Abraham Lincoln was once quoted as saying, “the best way to predict your future is to create it.” Our 16th President, who successfully led the country through its darkest hours during the Civil War, took those words to heart as he looked into the abyss during a time of crisis and seized opportunity from the jaws of defeat. As the country continues to reel and react to the current Coronavirus crisis there are thousands of non-profits looking into the future and reacting a number of ways.
Some have not changed anything in their day to day operations and continue to communicate with donors as if the month of March were like any other. I predict that these organizations will likely see a steep drop in projected income. Many more have become paralyzed, through the unsubstantiated fear that all of their donors have either completely lost interest in their mission or no longer have the financial means to support them during this real time of need. There are some, however, who have taken their future into their own hands and are approaching today’s crisis as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with benefactors. They are reaching out to donors and trying to understand how this crisis is affecting them personally as well as their interest and ability to give. These are the organizations that are developing a new level of trust and loyalty with their donors and will likely create a future that will be much more successful and impactful for the missions that they serve.
The Importance of Empathy
Compassion for others is, at its core, the fundamental motive for most charitable organizations. Whether it be to feed the hungry, house the homeless or heal the sick, organizations are motivated to provide their constituents resources that will restore a dignity that each person deserves. Compassion comes from the Latin Com (with) and Passus (to suffer) or “to suffer with”. When we have compassion for someone or something, we are literally suffering with them in order to share and hopefully improve their human experience.
The same is true of our donors. In good times, they follow our progress and share in our joy when our organizations are accomplishing their noble missions. In bad times, however, they don’t suddenly stop worrying about the causes that bring them purpose and meaning. On the contrary, they are still interested in the well being of those organization and want to see them continue to succeed and increase their impact.
Therefore, in the midst of the current Coronavirus crisis, the organizations that hope to survive or become stronger in the future should be reaching out to all of their top donors and prospects to see how they and their families are faring. With a majority of our country in the midst of voluntary or mandatory shelter in place directives, individuals are more likely than ever to pick up the phone or respond to emails. Gift officers should be checking in and sharing how their own lives have changed and how they are personally responding to this unique situation. Donors (and gift officers, for that matter) have legitimate fears and anxieties that they are facing. Gift officers should, as much as possible, avoid speculating about the future or playing into those fears and anxieties. Contact and communication should be a means of providing moral support and encouragement before moving the conversation onto an update of the current state of the organizations and the mission served.
The current pause in our normal personal and professional lives shouldn’t inspire us to hit the pause button on our mission. Some organizations, like hospitals, food banks, homeless shelters and those that help individuals on the periphery are more important than at any other time. Other organizations like schools, job training programs and mentoring programs have transitioned to an online platform and are continuing to provide their services while using a new format. Still others like policy organizations, legal services groups and religious organizations are providing content while scaling back their anticipated expenses due to restrictions that affect their ability to perform their mission in the short term.
The job of a gift officer is to develop and strengthen relationships with prospective and current major donors and to help those donors achieve their philanthropic goals through solicitations for the organizations they support. This hasn’t changed during this uncertain time and, when we connect with donors, we should be prepared to tell them how our organization continues to pursue and achieve its mission. Organizations that are on the front lines may share that they are facing increased expenses that are necessary in the short term to respond to increased demand. Others, like schools, may be finding that there are families that are in need of unforeseen tuition assistance and that there are unanticipated expenses that need to be funded. Still others may be working hard to cut costs in many areas while doing everything possible to ensure that their valued staff will be able to serve throughout the crisis without worry of layoffs.
Every one of these circumstances describe legitimate needs that could help an organization pursue and attain its mission. This is the kind of transparency our donors expect during normal times but which is critical in today’s environment. When we share the real needs and impact of our organizations our donors will be grateful to be included in our inner-circle of benefactors and consider themselves an important part of our community.
Taking Donors’ Financial Temperature
There is an old fundraising adage that, “If you want advice, ask for a gift and if you want a gift, ask for advice.” This has never been truer but I’d like to provide a little nuance as it relates to today’s major gift conversations. In normal circumstances, asking donors for feedback on projects or for their insights into financial decisions helps major gift officers understand what donors are passionate about and how they might approach making a major investment. Gift officers that connect with donors during the current crisis should be asking for feedback that helps qualify whether a donor is in a position to help support the plan that you have just shared during your update.
Officers should consider a statement like, “I’m reaching out today to give donors an update on how our organization is responding to the current environment. If I may ask, I am also interested in how you are viewing the current financial and philanthropic environment. Your guidance would be very helpful as we walk together at this time and our organization makes short and long term decisions about our programs.” If the following statement is made in a spirit of gaining wisdom from a donor’s personal or professional experience it will more often than not lead to a donor appreciating the humility and prudence with which you are approaching a common challenge. In those cases, many donors will be transparent in their responses to both help the organization in their capacity to advise as well as set expectations for current and future giving.
Making a Pivot
Gift officers who follow this process will need to be nimble and attentive as they decide how to close these donor interactions. If a donor gives signals or openly shares that they are feeling the personal and financial pain of the current crisis then the gift officer should show empathy and ensure that the donor understands how valuable they are as member of the community. In these circumstances gift officers should be sympathetic and offer donors words of encouragement or to be available for outreach if the donor needs a steady voice to lean on. If an organization is actively engaged in supporting an area responding to the current crisis then donors should be reminded that services are available to them as well. Officers should also plan to check in regularly with these donors to ensure their well being and strengthen their relationship with your organization.
If, however, a donor is less concerned about their current financial position or is interested in ensuring that your organization remains strong and thriving throughout the pandemic then officers should have projects and costs prepared to share with the donors that allow the donor to understand what they can support and how much they can give at this critical time. Many donors, who are no longer in the wealth accumulation stage, may be invested in more conservative funds and investments and be in a position to not only help your organization weather the storm but come out of it even stronger than before.
Create Your Future
The vocation to raise funds for charitable organizations is a noble one. It has helped ensure that the world is healthier, more creative, more beautiful, more innovative and more just. During this time of pandemic, the world faces a crisis that puts all of those noble aspirations at risk. Those organizations that sit back and let this crisis determine their destiny may already be making decisions that will prove disastrous to future fundraising efforts. However, development teams that engage with benefactors now with a spirit of empathy and professionalism will emerge from this crisis and create a better future for the organizations and missions that they serve.