Fundraising in Difficult Times, Part 2
Two words describe the fresh wind blowing across our land: “People first.”
The old. The young. The health-compromised. The vulnerable. Those without work. Neighbors. Fellow shoppers. The young lady working the drive-through. The delivery guy. The sick. The beloved medical workers and other first responders. Folks we know and those we barely noticed. Until now.
“People first” has moved to center stage and beckons us toward fresh thoughts and ideas. For nonprofit organizations, especially those who fundraise to exist, consider adopting this strategic approach: Stay six feet away but make effort to grow closer.
Let’s dig deeper.
The challenge to raise money grows more daunting every day that the economy remains stuck in pause, no longer producing the funds needed for nonprofits to operate. Meanwhile, the need grows for organizations to serve people whose needs have multiplied. Plus, work has decentralized due to shelter-in-place directives, fundraising events have postponed or canceled, and nearly everyone worries about personal health and that of loved ones.
Regardless of how cleverly delivered, the words “Can we count on your support?” (or any variation) could sound quite callous at this point. Yes, exceptions will always exist. Nonetheless, the days we live right now beg a different approach. Quite different.
Let’s turn attention to a statement made by Patrick Lencioni on a recent LinkedIn post: “Demonstrate your concern for the very real fears and anxieties that your people are experiencing, not only professionally and economically, but socially and personally.”
His advice applies equally to leaders and fundraisers. Maybe much more than equally for fundraisers. Give strong weight to his final word: personally.
Remember, these are “People first” days we live in.
Last week I sent a very brief message to a key donor, and his long reply started with the words: “Thanks for your message. My wife and I…” After reading the three paragraphs that followed, he asked about my family and me. Similar exchanges repeated with several donors, and I learned a valuable lesson.
Now, right now, is the time to check in with as many donors as possible. Person to person. Email, text, or phone. Not due to any hint of opportunism. In fact, press pause on asking for anything – that day will come again. But it’s not today. “People give to people,” the saying goes. Show that you are a person, and along the way you’ll show the folks you typically ask for money that they are people first, donors second. People that matter.
This will remove any pressure that accompanies donor communications. To “check in” is simple and brief; ask how they are, then listen/respond to what they say. That’s it. Just don’t ask for money or talk about your organization or its needs.
“I’m going to call my whole list, ask them how they’re doing, and not mention us at all,” a development officer told me. “If a person asks about the organization I’m going to say, ‘That’s not why I called.’”
As billions of people and trillions of dollars remain hostage to a microbe, a new day has arrived, one in which you have permission to take off your fundraising hat. You will give donors you have relationships with – relationships that you’ve been managing and working for all these years – a treasured example of how personal that relationship really is to you.
All "best practices" for fundraising in the past (February 2020 and earlier) must be challenged because the world has changed, and everyone will wobble as we try to walk in a new day that no one understands. Yet, as ancient wisdom says, “This too shall pass.” When it does – in a couple weeks or months – put that fundraising hat back on, knowing you did well when you put people first.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Fundraising in Difficult Times
.The person who handled our finances came into my office, sat down, and cried. “We don’t have enough money and I have no idea how we’ll get more,” she said between sobs. “I don’t see how we’ll make it.”
That meeting happened in March 2009. The economy had bottomed out, towing donations with it. For many nonprofit leaders, similar meetings will soon happen in their offices.
Back then, I had served barely six months as the organization’s CEO, which meant I knew how to a) log onto my computer, b) use the printer, c) call a meeting, and d) work the coffee maker (somewhat). Solve our financial crisis? No way. Plus, no one told me we were in such a tight spot. Or did they, possibly in those meetings when I had printed an agenda from my computer and offered everyone coffee?
The approach taken back then will work well today – and anytime an economic drop threatens to demolish an organization. Our organization operated as a donation-driven entity, meaning fundraising provided 80+ percent of income. When the market tanks, generosity follows. I don’t like that last sentence; I don’t want it to be true. But it was true back then and it will be true this time around too.
