The Desire to Help is in Our DNA

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty, the nonprofit sector is struggling—a sector that makes critical contributions to our culture, social safety net, and economy, and employs more than 12 million people. Most fundraisers are wondering, “Can we even ask for money right now?”

In 2015, I interviewed 50 leading philanthropists, asking them about their most satisfying and successful giving experiences. This week, I reached out again, asking them to share their thinking about giving in the face of COVID-19. Most of them are not pulling back, and some are giving even more.

Those who can’t give money are still inclined to generosity and are instead contributing time and expertise. Those who can give vitally important funds say they are focusing on organizations they already support, who have strong relationships with them, who are sensitive in their approach, and who are clear about their most important needs. Now, more than ever, is the time to engage with donors as essential partners.

Are you thinking about philanthropy right now? If so, how?
  • Now is not the time to cut back on giving. Experienced philanthropists are committed to organizations they have long supported and will continue that support, even if adjustments are required. They also recognize that emergencies arise that require immediate help. The desire to help with the resources we have is in our DNA.
  • It is always a big worry when the stock market is going down that important parts of the community like music, education, libraries, theater, and public media will suffer or die from lack of funding. Those who can still donate have an obligation to make larger donations to keep these community-building organizations alive and healthy.
  • In one organization where I am on the board, I am working with the Director of Development to craft a challenge fund. We are asking for 100% participation of board members before we go to others.
Are you focusing your giving right now on COVID-19 directly, such as helping hospitals buy ventilators, supporting research for vaccines, or giving to food banks? Or are you focused on organizations you’ve supported in the past?
  • Organizations we are supporting now, almost without exception, are those we have supported over time. The smaller ones are most vulnerable to a period like this, where many donors are holding back out of concern for taking care of their own families.
  • We feel that our philanthropic dollars are most needed locally, so we are supporting the various organizations that, in turn, support those in our extended community who are most in need. We also want to make sure that local nonprofit institutions with which we are involved can continue to operate.
  • We will first look at organizations we’ve supported historically, then we will see if we can add new ones, to be responsive to this crisis. These are not normal times—everyone has to reset decision-making to be responsive in unprecedented circumstances.
Are you decreasing, reallocating, or expanding your philanthropy?
  • There will be a crushing impact on a wide range of organizations that are vital to the health of our communities, and we cannot overlook their needs. We do not expect to decrease our support of organizations counting on our help; more likely we will find ways to increase our giving. Anything we can do, we will do.
  • I am spreading out some gifts across the annual cycle, instead of making them all at once, and I am reducing some gifts where I think that is both appropriate and something the institution can withstand.
  • We are planning to continue our regular contributions throughout the year, including those long-term commitments already made. In addition, we are making gifts to organizations directly working on COVID-19, including our local hospital’s emergency program to support the hospital and its staff. We plan to do more.
Fundraisers are worried that it is an inopportune time to reach out to donors. What would you say to them?
  • Let your relationships with your donors guide you on whether to approach now, and if so, how. I have had telephone calls from good friends that I have come to know through supporting their organizations. Neither call included fundraising but did include sincere questions about how we were faring. Keeping your most supportive donors up to date will produce good outcomes in the long run.
  • Fundraisers should first check on the welfare of the donor to find out if they are okay. Then you can let them know how you are doing. If they can help, they will; no need to ask. In one case, I have been asked if my donation can be transferred to another use since an event cannot be held. They want to use the funds for online delivery, which is a smart use of the funds.
  • I would encourage organizations not to be afraid to ask donors for additional contributions or first-time contributions. Those asking should recognize that financial circumstances may dictate a delay, but an upfront and candid conversation is important. In the case of donors with whom you have had long-term relationships, work withthe donors, for those donors will be back.
  • Don’t panic and have faith. Be sensitive to your donors and not aggressive —everyone is adjusting to a new reality. We have witnessed friends become even more generous in the past weeks. And those who cannot afford to give money are doing other things, such as shopping for those who cannot leave their homes, purchasing from local businesses, or shipping dorm room items home. This virus may keep us six feet apart, but our hearts have gotten closer. People want to help and will find ways to do so.
In Summary

The role of fundraiser has always been to help generous people make gifts successfully and joyfully. These donors remind us that generous people are generous in and out of crisis. Some donors will not be able to give financially, but others will and may give more. Those who can give will continue to need thoughtful guidance on how to do so in ways that have the greatest impact.

Ron Schiller is a founding partner and senior consultant at Aspen Leadership Group. He is the author of three books, including Belief and Confidence: Donors Talk about Successful Philanthropic Partnership

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