Now that most fundraising teams have shifted to physical distancing and new remote operations, many advancement professionals are still unsure whether they can fundraise in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. And if they can, how should they approach donors?

In short, the answer is that the current crisis only underscores the importance of approaching donors as partners rather than taking a transactional approach.

Most donors are involved because they care about an organization and about the organization’s impact. Though a few might give in exchange for perks or recognition, most give because their values align with the organization’s mission and vision. In the 2018 U.S. Trust® Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy, donors said that their primary consideration in choosing an organization to support is this alignment in values.

Many donors see themselves as part of an organization, not as outsiders. Especially for these donors, the importance of keeping them close and being clear about what it will take to continue to serve the organization’s constituents cannot be overstated. Fundraisers should keep them informed and ask for input every step of the way as the unknown keeps unfolding. How should fundraisers do that?

Be near, dear, and clear.

We credit ALG friend and colleague Barlow Mann who coined this phrase.

  1. Stay near to them. None of us can be physically near each other right now, so be near via Zoom, be near via phone, but be near; don’t walk away and don’t turn away.
  2. Be dear to them. If these are donors who care about you, remember they’re not giving to your organization, they’re giving through your organization to society. They’re giving to the community and doing something that is important to them. Many of them, if not most of them, have been involved in the life of your organization for longer than you have as a staff member. They have vested interest, and they want the organization to remain viable going forward. Begin with the assumptions that they care, that they deserve to know what is happening, and that they want to know what to do to help. Then open the conversation as you would with anyone you care about – ask how they’re doing, and listen, and share how you’re doing, and listen. If they are in a place to hear more about how they can help, they will tell you. If not, they will be grateful to be kept updated, as insiders, as people who share your passion for the organization and its work.
  3. Then, be clear. As we mentioned in previous briefings, now is not the time, for most donors, to focus on pledges or five-year commitments to endowments. Focus on the fact that people are anxious about what they’re going to have next month, let alone what next year or five years from now will look like. If they do ask how they can help, focus on what they can do now, because even if there are significant financial losses, people who are philanthropically minded still have some resources to share right now. You can see it in the way that communities are reaching out to each other, and families are helping each other. If donors are part of your family, embrace them.
Embrace your donors as partners, rather than external to the organization.

ALG’s Ron Schiller began his development career at Cornell, when the university was about to launch (at the time) the largest campaign in the history of higher education, in November of 1987. In October, the market crashed. The Cornell community came together and decided to proceed. It was a bold decision, but it was rooted in a commitment to embracing donors as partners, rather than seeing them as external to the organization.

The same ethos applied when he joined the advancement team at Carnegie Mellon University, a few weeks before one of the planes headed for the Pentagon crashed outside Pittsburgh on September 11th. Yet again, while playing a leadership role at the University of Chicago, and in the middle of an ambitious campaign, the 2008 recession hit. In all these cases, constituents rallied together and brought their perspectives and care for these organizations to bear in the midst of tragedy and turmoil. As was true from the founding of these institutions, everyone involved pooled resources in support of an organization important to them.

These experiences, along with interviews with 50 leading philanthropists talking about their most successful giving experiences in the book, Belief and Confidence, as well as preparations for a forthcoming book with Angelique Grant, PhD. on inclusion in advancement, support a clear call to action: Those of us working in philanthropy must remember, when we say the name of our organization, that we mean everybody who is a stakeholder, not just the people who are currently employed by the organization. There is no “us and them” – our donors are our organizations as much as any other stakeholder.

