Fundraising Campaigns Move Forward Despite Pandemic Disruption

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by Emily Haynes

Pictured: Mennonite Economic Development Associates, an international aid charity, considered putting its long-planned fundraising campaign on ice but decided to forge ahead after talking to past donors.

In the early months of the pandemic, some fundraisers wondered whether it would be better to put their major campaigns on ice. That was the case at Mennonite Economic Development Associates, an international aid charity, which was preparing its biggest ever fundraising drive — aiming to surpass the five-year, $50 million campaign that concluded ahead of schedule last year — when Covid-19 struck. Fundraisers began 2020 outlining the focus of their upcoming campaign, scrutinizing their database for likely donors, and making a strategy to launch it quietly in July 2021.

The charity was counting on major donors to jump-start the campaign with gifts of $100,000 or more. Would donors still give big after so much economic and societal upheaval?

To find out, fundraisers got in touch with past donors. Those casual conversations were illuminating, says Ruth Leaman, senior development officer.

“Some people are really struggling. They’re just keeping their head above water,” Leaman says. “But others, their businesses are doing fantastic. They’re sitting on a lot of financial resources, and they want to be a part of our solution.”

The conversations, which did not include a fundraising ask, gave Leaman and her colleagues the confidence to forge ahead.

Recent years have seen a glut of campaigns reaching for higher and higher fundraising goals. But last year, early stock-market volatility and the sprawling public-health crisis shook some fundraisers’ confidence. Ten months into the pandemic, many are buoyed by the stock market’s recovery. Those financial gains have eased their compunction about running campaigns amid so much uncertainty.

Yet while many campaigns are still moving forward, they look different now. The pandemic has led to changes in campaign timelines, fundraising priorities, and, of course, how fundraisers ask for the major gifts that are critical to helping nonprofits reach ambitious goals. Experts believe some of those changes may stick around in the years to come.

Continued Support From Big Donors

A typical campaign will tap around 10 percent of a charity’s donor roll to contribute 90 percent of donations. And while some fundraisers had hoped more campaigns would focus on midlevel donors, the uneven recovery from the pandemic-induced economic recession has likely increased the focus on the biggest of big donors.

Stocks have rallied in response to good news on vaccine development and a close partisan margin in Congress that may stave off major tax-law changes. That’s a boon for big donors’ investment portfolios and one reason fundraising consultants think it’s safe for campaigns to continue — albeit cautiously.

Donors typically make giving decisions based on how they feel about their finances, says Gail Perry, president of the consultancy Fired Up Fundraising. While it’s impossible to know just how long or how difficult the road to the end of the pandemic will be, Perry says the action on Wall Street can elucidate how donors are feeling along the way.

“We continue to be very encouraged by the stock market as a bellwether and as a guide to donors feeling like they have extra capital to give away,” Perry says.

This sense of financial security is encouraging to fundraisers who are gaming out whether their organization has the support it needs to launch a campaign. In pre-campaign interviews throughout the pandemic, major donors have continued to pledge their support to nonprofits — despite widespread uncertainty about the future, says Kathryn Gamble, vice president at Fired Up Fundraising.

Far from crying that the sky is falling, Gamble says, “they’re still thinking about giving.”

‘You’ve Got to Fight for It’

Although the economic outlook seems brighter for the wealthiest donors, some fundraisers have struggled to win financial commitments during this uncertain time.

“Uncertainty is the enemy of successful fundraising,” says consultant Michael Rubin. “You have to put yourself in the shoes of the donor, and if the donor is unsure about things, they’re not going to make a big commitment.”

Case in point is a potential donor to the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art. Rubin says the donor told fundraisers there over Zoom that he couldn’t commit to making a gift to the campaign until 2021 because the pandemic had so upended his business. The chair of the Kentucky museum’s board was in a similar tight spot.

The museum’s fundraisers began the $2 million campaign’s “quiet phase” in August 2019, soliciting major donations from close supporters. But fundraisers were reticent to make broad appeals for contributions during the health crisis. “They felt it was a little insensitive to be asking,” Rubin says. At first, that made sense to him, too. But as time moved on, he worked to make the case that they should proceed with their fundraising. “This is your cause,” he told them. “You’ve got to believe in it, and you’ve got to fight for it, and you’ll just have to be more creative about the ways we get in front of people.”

Nonprofits owe it to their supporters to keep in touch even when times are tough, Rubin says. In September, he heard an NPR story about the low unemployment rate in Owensboro and shared the article with museum fundraisers to encourage them to keep their campaign moving. “We definitely pushed them,” he says.

