How Fundraisers Can Build a Plan of Action in a Shifting Environment

First Republic Bank
March 12, 2020

For nonprofit fundraisers heading into the spring season, when many organizations plan galas and major donor events, the uncertainty around coronavirus (COVID-19) may present unique challenges and raise questions such as:

  • Should we cancel our spring events?
  • What should we tell our donors, who may be impacted by market volatility and hold off on making commitments?
  • If in-person events are no longer an option, what are the alternatives for engaging donors?

Below are considerations for navigating fundraising and donor outreach in an ambiguous, rapidly shifting environment.

What to do now: Evaluate your options and communicate up-front with donors

Given that nonprofit programs help benefit society, they’re also most needed during times of crisis. Staying calm and thinking proactively are key to maintaining strong donor relationships that can weather the storm.

“You have to be the voice of reason,” says CJ Orr, Vice President of Orr Group, which offers fundraising strategy and consulting to nonprofits. “Communicate your plans with your top donors and continue to cultivate your relationships.”

Consult with your event chairs regarding events planned for the spring, and decide whether to cancel based on official guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For events in June and later in the year, wait for further guidance from the CDC before making any decisions.

“Each situation is unique, and there are individual circumstances for each organization,” advises Orr. “For the most part, we’re finding that any events in March and April in metropolitan areas are being rescheduled, and events later in the spring are being decided 15–30 days out.”

From an operational perspective, nonprofits should conduct an immediate review of all of their liabilities — such as contracts with venues, vendors and speakers — to understand where there’s flexibility regarding events and what can be cut.

If event cancellation is necessary, do what you can to recuperate costs from vendors. Work with your legal team to review contracts to make sure you're fully aware of the options. Although this review can be painstaking, it’s crucial to understand your options so you can develop an effective plan of action and communication.

Next, work with the board and event chairs to identify key donors for immediate outreach. This should be in parallel to a general communications plan for all of your donors.

“Start at the top and work your way down your donor lists,” says Orr. “You should be completely transparent with your donors, as this isn’t your fault. You and the rest of the industry are all in the same boat.”

Gratitude and openness go a long way: Use communications with major donors regarding events to emphasize your supporters’ importance to the organization and thank them for their commitment.

“If you’re going to cancel a major gala, make it clear that you want to bring everyone together and celebrate at a later date,” Orr says. “If your gala was this week or is next week, reschedule for the fall and inform donors their contributions will go towards that event. If they want a refund, OK, you have to honor that, but encourage them to transfer it to the fall event. If this is the case, the good news is that you now have another six months to fundraise.”

What to do in the next month: Get creative with donor engagement

If plan A is a 500-person gala set for the first week of April, now’s the time to get creative and reschedule or develop backup plans. Consider the original goals of the event and how you can leverage technology and your organization’s network of expertise to create a compelling experience for your donors. You can’t replace a gala, but here are some ideas to replicate the gala experience.

You can use video conferencing or other digital experiences to stream the program that your organization had been anticipating. In lieu of an in-person presentation, a nonprofit may host a webinar or virtual town hall, encouraging live questions. Don’t be afraid to mix elements of digital and experiential marketing — if your gala was supposed to feature celebrities and an auction, switch to an online auction, a crowdfunding campaign and other digital platforms. For example, Zoom is a video chat platform that can host hundreds of people on a video call, with a chat function that can facilitate donations.

Lastly, think about adapting your event programming to address donor questions in light of the changing environment. Nonprofits often have access to experts in health, economics and other fields — by providing timely, relevant information, nonprofits can demonstrate their unique value and keep donors engaged.

What to do in the coming months: Stay focused

Beyond the spring season, keep in touch with donors, monitor the environment and adjust your event programming accordingly. If you’ve made commitments to host a smaller event in the summer in lieu of a gala, make sure you follow through.

In a challenging, unpredictable environment, nonprofit organizations provide crucial services. By establishing up-front communications with donors and exploring creative alternatives to signature events, fundraisers can ensure that their organizations stay the course and continue to support their mission.


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