask an Expert: Donor Fatigue and Taking the Helm in a Pandemic

In this week’s edition of “Ask an Expert,” we answer reader questions about donor fatigue and how to start a new leadership role and forge a strong relationship with your board during the crisis.

Joe Baldasare, chief development officer at the Dayton Foundation; Steve MacLaughlin, vice president for product management at the fundraising-software company Blackbaud; and Pat Nichols, president of Transition Leadership International, provide the answers.

Is there a fear that donor fatigue will happen quickly due to all the asks for emergency relief funds? What can we do to prevent this?
— A development officer working in higher education

Donor fatigue would be an easy way to explain why people stop giving, but the numbers just don’t support it, says MacLaughlin.

“When we looked at the data in the past, we found that a lot of those people who give in response to an emergency are people who are already giving. They’re just choosing to give more,” he says. “We never really found evidence that it was a zero sum game, that there were winners and losers, that because I gave to the emergency appeal for Ebola or an earthquake meant that I didn’t give to the charities I normally gave to.”

But that’s not to say that donors won’t stop giving to your cause.

“Some donors get fatigued with giving to a particular organization, but they don’t tend to get fatigued with giving in general,” MacLaughlin says. “More than likely those individuals are still giving to other charities.”

Baldasare has thought a lot about the subject in recent months.

In the last year, Dayton endured several crises.

Last May, more than a dozen tornadoes touched down in a single day, devastating a highly populated part of the Greater Dayton region. The foundation, along with other partners, established a fund to raise money for cleanup and rebuilding, as well as for community members who need help getting back on their feet.

Then, last August, a gunman opened fire outside a local bar, killing nine people and wounding 17 others. Again, the community foundation created a fund and appealed for donations to support the victims and their families.

“It gave everybody an outlet,” Baldasare says. “I can’t tell you how many people said to me, ‘I just felt so helpless. But now that you’ve opened the fund, I feel like I’ve done something.’?”

The foundation continues to raise money to support relief efforts even as the pandemic adds a new set of emergency needs.

Now the community foundation has established yet another fund. Grants will support organizations that provide basic needs like food and shelter and mental-health services, as well as groups addressing the economic impact on individuals from reduced or lost work due to the outbreak. So far, donors have given around $1.4 million.

When the mass shooting happened, Baldasare was concerned that people would forget about the tornado victims’ needs. He says some fatigue is to be expected, but he’s focused on keeping the community’s needs front of mind for supporters. “We have a responsibility to talk with our constituents though all the various means that we have and make sure that they are aware that the situation still needs their support,” he says. “We’re constantly communicating about it.”

He suggests organizations provide supporters with updates to remind them that they are still there providing services and that the need is still exists.

Without that communication, “you can get lost in the fog of all the stuff that’s going on around us.”

For long-term donors, your organization is deep in their hearts, and an emotional response to a crisis isn’t going to change that, he says. “They may not give you as much this year, but if you keep communicating with them, they’ll come back. Donor fatigue is real, but donor generosity and the need to help is also real.”

Any tips for a brand new executive director coming into the role and building relationships with the board during the time of Covid?
— Executive director of a community-based arts group

Pat Nichols has taken the helm of an organization or served as a professional interim leader roughly 20 times in his career. In a few instances, that’s happened during crises like September 11.

Listening to and bonding with your board is critical in your new role, he says. In this moment, those conversations likely can’t happen in person. Nichols suggests scheduling individual Zoom calls with each board member early on, before anyone can expect you to have a clear road map of solutions.

“Ask them the story of their involvement with the organization,” he says. “Probe not only for the history but for the values that resonate.”

Ask them what they think success for the organization looks like a year from now, he says. “I typically start with three years, but I’m not sure anyone can think three years out right now.”

Ask them what the organization would need to do in the next 30 days to stay on track, and then set some goals.

During a transition in calmer times, it might take 90 days for the incoming CEO to get up to speed and build confidence before instituting major changes. But during a crisis, the leader will likely have to act more quickly to address anything that seems urgent or precarious. Setting concrete goals helps create momentum with the new team, Nichols says.

Send the board weekly updates during your first few weeks on the job. And block off about an hour each week when available board members can join you on Zoom. “Remind them of a topic or two in your weekly update, then just chat,” he says.

He recommends having similar conversations with staff and other key constituents, like clients and donors.

During a crisis, you’ll want to identify and reinforce the roles of board members and staff.

The staff and board are already unsettled by what’s happening in the world outside. Then they’re faced with trying to get to know their new leader remotely. “The risk of blurring governance and management lines is especially high,” Nichols says.

He suggests that the new leader ask the board chair to convey to board members that they can support the new CEO by keeping a healthy space between governance and management roles. If staff come to board members asking for management direction, for example, the chair should ask that they notify her, not to discipline the person but just to monitor and make sure she can help the CEO keep the lines clear. In your one-on-one calls with board members, ask them if they have any counsel on how to keep everyone’s responsibilities clear.

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