Fundraising in Extraordinary Times

“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the purported ancient curse.

To say our current times are “interesting” is a huge understatement. We are presently living through times for which there are few precedents. More than anything, it is the lack of information and certainty that is the source of the concern, fear, and in some cases panic, that we see happening around us. In our calmer moments we all know that fear actually impedes our higher cognitive functions. Cogito ergo sum can sometimes quickly lead to fight or flight.

(Republished with permission from Ross Marsh Consultancy Group Inc.)
At Ross W. Marsh Consulting Group Inc., we are dealing with these fears too. We are working with many clients in many parts of Canada, and some of them are asking us “what does this mean for our advancement / fund development program? Are revenues going to drop? How much? How do we respond? What should we do? Do we stop or carry on as normal? Batten down the hatches or full speed ahead?”

The simple answer is “it depends.” Emergencies always generate many more questions than answers, at least at the outset. But… we have been through various crises before, all of which had varying impacts on our clients’ fund development programs. Members of our team have led fund development programs through many difficult periods:

  • The recession of 1990/1991
  • The bursting of the tech bubble in 2000/2001
  • 9/11
  • The First and Second Gulf Wars
  • The 2008/2009 global financial meltdown
  • The Fort McMurray wildfires and the Calgary flood, the two most costly natural disasters in Canadian history

All of these were emergencies or crises when they occurred. All of them impacted our clients’ fund development programs. Having lived and worked through all of these challenging periods, as well as others, one of our team members remarked as we were developing this newsletter, “in many respects, crisis almost seems to be the norm given how often it happens.”

There is definitely truth in this! Fund development programs are continuously impacted – sometimes battered – by external forces beyond their control. Having said this, our team all agrees that the previous crisis that is more like this than any other was the global financial meltdown in 2008/2009. As in 2008, today’s Covid-19 crisis stands above the many other disruptions we have seen by the sheer scale of its impact around the world, as well as the fact that it is truly taking us into the unknown. Just as nobody knew how or when we would pull out of the financial crisis, today’s experts fighting the Covid-19 crisis cannot yet say with any certainty when or how we will emerge and return to “normal.”

One thing we do know is that the best predictor of the future is the past. Given that the current crisis mirrors the global financial meltdown more closely than any previous crisis, is there anything that we learned in 2008/2009 about how to manage our development programs that we can adapt and apply today?

To this, the answer is clear: yes.

Early in 2009, the impacts of the global financial meltdown on fund development programs was becoming clear:
  • 40% of Canadian charities told a survey that they intended to fight to hold or grow their market share of charitable giving in 2009.
  • While 22% of Canadian wealth had evaporated in the preceding few months, charitable giving dropped only 5.3% (the only year-over-year decrease in Canadian history by the way). This reinforced the data from similar crises, which have shown conclusively that the correlation between economic conditions and stock market valuations to charitable giving is minimal. During no other recessionary period since 1960 (the year such records were first kept in Canada) did charitable giving ever contract.
  • Of our clients in 2009, seven of eleven clients grew their fund development revenues that year, while four had decreased revenues. The common factor among the four with decreased revenues was they either curtailed fundraising requests or halted them all together. In other words, their revenue dropped not because of economic conditions but because of how they chose to react.
Another insightful set of information comes from a 2009 survey of donors by Cygnus Applied Research* (www.cygresearch.com) which revealed:
  • 52% of donors said their 2009 giving would be greater or equal to their giving in 2008, while 17% said it would decrease.
  • Of those who said their giving would increase in 2009, the reasons they cited were:
    o 38% said they were not significantly affected financially by the downturn
    o 59% said they felt their support was “needed more now” than previously
    o 50% said they would cut other discretionary spending before they would curtail their charitable giving.
  • 43% would give if the person asking was known to them (proving once again that “people give to people”).

What Should You Do Now?
The good news is that your donors don’t expect you to know everything. They realize that these are unprecedented times. They are confused and concerned too. Drawing upon the experiences of the Ross W. Marsh Consulting Group team, as well as the rapidly unfolding situation, here are eight pieces of over-arching advice that we think apply to most organizations:

  1. Don’t act rashly. As we mention above, we’ve been through similar crises. We made it through them, and we’ll make it through this. The keys are to not overreact, and to not give in to short term thinking. Thankfully, most epidemiologists and most economists are predicting that the worst of this will be over in a few months, though the impacts may reverberate longer.