Reach out to our donors and volunteers—those who know us, trust us, are there for us—and be there for them. It’s our job to listen, then help them understand how to give their time and other resources in ways that will have the greatest impact.
  • Several members of Aspen Leadership Group team are executive coaches. We know firsthand that the power of a listening ear is immeasurable.
  • Recognize that everyone will have different reactions depending on the day or week. Always start with “How are you?”
  • Allow them to show up. Some will be thankful to be heard and will remember that, even if the timing is inopportune and you need to come back later. Some will be thankful and say, “Yes, and what do you need?” That’s when you need to be prepared to say specifically what you need. Some won’t be able or willing to talk at all—thank them for everything they have done in the past and acknowledge that, for many people, this is not a good time, and you fully understand their need to focus on other things.
  • This act of reaching out is not only the respectful thing to do, it’s a way to learn about your community. Sometimes the best ideas will come from people that you’ve not even touched most recently.
  • Research shows us – and we’ve seen it over and over – it’s a both/and  situation. Those who can will want to give to those nonprofits they already care about, that they trust, that they have a relationship with. There will be those who are taking care of their families and their own economic shocks and can’t give, but there are many more that can and will, provided you are prepared to embrace them as partners rather than simply as funders.
When in doubt, ask a donor directly.

If you’re in doubt about anything, like how to deal with donor pledges and fulfilling them, ask the donor. If you’re in doubt about whether to send that mailing, ask ten donors for advice on timing and language. It’s a way of asking them and engaging them that is not simply asking for money.

Who we include in the war room will be critical. Inclusion surfaces solutions and it taps the people who are willing to dig deep.
  • With all of the things that are coming at you fast and furiously, it’s easy to retreat to your office and make decisions because it feels like there is no time to engage that wonderful set of perspectives that you have on your team. It’s even easier for leadership teams to retreat from their board members, donors, and audiences instead of going further into that larger community. Broader perspective is even more important in times of crisis.
  • Even within our own firm, it took us a moment to recognize that here on our team is a resource who has been involved with crisis management for decades, who could bring that expertise to how we communicate across our team and our larger ALG community. How many of us have people on our boards and among our donors who can bring expertise to us that we may not have needed in the past but need now—in crisis management, investment, or technology, for example?
Do crisis appeals work, or do they instead convey desperation? Do they succeed in the short-term but have negative longer-term consequences?
  • Crisis campaigns, phoenix funds, whatever you want to call them, can come across as asking a donor to name a cabin on the Titanic. Panic fundraising can easily create distancing that won’t help anyone. But if your organization’s survival truly is at risk, the question of how to raise money is very real.
  • Rather than making decisions about what to request and when to ask on your own, then springing it on a donor population and hoping that they respond, how might we take a partnership approach, inviting donors to weigh in on the decisions we need to make and the resources we will need and to offer ideas, expertise, and leadership in securing those resources? 
  • Put differently, would you rather hear:
    • “Look, we’ve assessed our needs, you know we need X, and if you don’t give X, we might go out of business,” – or –
    • “Okay, here’s what we know about our situation. What are your thoughts? How do we pool our resources to be able to move through this together?”
  • Donors who don’t know you very well may be scared off by the challenges. But those who identify with the organization and want it to continue to be a part of their lives will be along for the ride, in whatever ways they can.
  • We make mistakes when we solicit in good times, but we more often make mistakes in crisis because we either solicit out of desperation, in a tone-deaf way that is entirely focused on what we think we need, or we shut down, assuming “We can’t ask anybody for money right now.” Either approach treats donors as outsiders rather than as stakeholders who care about the organization.
As a leader, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Ask for help and seek out peers and thought partners. You can’t be an effective partner to donors if you can’t show up fully yourself.

It’s lonely at the top – lonely when you’re in your normal office, and now that you’re at home, it can be even lonelier. Organizations across the country are experiencing similar issues and the support of peer groups, strategic thought partners, or coaches can be incredibly beneficial. Go into it with a desire to listen with great intention and share in any way that you can; keeping your peers across the country feeling positive and connected can be a way to restore your own spirit. And stay safe and healthy!


Insights adapted from Kathleen Loehr and Ron Schiller, with credit to Barlow Mann. Listen to Loehr and Schiller’s full discussion on how to keep donors close from their webinar with the Arts Advisory Board and Arts Resilience Center.  

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