Fundraising during COVID-19: time for decisive yet measured action

To ask or not to ask: the question is asked almost daily, as fundraisers around the world grapple with the challenges of COVID-19—like so many other industries riding the rollercoaster that is 2020.

Is it insensitive? Don’t people have more important things to worry about? Aren’t we intruding?

In a world waiting on the edge of every tomorrow to read the headlines, many professional fundraisers have been caught in a teetering two-step that looks a lot like a soft-shoe shuffle.

But while the context is certainly wildly different from what we are used to, the basic rules of fundraising still apply: steady, consistent and purposeful effort that builds and sustains meaningful relationships.

Now is the time for decisive yet measured action

Don’t assume you can’t ask. A successful fundraiser never second-guesses their prospective donor’s response, in any context, but they DO always apply sensitivity and forethought in their approach. Yes, our communities are collectively grappling with a formidable challenge that is disrupting our lives in ways we never anticipated; yes, our foci have shifted to deep preoccupation with financial, familial and social stability. But it’s also precisely at times like these that we witness a collective uprising against a common enemy through acts of extraordinary human kindness and generosity.

Unprecedented levels of philanthropy

As with the bushfires that swept Australia just weeks before this new crisis, many within our communities feel the desire to be actively useful, to make a difference, to be part of the solution—through an individual, community, national and/or international dimension. Australia’s nationwide inferno sparked an unprecedented outpouring of benevolence, with donors finding a foothold on every rung of the giving spectrum: from providing immediate relief to affected families and firefighters, to substantial longer-term contributions towards tackling the challenge of climate change on a global scale.

COVID-19 is inspiring a philanthropic wave of which we have never seen the like.

By early March, philanthropic giving to combat the coronavirus had already topped US$1 billion across the world. This was quickly followed by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey committing another US$1 billion—almost a third of his wealth—to fund COVID-19 relief.

And it’s not just about health and medicine

While our frontline medical staff, the urgent need for more Personal Protection Equipment and COVID-19 tests, and the epidemiological research moving us inches closer to effective treatment and a vaccine, are the most obvious targets for giving, COVID-19 is the perfect storm, delivering us a myriad of self-care, social and economic impacts: from students struggling to stay in university, to alarming increases in domestic violence, cyber-bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, and loneliness. And donors are stepping forward for the causes and issues that are important to them personally and saying, ‘Yes, let me help you’.

We are already seeing this with clients across education and community services, where rapid recognition and response to a part of the bigger problem that they can help solve is actually transforming their philanthropic culture—both internally and externally.

In fact, we are seeing diverse organisations gaining significantly higher numbers of new donors, achieving higher amounts than ever before with annual giving, and securing greater long-term commitment from their major donors.

Our top tips for fundraising successfully through COVID-19

Based on our experience of this rapidly evolving environment, the feedback and experience of our clients across multiple sectors, and conversations with colleagues in every corner of the globe, we recommend the following approach as best practice to get you to the other side of COVID-19, fundraising successfully:

   1. If you’ve got programming or a narrative relevant to COVID-19 that furthers your mission and cause, focus on this.

Whether you are a school, university, community service, religious organisation, arts organisation, hospital, hospice, or home for the elderly, you are serving people and communities affected by COVID-19. Convey how the pandemic is impacting the delivery of your mission and cause, the communities you serve, and the urgency of need.

   2. To propel your mission, ensure your donors can give to what’s most needed in the moment.

The recent Australian bushfires reinforced two valuable lessons when it comes to crisis fundraising:

  1. Confirm your gift acceptance policies and any other governance restrictions are broad enough to encompass the cause you are raising funds for—and that people want to support;
  2. If your organisation is flat-out in crisis management mode, with little time to make critical funding decisions, and priority needs are continually evolving, take a thematic approach with potential donors—create three or four categories for giving that have enough flexibility to be adaptable but still allow donors to make a tangible impact, and to sense that: ie Medical Staff Support; Equipment & Supplies; Patient Support.

   3. Seek the support of your staff and volunteers

No-one knows or understands the impact of COVID-19 on your cause or communities like your own staff and volunteers. If you’ve been hesitant about starting your own workplace giving program, now is the perfect time to enlist their philanthropic support. For instance, some of our university clients are seeing unprecedented levels of support from staff for student relief funds.

