Keep in Touch, Keep Asking: Fundraising in the Pandemic

EDITOR’S NOTE: Both in our scanning and in our conversations with clients, we often see themes emerging across the country. One common theme during the pandemic has been: How can we ask our donors for financial support when there is so much hardship out there? Should we change what we are asking for? Should we delay that campaign we’ve been planning?

While we don’t claim to be experts in fundraising, we track those who are. We asked our colleague and research associate Toni Shears to review the literature and share some of the most useful advice that experts across the country are offering. We hope you’ll find Toni’s compilation helpful.

Most professional fundraisers have worked through tough times and economic downturns, but it’s safe to say that none have seen a crisis quite like this. While organizations struggle to offset new costs and lost revenue, fundraisers are under pressure to sustain giving in what looks to be the worst economic downturn of our times.

The good news: it is absolutely possible to successfully fundraise throughout a crisis. In a time of tremendous need, experts say, people will respond. The fundamentals remain the same, and you already know most of what you need to do. The key is to maintain your donor relationships and align your “asks” to current needs and the donor concerns of this particular moment.

We have pulled together a few tips based on our research to help you—and hopefully reassure you—as you shift your focus, pivot your messaging, and remain connected with your donors in this difficult environment.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate”

That’s the advice of one veteran Chicago nonprofit fundraiser, and it’s echoed by many more. Touch base with your donors regularly, with empathy. “Reach out to your constituents in every possible way; be present to them in any way you can,” writes John Glier, CEO of Grenzebach, Glier and Associates, in a recent blog post. “Donors want to know that you value them and are concerned about their welfare.” Share updates on what your organization is doing to rise to the challenges of the pandemic, of course, but make sure your messages are about them—not just you.

Many people are hungry for interaction and connection, so don’t be afraid to reach out to donors individually with a note, call, video chat, or online meeting for coffee, advises Stephanie Schwartz, Founder and Principal, Little Bean Group. “But take your lead from your constituents; some may want to talk, while others may feel overburdened with work,” she adds. Glier sounds a similar note: “Look to your donor to signal what they are prepared to do with gift discussions, and when.”

Don’t stop asking

In times of crisis and financial downturns, those who remain focused and continue effective fundraising activities are successful. Some days, your fundraising goals may seem out of reach — but your strategy is still sound. Keep telling your story, making your case, and asking for gifts. Think long-term and take comfort in this: Historically, giving in the US has been quite resilient. Total giving doesn’t always drop in recession and when it has, declines have been slight. After recessions, giving has bounced up, according to data from GG&A.


In-person events and meetings are out, so reallocate your resources to extra digital outreach. Listen to what your data and donors are telling you and brainstorm effective ways to adapt. Refocus on increasing engagement, donor relations expert Lynne Wester advised in a recent webinar. Think long-term and invest in relationships you can build on to bring in more funding in the future.

This means shifting your messaging too. Many people want to find a way to help, but they want to give to immediate needs directly arising from the COVID-19 crisis—not necessarily to your annual fund, Wester noted. Find ways to help them give through your organization versus to your organization. Pivot to focus your fundraising on new needs in your new environment: direct aid artists and performers instead of suspended arts programming, or aid for anti-viral research if you have scientists working in that field.

Tell a compelling story

Every other organization has real needs and all of them are asking, so it’s more important than ever to make a distinctive and compelling case for why yours deserves support. As always, the best way to do that is to share a specific, personal story (with pictures) that hits the heart. Find the untold stories and less visible people in your community who are hurting and ask your donors: “Help us help them.” Highlight an international student who can’t go home, or a dedicated but now unpaid employee among the unsung armies of food service, custodial, and security staff who normally keep your campus humming.

Add value

Any healthy relationship involves give and take, so make sure to your outreach includes information or resources that supports or benefits your donors. This could be the latest research relevant to COVID-19 treatments from your campus, a round-up of resources useful to the community you serve, a link to an online tour of a local museum, an inspiring virtual performance, or some other quarantine diversion. Providing useful information—especially when it comes directly out of your organization—is another way of reminding your constituents of the many ways you add value to your community.

Get creative

When times get tough, the tough innovate. Seize the moment to find clever, creative ways to engage, support, reward, and solicit your donors. Ask them to redirect cash they are not spending at the coffee shop or on haircuts to your coronavirus cause.

Some organizations have turned on a dime to make their galas virtual, which opens opportunities to have a little fun: gamify it or add singalongs or remote performance. If you can capture attention with a campaign that amuses or meets a need, so much the better.

The University of Michigan is running a Hail to the Frontline Virtual 5K, capitalizing on the common need to get away from our refrigerators and devices. Participants can walk, run, or bike the distance from any location, with proceeds going to a COVID-19 fund supporting healthcare providers.

Glessner House, a restored historical home in Chicago’s Prairie District, came up with a clever on-brand appeal. For a $25 gift, they will send a free face mask in William Morris-patterned fabric found adorning the walls inside. They are promoting the offer on a sign outside the museum for those strolling in their neighborhood to see.

Be brief

Our inboxes are stuffed with coronavirus messaging from every business, cause, and institution we have ever had contact with—all starting with some variant of “in these challenging times ….” Your constituents are still busy and overwhelmed, so be merciful and get to the point. Frequent brief messages are fine; long, scrolling screens of dense text will be deleted—and not opened next time. And watch out for fast-developing COVID clichés that give audiences an excuse to stop reading.

Go with the funders’ flow

Grant-makers are focusing their university giving in specific areas, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education: efforts to get emergency aid directly into the hands of students; organizations that can improve access to and quality of online learning; and services for students who already faced hurdles getting through college and are now at higher risk. Grasp opportunities to win funding in these areas.

Tend to your team

Everyone is working to meet existing goals and unimagined new demands—with the added burden of isolation. Don’t forget that your staff is juggling personal demands and responsibilities during their workday that you may not see. While worrying about the health and safety of their families, they are hyperaware that the fiscal health of the organization may ride on their success. Take time to make sure they are staying healthy. Minimize anxiety by making sure new team goals and priorities are clear. Offer time to address concerns and questions openly, to make sure everyone feels heard and supported.

Give thanks

Times like these remind us all how much we have to be grateful for. Don’t forget to thank your donors early and often. It’s because of their previous support that you have a foundation from which you make your stand and weather this storm.

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