Dr. Eric Lankin
Fundraising in a Crisis: in Three Parts
Winding the Clocks
We recognize that the world is focusing on personal, familial and community safety in a world infected by the coronavirus. Governments around the world have attempted to slow the spread of the virus by banning most social contact. It has affected our communities profoundly.
Nonprofit organizations have canceled public events. Even small clubs and committees are postponing or canceling their programs. Churches, mosques, and synagogues have stopped daily religious services. Public prayer, the spiritual mainstay of millions, have been curtailed in the short-term.
Among the public events are fundraising events that have sustained the nonprofit world. However, we must admit that many of these public events, like gala dinners, albeit inspiring, have been an expensive way to gather resources. Now that many galas and other fundraising events are off the table for this spring, we must use other methods of gathering financial resources to strengthen our nonprofits and keep up our critical programs.
Rabbi Israel Friedman, quoted by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, told a story about a small town whose watchmaker died and there was no one available to fix the town watches and clocks. Eventually, all the watches and clocks stopped keeping time. Then one day, a new watchmaker moved to town and every resident lined up outside the new shop to get their watches and clocks fixed. The watchmaker tried to repair each item. However, the new watchmaker and the town residents learned an important lesson: Only those timepieces that continued to be wound were able to be fixed. All the others, neglected, rusted over and couldn’t be fixed.
We have to keep winding the watches.
Individual contact with donors must continue. Considering that 80% of new donations come from present donors, the relationships between fundraisers and donors must be strengthened during this time or they will be lost. Check-in with your donors, see how they are handling the crisis, empathize with them by sharing your own struggles and offer to help them if you can.
Ask About Them
Considering that both the restrictions of the coronavirus and the stock market value are swinging wildly, affecting their view of their personal finances, what do you say to your donors?
I remember the most famous moment from the second US Presidential debate in 1992, Governor Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush both were posed the same question by an audience participant: “How has the national debt affected each of your lives, and if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?" After President Bush answered the question reflecting on interest rates, focusing on the content of the question, Gov. Clinton spoke about people he knew and how they are suffering, focusing on the feelings behind the question.
I’ve had that experience, too, as a congregational Rabbi for fourteen years. Often when one of my congregants asked me a question about the observance of a specific Jewish law, I learned to first inquire about the personal feelings behind the question, before I would respond to the content of the question. Sometimes, the conversation never got past the feelings because that is what the congregant really wanted to talk about anyway.
For us, this is the time to talk about feelings with members of our nonprofit family, for this is what they need and this will strengthen our relationships.
This may be a difficult time for fundraising but an excellent time to maintain and strengthen our relationships, a key to fundraising success. We must actively call all our donors, supporters, program participants and organizational partners. By tending to those relationships by specifically calling, we can break through the distance and feelings of existential loneliness with our voices during this time.
However, some of us are uncomfortable asking the feeling questions that display empathy and genuine concern. Often when meeting with our donors and others, we are quick to jump into business, i.e., the project we want to share, or specific information we want to update our donor, supporter or program participant. During this time, and in the future beyond the crisis, begin the conversation with what is most important, your relationship with them. Ask about them, their family, health, and needs. Express that you are concerned about them, as a person, as a member of a family, not as a fundraising or program target that will help you meet your professional responsibilities.
I have made over 100 calls in the last week and after introducing myself by name and noting that I’m calling from my nonprofit, I ask how he or she and the family are doing? Is there anything we can do to help? Do you have access to food and medicines you might need? Thank God, almost everyone responded that they feel confined being stuck at home but they have what they need. A few really needed help and I shared specific information to help them including getting volunteers to get medications for them at the local pharmacy. Each conversation often continued naturally with the donor asking about me and my family, which I gladly shared, expressing that I was likely going through many of the same issues that they were. However, many expressed that they were simply touched by the concern and appreciative that someone broke through the existential loneliness by calling.
Interestingly, some of the donors responded positively to our efforts during social isolation and others with words of general support for our important work. My response was always, “Thank you, but remember, that is not why I’m calling. I just wanted to let you know that we, your family, are concerned about you and if there is anything we can do to help, here is my mobile number.”
Adapting to Crisis
This is a terrible time for most nonprofits. Leaders are scared that they will not have the resources to keep the staff paid. However, sharing with the average donor that you are worried about the future of your nonprofit is foolish because few are motivated “to buy fuel for a sinking ship.” Even in good times, the average donor is generally not interested in the administration of your nonprofit but almost always interested in the impact of their donation. Especially during the crisis, you should communicate through newsletters and other written communication, the important impact of your continued but adapted activities to inspire these donors for continued giving.
However, there is one group that needs to know the truth about your challenges on a regular basis, that is, your leadership and top donors. Individual and personal communication from the CEO directly or with a special newsletter designed for them is the best method of sharing the challenges of keeping the lights on. These leaders have the most invested in the success of your organization and understand the environment that your organization is working. Asking them for an increased gift, a multi-year pledge or a speeded-up payment plan is most appropriate to ensure present and future financial stability for your nonprofit. If you, as a nonprofit leader, have been transparent about the organization’s challenges and treated your volunteers and top donors as partners in good times, they will understand now.
This is an unprecedented time and many smaller or poorly-funded nonprofits will close. Often those nonprofits whose funding sources are dependent on a very small circle of supporters or one donor will be terribly exposed if those supporters cannot continue to support the organization because of business setbacks. Moreover, the travel and meeting restrictions of the crisis will force other nonprofits to dramatically change their models of service and program delivery to survive. Some of these organizations, unable to adapt to this new reality, I expect will also shut down.
There is room to be optimistic, in general, because the best scientific minds in the world are working furiously to find a cure for COVID-19. But as Rahm Emanuel, the American politician said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste... it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Let’s use the time valuably to continue to nurture our relationships, update our CRM’s, train our fundraisers, improve our communications and adapt our programs to improve long-term measurable impact.
Dr. Eric Lankin, based in Jerusalem, is President of Lankin Consulting; and an Adjunct Professor in the M.A. Program of Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.