  2. Launching new fund development programs or activities into an uncertain environment is more difficult than sticking to established programs for “core” or “familiar” case elements. Unless you have a very compelling reason, don’t launch a new type of appeal or seek funds for a case that is a significant diversion from past appeals.

  3. Some donors will halt. Some will hesitate, trying to figure out what to do. As in the past, patience is critical. Trying to move donors too quickly, making them feel rushed, is always a mistake. That is doubly true in times like these. The truth is, hitting your fund development targets is likely going to take more time than you had planned.

  4. Don’t stop talking and don’t stop asking! If there is a single major mistake that organizations have made in previous times of downturn, emergency or crisis, it is that a unilateral decision was made to curtail or stop fund development programs. This is a classic and all-too-common mistake. If you stop talking to donors during times of economic strain, you have told them in effect that your relationship truly is only about money and nothing else. Talk to them! They’re worried too. They are also probably worried about your organization. You may be able to tell them your plans for the next few months, or how your organization may be able to alleviate such crises now or in the future. Furthermore, they may still be in a position to give. They may WANT to give now. They may want to GIVE MORE because your organization is filling a need related to this crisis. Whatever it is, don’t decide to stop talking to donors or stop asking. Patience, compassion, sensitivity and careful listening will be important as you determine who you should ask and who you should not, but don’t make assumptions.

  5. If donors do pull their purse strings tighter and cut back their giving, experience tells us that they “flee to quality.” This means they will focus their giving on the organizations that they feel are most effective, are having the most impact, and that are making the best use of their gifts. This, in turn, means that organizations must be better than ever at telling their stories, explaining their impact, and connecting with donors in the ways that are most meaningful to them. If cuts must be made to the fund development program or its resources, base them on solid examination, assessments and facts, not conjecture. Organizations that made mistakes cutting back in 2008/2009 took much longer to restore their fund development revenues than those that took evidence-based, strategic approaches. Now is a good time to measure and evaluate your program and cut its underperforming aspects or activities.

  6. Recognize that certain types of fundraising are likely to be impacted much more than others. For example, special events, corporate giving and corporate sponsorship are going to be the most heavily impacted. We already have one client who has moved their gala event online – yes online! With some creativity and a “we are all in this together” aspect to their messaging, the event still appears poised to do extremely well.

  7. Take the opportunity to strengthen and improve your development systems and processes:
    1. Improve prospect research processes, develop new profiles or update ones that need updating.
    2. Improve data management systems… there is almost no finish line on what can be improved in this regard.
    3. (Re-)develop your case. It may need updating due to the crisis, or it may just be the right opportunity to make changes or updates.
    4. Get creative with communications and stewardship. It is critical to keep talking to
      donors and prospects – just make sure it remains relevant, meaningful, and accessible right now. This is not a time to talk less to your donors; if you do, another organization will fill the void. Remember, you can never say “thank you” too often.
    5. Get flexible and creative with how people can give. With special events and personal meetings mostly off the table for the time being, it might be the right time to improve your online giving and social media activities.

  8. Stay mission-focused and execute better than ever before! Not every organization will come out of this unscathed, or come out of it at all. If you are going to survive – even thrive – through this crisis you will have to be excellent at how you manage and deliver fund development.

Thankfully, what often comes forward in our sector during difficult times are examples of the strength of humanity and the commitment and desire of our organizations, our employees, our volunteers and our donors to continue to help those in need. Let’s keep that at the forefront as we weather this storm together.

Additional Information and Resources
If you would like to talk about your development program in these trying times, reach out to us:

Laura Edwards, Senior Associate: laura@rosswmarsh.com
Rick Harland, Senior Associate: rick@rosswmarsh.com
Ross Marsh, President: ross@rosswmarsh.com

For additional reading on this subject, our team recommends the following articles:

From the Chronicle of Philanthropy: https://www.philanthropy.com/specialreport/help-for-nonprofits-during-the/231

From Forbes Magazine: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alyssawright/#412acd5d5114

For a full verion of the Ross Marsh story, with case studies, you can download the PDF version.
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