However, your organization need not worry about the broad market. Instead, focus on your donors. Not all donors. Just yours. That’s what we did, and we ended up with a record amount of donations in 2009. And 2010. And the next several years.
This could be your year.
Our approach can become your approach. It’s simple, brutally simple. And that’s why it works. Many fundraising approaches focus on developing systems and complexities. When hard times happen, work the system harder. Ugh! Instead, when challenging times inevitably arrive, do something stronger – and wiser. As the editors of Nonprofit Quarterly suggest in their March 17, 2020, digital issue: “Don’t think small or defensive. Think new world.”
How? Show that you are deliberate, not desperate. Stay with me as I explain.
Our team crafted a plan that showed specifics about how we planned to manage the challenges ahead and included what would happen following those challenges. (Logic based on the “stay two steps ahead” approach you will read about in a future piece.) Sure, it clearly and honestly showed the realities we faced. Here’s the big aha point – it was not a plan that articulated how we would raise much-needed money. Instead, the planning all focused on what we would do, programmatically and operationally, with the money raised based on a presumption of funding success. Or a “forward look” approach for anyone who prefers managerial jargon.
We took this plan to our key donors while many, many other organizations knocked on those same doors and shared woeful, emotion-drenched stories about being victimized by the economy and the catastrophic decline in generosity. Blah, blah, blah. Who do you guess these key donors chose to support with their amazing (yet less numerous) gifts?
Yep, they chose the folks who they believed would deliberately use their money to go forward – and not those that wanted to plug a hole in the hull with dollar bills. Donors want to see a plan – not a plea. Funding pleas sound small and defensive.
The events of 2020 clearly show that a new world has started to dawn, so how will your organization respond? With the same exuberance that fueled your programs in the past, determine how you will passionately pursue your mission in the reality of now, then develop your best projection for the road ahead.
Show what will change. Show what will always stay the same. Show the new impact. Now show it all to funders.
This approach provides firm footing from three truths. First, people (that includes donors) want to support a winning team. Second, positive and transparent messaging within existing relationships yields success. And third, sounding different will create valuable separation from the other voices.
Success happens with strong messaging. Be deliberate, not desperate. Contact me and I’ll help you get it right.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
At a time when so much of our world seems out of control, compassion remains a choice everyone still owns. Not the programmatic expression of the word compassion; the heart-sized, personal version. The type anyone can do. Or any group — even a church.
When a principal learned that a nearby congregation planned a vote on whether to start a mentoring program, he agreed to visit and share his thoughts. He knew that at-risk students in his elementary school had a common need outside his ability to provide: someone to make them feel noticed, valued, even loved by a grown-up. With constant budget cuts and staff reductions, fewer adults worked in his building every year. So the opportunity for an organized group of volunteers to meet with kids was, literally, a no-brainer to him.
However, the church had concerns about their ability to launch any new programs. They, too, had budget constraints to live within. They, too, had fewer adults — or that’s how it looked on weekends. Significant risk existed about this program launching, so the principal decided to accept the pastor’s invitation to show up at church on Sunday morning before the vote.
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I volunteered to work at a basketball camp. Held in Gary, Indiana, just over a hundred four-year olds to fourteen-year olds enjoyed three days of skill building, scrimmages, and chicken sandwiches for lunch. They learned to dribble, pass, and shoot better, while the volunteers learned other valuable lessons.
Or maybe that happened for just this volunteer.
For example, I learned that a 50+ year old can miss a jumpshot, strain a muscle, and make kids laugh—all in the same moment. That led to a new appreciation for the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” and new skepticism about “Mind over matter.” No, my body simply cannot move in the same ways my brain remembers that it once could. These revelations carry little value.
More importantly, I left camp with three important questions—one about leadership, one about kids, and the other about outreach. Questions that at first seem to have easy answers, but caused me to pause and think deeper. Good questions, the kind that help you grow, work that way.
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