Freeze, Flee or Fight: Nonprofits’ Reactions to COVID-19

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by Rick Gentry

We all know that the human responses to a threat or challenge are primarily categorized as freeze, flee or fight. But it has been proven that, while we all have an instinctive primary reaction — usually based on our character, life experiences and other factors — it is possible for us to change our instinctive reaction through training.

In a former life, I served in the military. I will never forget my commanders in basic training, repeating to us endlessly the importance of continuously moving forward in battle. “If you stop, you die. A static target is an easy target. If you turn to retreat, you can’t see the threat. Always keep moving forward; it’s the best path to staying safe and winning the encounter,” they would repeatedly bark out.

Hopefully none of us will have to face such challenging situations in our daily lives — other than the occasional standoff with a house spider. But still, that training was successful, and in the thankfully few situations it was needed, we responded without giving in to our primal instincts. I have found that, at times, the lessons learned then have relevance in my current fundraising work, too. This has been especially true since the beginning of this year, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the U.S.


As the nation began to shut down, and the news was dominated by the spread of the pandemic, every nonprofit was forced to quickly assess its ongoing marketing efforts. Questions of whether to stop all direct response fundraising (freeze) or to cut back (flee) or to carry on as planned (fight) occupied the minds of most every fundraiser.

To add to the challenges, there were voices in our industry media warning us that, “Your organization is probably better off waiting for [donors] to regain clarity and stability before asking for gift commitments.” Others warned) that, “Those [organizations] who went silent raised nothing.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing we have experienced before in our lifetimes, it is not the only crisis of life-changing proportions most of us have lived through. 9/11 and the Great Recession both impacted our society in previously unexperienced ways, and ultimately, nonprofits were put in the same position of having to make tough choices on whether to pause, pull back or continue with their fundraising efforts.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, today there is research showing that those who held their line and continued fundraising during these times of crisis — albeit with modifications — mostly went on to reap the benefits and survive these periods in better shape than their peers who froze or heavily cut back. Simply put, it takes money to make money.

When organizations make assumptions and arrive at their own negative conclusions on the willingness and readiness of their supporters to continue to fund their mission, they are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are giving in to their instincts and often ignoring the data. They pull back on their budget and outreach, and as a result, they naturally get less response. With reduced revenue coming in, cuts need to be made and the spiral starts.

Fight Smart

Of course, nonprofits can’t just blindly charge through every crisis, no matter how epic the proportions. Some adjustments and adaptations will be needed.

In the case of the still-unbridled pandemic, some programs and events, such as walks, runs, bike rides and galas, had to be canceled. That was unavoidable. But for programs like direct mail, telemarketing and online, the best change might actually be to push forward harder and stronger. As much as this seems counter intuitive, many groups have experienced giving at record levels through their direct response programs over the past eight months, even those not directly involved in addressing the impacts of the pandemic.

A lot of their success is related to having a plan — but being flexible within that plan — and being smart about how they survive this battle. This can take the form of subtle changes to your fundraising copy and creative to ensure that you are not tone deaf to the tough reality everyone is dealing with. But you must also tread lightly to avoid being a source of doom, excessively reminding your supporters of the tough reality in which we are living. You’re trying to be attentive to the daily news cycle and timing of when you reach out to ask for support. And at the same time, you’re tuning your case for giving by channel to connect your mission with current events. These are the areas where your focus should be — concentrating on how you do it better, and not how you do it less.

Train to Fight

Because we are still deep in the current crisis, this advice may already seem outdated. However, as much as we might hope, history tells us that it’s only a matter of time before we face new crises. Despite how you or your organization reacted to this pandemic or to previous crises, you can and always should be training to handle the next challenge better.

Here are five principles to keep in mind as you prepare your organization for its next challenge.

1. Have a plan

Develop and fully document a strategy for the unexpected, and schedule an annual refresh on your calendar. Preparing and reviewing your plan not only gives you a clear outline to follow, but also mentally trains you to react effectively when times are challenging.

2. Know that if you don’t ask, you most certainly won’t get

Just because times are bad does not mean that your supporters don’t want to do good. In fact, because times are bad, many of your supporters are inspired to give. Don’t make yourself the judge of their capacity for compassion and generosity; let their response guide your strategy.

3. Remember that a body in motion tends to stay in motion

It can be hard to keep in mind — especially during times like these — but every crisis comes to an end. If you keep programs ticking, even at a minimal level, you retain the infrastructure and connection with supporters. When the smoke of the crisis begins to clear, it will be far easier to speed up again than to re-staff and restart everything.

4. Don’t be tone deaf

Our charitable organizations not only serve our society, they are part of our society. Small copy and creative changes can allow you to be sensitive to what society is experiencing in subtle ways that speak to how your supporters might be feeling and even inspire and uplift them.

5. Don’t be a spreader of doom

Your supporters don’t need you to tell them how tough times might be for them. In times of crisis — especially something of the scale of the current pandemic — they are well aware of the challenges they are dealing with. While your acknowledgment might seem empathetic, there is a very fine line between supporting and sinking. Too much emphasis and attention on the crisis could risk redirecting attention away from your mission and those you serve, and onto the supporters’ own concerns about their personal situation and wellbeing.

We all hope that we will never have to deal with these tough situations and difficult decisions in the future. But we know that hope is not a strategy and if there can be any silver lining from challenging times, it can be that we learn how to make them less challenging in the future.

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