   4. Make sure your current programs are still looked after

Though there is currently a preoccupation with COVID-19, your donors understand that your priority programs still need to be funded. Don’t underestimate their concern for helping you sustain your mission through the pandemic. If you are in partnership with major and principal donors on significant projects, ensure you are keeping them informed on progress.

   5. Call your donors, prospects, stakeholders, alumni, and community

There is no better time than right now to show your donors, prospects, key stakeholders and alumni some love. People are welcoming the attention and care during a stressful period (much as our donors do even when not amidst a global crisis). If you have interesting donors, stakeholders and alumni you’ve been meaning to profile in publications, you can also use this time to conduct telephone or video interviews. If you do nothing else, assiduous donor stewardship will ensure your relationships are solid once the crisis passes.

   6. Engage, engage, engage

While people are self-isolating at home, they are more receptive then ever to diverse forms of engagement. This is an extraordinary opportunity to build breadth and depth in your engagement programs that will add long-term richness to your value proposition. While arts organisations have been perhaps hardest hit by social distancing, many have found creative means to not only reach their existing audiences but to bring their talents to a much, much wider world of participants—and potential long-term donors. Sydney Dance Company, for example, is providing classes via Zoom that are attracting over 160 lounge-room dancers, not just in Sydney but around Australia.

Without the resource-intensiveness of events to take up our time, now is the ideal moment to design webinar and mentoring programs that reach stakeholders wherever in the world they may be.

   7. Get your back office in order

Fundraisers should always be busy managing their outward facing relationships, but all too often they don’t have the time or additional resources to build the solid administrative foundations for longer term fundraising success. While you are not engaged in the often hectic cycle of events and face-to-face meetings, now is the ideal time to get your ducks in a row, so you can hit the ground running in an even stronger position post-coronavirus:

  1. Review and develop your fundraising strategy.
  2. Pay special attention to your bequest strategy and collateralcharitable giving through wills is expected to double within the next 20 years, and, of course, the current health crisis means many people will be mindful of creating or updating Wills. Having a robust bequest strategy in place will be transformative for those organisations that successfully stay top-of-mind.
  3. Review and develop your Case for Supportthe way in which you tell your story has a profound influence in persuading potential donors to support your cause. Are you currently telling the right story, with enough power to maximise your philanthropic revenue?
  4. Ensure you have a full suite of up-to-date fundraising policies and guidelines. Gift policies help eliminate confusion, maximise effectiveness and efficiency, facilitate donor engagement, and inspire donor confidence. You should have Gift Acceptance, Naming, Donor Recognition, and Gift Disbursement policies as a matter of course.
  5. Review and develop your naming right opportunities. A clear and forthright approach for philanthropic naming rights with respect to buildings, spaces, labs, equipment and fittings, will also save you precious time and debate in the future.
  6. Build your database. Time spent on populating your most valuable asset with prospect research will never be wasted!
  7. Leadership must look after each other and themselves

We can’t escape the fact that COVID-19 has created a tsunami of change in our lives. We know from our current work with charities addressing mental health that people are experiencing extraordinary distress and trauma, and it’s important to acknowledge this both for ourselves and for each other. Knowing that you’re not alone—that your peers and colleagues are also going through the same thing—and implementing care and self-care strategies in the workplace is critical for our ability to cope and to be present for our teams, our families, and our friends.

  1. This includes encouraging engagement and playfulness amongst the seriousness and uncertainty.
  2. It’s also a time when both your and your staff may benefit from coaching and mentoring that helps build confidence, skills and knowledge.
  3. Reach out to industry peers and build your networks.   

Our Global Philanthropic team has more experience of the challenges of working remotely than most, and during this heightened time of stress, we’ve found it beneficial to schedule in much more regular team video calls, to celebrate the successes of our clients and ourselves, and support each other during this challenging time.

COVID-19 is the biggest global challenge most of us have experienced directly within our lifetime, but as with any crisis, we’ll get through this by individually and collectively building our resilience. Decisive and measured action will win the day.