Confessions of a Chief Development Officer (During a Pandemic)

By Joshua W. Rednik

COVID-19 has forced people everywhere to deal with disease, death, city-wide shutdowns, potential business failure, and free-floating anxiety. For those of us charged with fundraising for nonprofit organizations, it has also spawned an unprecedented series of challenges.

As Chief Development Officer for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA), my team of volunteers, professional staff and I are responsible for raising funds every year to support the work of Hadassah Medical Organization’s two hospitals in Jerusalem.

Our hospitals in Israel treat approximately 1 million patients each year, with both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related ailments, while innovating new approaches to detecting and treating those infected. We are developing new techniques for far more-rapid testing of those suspected of having the virus, and of levels of antibodies once someone has recovered. 

American donors are, understandably, focused on what is happening in their own backyards. Anecdotally speaking, it’s clear that many are choosing to dedicate their philanthropic resources to organizations closer to home than a medical center located overseas.

This moment demands that our fundraisers take new approaches to engaging our donors. I want to share some of what my team and I are finding to be successful at Hadassah:

Call It Like You See It

Address the elephant in the room. There is no getting around it – everyone’s life has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. A great way to move past the anxiety surrounding this substantial change is to acknowledge it. Calling it out, identifying what it is, and naming the emotions are three ways to successfully address it.

Share Your Feelings

Speak personally. We are living in a strange time and sometimes unexpected approaches work. While talking about yourself is generally frowned upon as a fundraising strategy, these days I am more comfortable being open about sharing my own anxieties with potential donors than before, as our ability to cope with it is a shared human experience. I believe it’s a way of showing empathy and connecting to the donor on a human level at a time when both are critically important. Doing so at a time like this can help potential donors feel more open to an “ask.” 

Start With the Why

Focus distinctly on very specific reasons for giving right now. For instance, we can tell a donor, “Here are the exact needs Hadassah has right now. Here’s how your gift can fund this number of lab tests. Here’s how your support can help this many people.” This requires presenting highly detailed information, perhaps beyond what we usually use. But it helps to demonstrate the need, and some people relish the opportunity to focus on a specific purpose for their philanthropy at a time when many other things in life feel so uncertain.

People Need People

Focus as much as possible on people and as little as possible on physical space. Though I may be asking a donor to underwrite the cost of purchasing five beds for an intensive care unit, people are generally less interested in hearing about equipment and square footage than they are about hearing the human stories of Hadassah doctors and nurses, as well as the people they treat.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

Pull back the curtain. During a time like this, when the medical world learns as much from failure as it does success, being transparent with donors about what has and what has not worked at the hospital is critical. It’s important to be forthright about the strengths and weakness of our organization along with the value of experimentation and innovation, particularly at a time when we are all concerned about a deadly virus that, until recently, was completely unknown.

Bring The Mountain To Moses

Offer an insider’s perspective. While we can’t bring current or prospective donors to our hospitals right now, we can bring the hospital to them. On alternate weeks, we have been hosting a presentation on Zoom for major donors, centering on a Hadassah doctor or nurse doing important clinical or research work. We allocate time for Q&A and always make an appeal for support. Additionally, the chat feature in Zoom allows people from across the country to connect with each other, providing a social outlet during an otherwise isolated time. Thus far, this approach has been successful, engaging hundreds of supporters and opening opportunities to speak about donations in support of our COVID-19 response efforts.

New Rules of Engagement

Support your frontline fundraisers. No doubt, this is a paralyzing human moment. Fundraisers who have never hesitated to get in front of donors are feeling afraid to do so, and my sense is this is a struggle at a lot of organizations right now. As a manager, I’m trying to keep developing new tactics for opening up donor conversations and ensuring my colleagues feel supported, educated, and motivated.

I hope these insights from our fund-raising trenches are helpful to you, and that we continue to share what we are learning with each other.

Joshua W. Rednik is Chief Development Officer, Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.(HWZOA).