Keep Talking To Your Donors: Fundraising Strategies During The Coronavirus Pandemic

During the 2008 Great Recession, I was Senior Director of Development for the non-profit State Fair of Virginia. As the Dow crashed, we did what we could to tighten up operations, but being in the middle of a major capital campaign we were in the unenviable position of having to keep up the solicitation and donor relationship-building. 

Stock gifts stopped dead in 2008, to be sure. But interestingly, donors kept making pledges and writing checks well into 2009, despite the Dow’s loss of 50% from July 2007 through February of 2009. At the start of 2010, donor activity finally dried up – we raised maybe $100,000 that year, down from $1M in 2008 and in 2009, DESPITE the Dow’s 35% recovery by March of 2010. 

But in 2011, donors were responsive again, even though it wasn’t until January of 2013 – a full 5½ years from the start of the Dow’s fall – that equity markets had recovered to pre-Great-Recession levels. 

As of this writing, the Dow has regained 15% of its 36% losses since mid-February of this year. It’s a roller coaster ride that we’re not getting off for some time. But the lesson from the Great Recession is that donors will be responsive to your non-profit organization’s needs no matter the situation; theydon’t want to see you go out of business; they value your work; they believe in your mission; and you’re among the top charities they support each year for a reason.
Start Talking to Your Best Donors Now

Under normal circumstance, we don’t always have the time to just chat with our best donors – stewardship gets put on the back burner as we work on new appeals, grant requests, fundraising events, major donor request, etc. 

During these troubling times, our best donors are no doubt as anxious about our organization as we are. They’ve made contributions – of their money, their volunteer time, their leadership skills – in support of our mission and would be disappointed to see the organization fail during this unique pandemic. 

What we CAN do right now is update our best donors on how we’re faring. Staff have not been laid off; we’re taking social distancing seriously and working from home; we’re focusing on our constituents and clients by reshaping how we deliver our mission-related services; and we’re examining annual budgets to see where adjustments need to be made. 

I recommend calling every donor you consider a “major donor” (whatever level that means for your organization, whether $1,000/year or $5,000/year). Ask how they’re doing and share how you and your organization are doing. 

As you make these calls, be sure you listen to how they’re doing as well – their social situation, their anxieties about family, health or finances, their changed or evolving work situations. 

In doing this, you have the opportunity to deepen your relationships with these, your best donors, and strengthen the basis for your next major “ask” of them.

Request Support IF and WHEN It’s Needed

If your organization – due to the pandemic – has suddenly lost a major revenue stream (ticket sales if you’re a cultural organization; an annual fundraising event that you’ve had to cancel) then you may have no choice but to ask your donors, and indeed ALL constituents, for a special gift. 

Sure, many of us have seen our retirement funds decline, and most of your donors will have as well. Sure, you’re anxious about your family’s health, and your donors are also. Sure, you may be anxious about your job, and your donors may be similarly anxious about their own businesses or professional employment. 

But ask yourself what the effects would be if you were to go out of business. How would your constituents/clients/members live without your programs/services/activities?

If the answer is that the community would suffer in your organization’s absence, then just maybe your donors and constituents should be given a chance to help support your organization.

You owe it to your donors to give them a chance to help you. 

This can take the form of a special appeal, a virtual event, or a call to major donors specifically.

You don’t have to necessarily say, “We have 4 weeks in business unless you help us!” (though, you SHOULD say that if it’s true!) In most cases, if your budget review shows you’ll be down 60% for the year, but that you can remain in business with a reduced staff, then the mini campaign has urgency but is not dire. 

Following is a potential call script (which can be adapted to a letter/email appeal):

  • I’m writing to you to let you, our loyal supporters and friends, know the difficult situation that XYZ Charity finds itself in.
  • Given the pandemic, we have had to cancel the spring fundraising gala, which accounts for 60% of our annual revenues.
  • As you can imagine, we’re scrambling to figure out how we can continue to meet our mission requirements. All ideas are on the table, including laying off staff, which is our last resort.
  • Knowing that you have been a faithful attendee (donor, etc.), I’m coming to you now hoping you’ll consider a one-time gift to help us make up our current budget shortfall. 
  • Last year, you gave a total of $10,000 to our organization. You’re one of 30 individuals who have given at this level or greater. I’m calling all of you. 
  • I’m wondering if you would be able to increase your commitment to $15,000 and consider paying this pledge by the end of April.
  • It’s difficult for me to make this call. I know you must also find yourself in business and personal challenges like us all. 
  • Thank you (etc.).

Finally, Keep Your Chin Up!

While we all struggle with day-to-day safety, employment security, our kids’ educations, travel plans, and other concerns, we shouldn’t fail to recognize the importance of our non-profits.

Your mission exists for a reason, and your best donors really do have you in mind – let’s keep them informed and build deeper relationships along the way.