Fundraisers need to let go of the idea that a campaign will look the same as it would have before the pandemic, Rubin says. Video calls are now commonplace in both work and family life, and Rubin encouraged the museum’s fundraisers to use them to ask donors to give to the campaign. He’s joined museum fundraisers for two appeals by Zoom and says the donors were comfortable with the medium.

Leaman, at Mennonite Economic Development Associates, worries that there are limits to how much fundraisers can solicit over a video call. “There’s no precedent for asking someone for a million dollars online,” she says. “It just does not happen in our industry.”

During the pandemic, Leaman has invited donors who live within a 90-minute drive from her home in Lancaster, Pa., on socially distanced walks or outdoor visits. Many donors are tired of virtual communication and are grateful for an in-person meeting, she says.

On another occasion, Leaman asked a potential campaign donor if she could host a webinar from the deck of his home. He agreed, and Leaman invited two other potential donors to join. During the webinar, Leaman interviewed the organization’s employees working on the ground in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ukraine. That special access was meaningful to the supporters present, she says. “They felt like they were insiders on this experience.”

Cutting Out the ‘Fluff’

For nonprofits that were further along in their campaigns, the public-health emergency forced them to make major changes to their event strategy. Campaigns typically use in-person gatherings, such as cocktail parties at supporters’ homes and frequent meetings of campaign volunteers, to build excitement about their campaign goal and forge ties with big donors.

When the University of La Verne sent students home on March 13, its president and fundraisers scrambled to figure out what social distancing and remote learning meant for the university’s biggest campaign to date — a $125 million comprehensive drive, then in its penultimate year.

By the start of March, the university had raised over $118 million. But fundraisers worried the pandemic could halt the campaign’s momentum.

HaynesCampaigns1118_ULV_Randall Lewis Center.jpg
University of La Verne was in the midst of a major campaign when the pandemic struck.

“We met immediately and said, ‘Oh, my gosh. We’re still in this campaign. We cannot slow down,'” recalls Devorah Lieberman, president of the private California university. “We said, ‘Other institutions are probably slowing down, pulling back. We cannot do that. We have to find ways around that.'”

Fundraisers began calling donors and asking for contributions to the university’s new emergency fund to help students cover tuition, rent, flights home, and other urgent needs. In short order, they raised $300,000 to provide small grants to 900 students. The university counted that unanticipated influx of cash toward its campaign goal.

Such shifts in fundraising priorities are a way for an institution to demonstrate its short- and long-term visions, says Perry, the consultant.

“You’ve got to show that you’re relevant,” she says. “You’re not in this little ivory tower raising money for new buildings. You’ve got to respond to the work at hand.”

Lieberman saw a need to keep supporters close at a time when social-distancing measures forced them apart. “You cannot quarantine community” became fundraisers’ motto, she says. Since March, Lieberman estimates she has had at least 10 virtual coffees a week and roughly 120virtual meals with supporters of the university.

She sends a pound of coffee before the chats. And the university arranges for virtual dinner guests to receive their favorite dish from a local restaurant the evening of the dinner. Lieberman joins guests on the other end of the video call for conversation, usually with a bowl of yogurt and fruit.

The University of La Verne took its annual scholarship auction virtual, too — raising $600,000. “Because we didn’t have to spend money on a location and food and a take-home gift and a photographer and all of that, we ended up having more net revenue than if we’d rented a place and had a face-to-face gala,” Lieberman says.

Continued online appeals and engagement helped the university exceed its campaign goal by $3 million, wrapping up the fundraising drive in June — a year ahead of schedule.

Perry and Gamble say the pandemic has forced nonprofits to zero in on their campaign goal and strip away what they call “the fluff” — the coffees, lunches, and cocktail parties, where fundraisers would try to build excitement about a campaign. The switch to virtual events showed fundraisers that there was fat to trim, she says. Without those smaller events, fundraisers have kept their eyes on the prize: relationships with donors and volunteers.

“We’re really focusing on absolutely what’s important, and that is the relationships that our clients are building,” Gamble says. “We’re not focusing on, Did we get that last event executed? Was the coffee hot enough?”

Virtual Excitement

Nonprofits have had to rely on trial and error to learn what kinds of online activities resonate with their supporters.

Before Covid-19 shut down normal operations in March, fundraisers at the Columbus College of Art & Design had planned to use small in-person events to fine-tune the campaign theme in the lead-up to its launch. They considered putting the campaign on hold altogether, but ultimately fundraisers decided they could expect enough financial support to raise $20 million for scholarships, renovating and constructing campus buildings, and other programs for students and faculty.

