In this uncertain and trying time, we hope that you, your loved ones, and your colleagues are healthy and managing as best as is possible. Drawing on our team’s experience in managing through crisis—including experience in leadership roles with emergency response organizations as well as in higher ed, the arts, and other parts of the nonprofit sector—we offer the following briefing for all those who work with volunteers and donors.

Here are details on what donors and volunteers might be going through and how you might connect:

Basics to Keep in Mind
  • All the anxiety, fears, and immediate concerns in the larger system are in every individual in some form or fashion. Assume this, make space for it, and start every conversation connecting to how they are and what they need. Some won’t want to share and will want to get to the business at hand; some will take up the whole conversation just talking about what is showing up in their lives. Everyone will welcome, and remember, the personal touch of being seen and heard at this moment in time.
  • Every individual is doing their best. Be compassionate and assume the best intent. They may not be able to take your call now; they may need to delay a decision. This doesn’t mean they don’t care.
  • Human nature, under pressure, defaults to one of three reactions at any one time:
    • Don’t feel one’s emotions and just push through
    • Pull back and hunker down; or
    • Be overwhelmed and freeze.
    • *Reactions can be a blend of these three on any given day or week. Listen and don’t assume they will stay in their current state of mind.
  • During uncertain times, people yearn for ways to feel some normalcy. If you start with asking how they are, don’t hold back on filling them in on activities, changes, and needs in your organization. They have already shown they care about you – that is why you are reaching out to check on them. You may not want to ask them for a gift or make other requests in that first check-in call (although some will want to know what you need), but you don’t need to hold back from your fundraising or volunteer requests in future conversations. Just follow their lead.
Recommendations for Reaching Donors and Volunteers
  • With the economic downturn and fear, people are saying that philanthropy may go down. Based on experience, we believe that philanthropy may shift, but it is unlikely to drop precipitously. Through the big disasters in our country in the past two decades, people across the country both grappled with the effect of the disaster in their community AND at the same time were willing—and in many cases even more motivated—to help others.
  • During time of crisis, donors and volunteers are looking for clarity not only about how they can help, but how they can help NOW. Be clear about ways donors and volunteers can make a difference in the moment, not just generally.
    • For example, a donor might understand and be willing to invest in technology that allows an educational institution to keep students on track even while working remotely. Even the most sophisticated institutions are going to need immediate investments in new ways of delivering services.
    • Volunteers may be able to assist with housing or food.
    • On NPR’s 1A, panelists discussed the need for safety nets or emergency funds to support displaced university students who are housing insecure, or whose families are dependent on their wages from on-campus jobs amid school closures, citing ways that alumni groups, foundations, or donors could be activated (27:30)
    • The Greater Boston Food Bank messaged about how donors could proactively create a safety net for public school students who rely on breakfast and lunch programs in the event of school closures
  • Be ready to pivot away from multi-year gift discussions. Especially in times of economic uncertainty, donors are much more confident in what they have to give today than what they will have to give next year or in future years. Donors won’t want to make a promise they’re not sure they can keep; take the pressure off by focusing more on outright gifts. They and you can pick up the conversation about multi-year commitments when longer-term confidence is restored.
  • New ideas are needed for the new situation. Expect to think outside the box. What was done before provided solutions for previous needs. Set up consistent ways your teams can brainstorm together and find new solutions for emerging needs.
  • In the moment of crisis, new ideas DO come forward if we create a willingness to try something different. And the ideas will come from any quarter – keep listening inside and out. Often our donors and volunteers will bring the ideas to us.
  • Throughout these times, remember that relationships matter. If you can’t meet in person, what other ways can you keep your relationship and interest in their ideas visible? While we may now need to practice “social distancing,” face-to-face meetings are but one aspect of connecting. When it comes to a donor’s heart, interest, and commitment, there are many ways to connect.
    • For instance, we know that video calls or convenings have been on the rise for some time. Now is the time to master them and make them very personal.
    • We recently cancelled an in-person dinner with Vice Presidents but kept the same time and date and hosted a “BYOB” dinner on Zoom. Participants brought their beverages, and the conversation was rich, connecting, and informative.
  • We’ve also successfully been using Zoom for some time for candidate interviews. Watch for our forthcoming briefings for candidates as well as hiring managers, on how to make the best use of video technology in interviewing.
  • Consider using Zoom for volunteer committees meetings, or Board meetings, or virtual focus groups of your donors.

We look forward to your contributions of how to stay in touch with donors and volunteers and will continue to share ideas across our community.

The current environment will continue to present unprecedented challenges. We recognize that working through this crisis is a “long game;” we are not responding to a multi-day loss of power or snowstorm. Just like long-distance runners, pace yourselves, your teams, and be prepared to be nimble and work in new ways with your donors and volunteers for some months.

In summary:
  • Keep in mind what your donors and volunteers are going through
  • Start with where the donor or volunteer is – ask them how they are doing, listen and support
  • Find creative ways to connect during this time of social distancing
  • Pace yourselves, and focus, as always, on the relationship
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