Working with donors in times of crisis

Back in 2003, I was managing my first capital campaign when the SARS epidemic hit Toronto.

We were a small management team working in a busy community centre, and suddenly found ourselves in totally uncharted territory.

We had huge decisions to make that would impact the health of our service users (many of them very vulnerable) our staff team, and the future of our organization.

It was an incredibly intense time for everyone - and it got worse before it got better when the outbreak prompted the World Health Organization issue a travel advisory against visiting Toronto.

As I reflect back on that experience, I’m thinking of you, your team and your family today - we are all going through such an uncertain and trying time, and I know how much fear and anxiety folks are feeling right now.

I’m writing today because I want to share some words of comfort, some practical ideas about how you can take action, and some resources to help you navigate this difficult time.

Donors are among your greatest allies

When things started escalating this week with school closures, event cancellations, and travel warnings, of course, I was worried about my health, and the health of my family.

But you know what was also on my mind? One of my favourite small arts organizations.

I thought, this is going to hit them hard. I wonder how they are managing? What’s going to happen to them if their season is cancelled, especially when so many underpaid arts workers are already living on the edge?

So in the midst of it all, I sent them a quick note, and hopped online to buy tickets to an upcoming show, and make a donation.

Chances are, you’re on the mind of many of your donors right now. It doesn’t matter what you do, or who you serve, whether you are on the frontlines (because most nonprofits are, in some way!).

Your donors care about you, and wonder how you are managing. They may be worried about you, your team, the people you serve.

They may feel helpless right now, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what’s happening. They themselves may be alone and isolated, and they are most certainly feeling the same fear and anxiety you are.

Your most important job right now is to reach out to donors, update them on what’s going on with your organization, and give them opportunities to help.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, or glossily designed, or take a long time to produce.

In fact, this is exactly the time you want to be sending a spontaneous message from the heart.

Send an email. Better yet, send a short personal video. Pick up the phone and call your donors to give them an update, and let them know you are thinking of them. Get your board and volunteers involved so you can reach more donors, more quickly.

If you’re stuck on language, or how to frame things, here’s a great resource from bluefrog (no relation!) in the UK. They have two templates to get you started if you’re a smaller shop, and you choose to do an emergency campaign.

Stick with your plan where appropriate…

I’ve probably driven the point home that donor engagement and stewardship are so important right now.

So stick with your plan of communicating with donors, think twice about cancelling any campaigns that are in progress - and in fact, if anything, now is the time to redouble your efforts.

I was looking back over the week’s worth of emails in my inbox, and of all the dozens of charities I support, I’ve only heard from one.

I get it, many of us are already stretched thin, being pulled into crucial decision making meetings, and having to step out of our usual roles to pitch in other areas of our organizations.

But we must make connecting with our donors a top priority if we are going to get through this crisis.

...but be flexible where you need to be

Of course, many of you are in the unenviable position of cancelling crucial fundraising events, and facing a loss of revenue that will have a huge impact on your organization.

Many organizations are wisely choosing to postpone events - but if you decide to go forward, there are ways you can transition elements of your events to digital platforms, or take your whole event virtual.

Ruby Sohi of Royal Blue Events (another blue! But again, no relation!) looks at some of the specific options you have for hosting virtual events.

Companies like TechSmith are offering organizations some of their most popular video tools for free through the end of June - I use their screen recorder and video editor for my digital trainings, and it’s amazing.

Finally, if you are still working through the decision making process about events, and considering all your options, you can read more about some important things to think about when staging events during COVID-19.

I hope you’ve found some of these thoughts and resources helpful - and please remember, you are a part of a larger community of fundraisers and donors who care about you, and have your back, and want to help.

We’re going to stay focused, we’re going to stay positive, and we’re going to stay engaged - and we’re going to get through this, together!

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