“We couldn’t just sit here and hope that things would get better soon,” says Erika Gable, associate vice president for development.

In place of the planned in-person cocktail parties, Gable and her colleagues designed a program of virtual salons. The guest list for each salon was limited to 12 to 15 people, typically supporters such as board members or local business leaders. The goal was to create a feeling of “a cool kids get-together,” Gable says.

Throughout the fall, 65 people attended a total of six virtual salons, during which a faculty member and a trustee would discuss a hot topic in the art and design world. The carefully scheduled program also acted as a kind of focus group. Fundraisers were able to test out the campaign goals and messages in breakout rooms, where three or four guests would provide feedback. Each attendee received a thank-you gift, such as a house plant from a store owned by an alum, and a notebook and handwritten note.

Afterward, fundraisers emailed all attendees a survey about their experience. Those surveys and the fact that all salons were recorded meant fundraisers amassed useful data to help them hone their campaign message.

“The downside was that you miss a little bit of the stickiness of that relationship,” says Melanie Corn, the college’s president. “When you’re able to sit face-to-face with somebody in a cocktail party, you can maybe build that bond better.”

But Gable says the pandemic has fundamentally changed the kinds of conversations fundraisers and donors have. “It’s gotten more direct, and it’s gotten more complicated,” she says. “The silver lining to the pandemic is you have an automatic good reason to reach out to people.”

Although most donors who typically make big gifts can still do so, Gable says the uncertain economic and political future may cause them to structure their commitments differently. A donor may want to make a bigger gift now, before a potential change to the tax code, for example. Older donors may also choose to make a bigger, immediate gift rather than a multi-year pledge so they can see first-hand how their donations benefit a cause.

“It’s been more of the financial advisory kind of discussions,” Gable says of her recent conversations with donors. She thinks those direct conversations might stick around even after the pandemic ends.

Being more clear about your intentions with a donor — cutting to the chase and saying, “I’m reaching out to you because of X” — can help fundraisers “really be thoughtful with our work instead of just having good meetings,” she says.

Part of the college’s campaign is aimed at raising money to build a new building to house collaborative studio space, fabrication labs, classrooms, and extra-curricular student activities. A brick-and-mortar campaign isn’t an easy task in the best of times, and Corn says her team has worked hard to come up with fresh ways to make the ask. Classes at the college are currently remote, and fundraisers have tried to pre-empt questions about giving to a new building while students aren’t on campus.

Corn and her team hope donors understand that students at the college will not be learning remotely forever. “This is a short-term blip,” Corn says. “A building is forever. The core of our education is really about that on-campus experience. That’s not going to change.”

Shifting Timelines

The pandemic is forcing fundraisers to rethink not only how they come together with donors but also how they develop campaign strategies and timelines, says fundraising consultant Lynne Wester.

Many of her nonprofit clients are planning in two-week or monthlong increments instead of the nine-month or yearlong timelines they might have used in the past, she says. By breaking the campaign planning process into smaller segments, fundraisers can more easily change course if the future turns out to look different than they had anticipated, she adds.

It also helps fundraisers from getting “hung up in decision making and deliberation,” Wester says. “They must make a decision and move forward.”

Campaign lengths may also change as a result of the pandemic’s disruption. Multiyear campaigns are now the norm, and economic uncertainty may stretch them even longer. “What determines the timeline is the campaign’s prospect pipeline,” says Gamble, the consultant. If fewer donors are able to pledge big gifts, charities may need to take more time to line up more major gifts before appealing to midlevel and small-dollar donors.

Fundraisers should also expect changes to gift structures, says Rubin, the consultant. Without a clear picture of when — or even if — life as we know it will return, he says fundraisers should be flexible about how donors choose to give. It’s possible that donors may want to structure their pledges so that they give less immediately and more in the future. They may also want to pledge a “blended gift” that combines immediate cash with a deferred gift, like a bequest.

Being flexible is preferable to lowering an overall campaign target, says, Leaman, at Mennonite Economic Development Associates. “Before we would make a significant reduction of the goal, we might adjust some of the components,” she says. For example, more of the goal could come in the form of planned-gift commitments, as opposed to cash within the campaign period.

Despite the challenges and the changes ahead, fundraisers still value the kind of long-term financial planning that campaigns demand. Corn, at Columbus College of Art & Design, says those plans are more important now that the coming weeks, months, and even years are so uncertain. According to Corn, “Successfully navigating a crisis depends on having a clear strategic vision on where you want to be when the crisis is over.”

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