By Rachel Cyrulnik, MPA
Passover Vibes in December
Passover is probably the last thing on your mind right now. First of all, a Passover under lockdown is still fresh in our minds, and we are still managing that post-traumatic stress. Second, getting through a COVID-style school day, a presidential election, and end-of-year fundraising are enough to fill anyone’s plate. But as we head into end-of-year fundraising season, I find myself thinking about the seder, and just as how that night is different from all other nights, it is glaringly obvious that capping off 2020 will be emphatically different than the closing of any calendar year that preceded it. Continuing with the thematic Passover rendition, here are four fundraising questions development professionals are grappling with in closing out 2020:
- Why in all other years do we hold large galas and events, but this year, we find ourselves on zoom?
- Why in all other years do we operate with robust staff but in this year of great need, we work with reduced budgets and less staff?
- Why in all other years do we meet with professional and lay leaders to tackle year-end giving, but this year, we all work from home?
- Why in all other years do we make aggressive asks of donors, but this year, we meekly ask for gifts or don’t ask at all?
Like on Passover night, the answer to these questions is very straightforward. On Passover night, we are reminded that God took the Jewish people out of Egypt. Here too, our answer is quite simple: we do these things because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, as we all know, has infiltrated every aspect of our personal and professional lives.
The answer to the question “why” is less constructive than the answer to the question “how?” How can we make the most of the tools at our disposal so that we can meet the needs of our constituents? How can we mitigate fundraising shortfalls with a strong end-of-year effort?
Working with a diverse group of nonprofits over the past several months, my firm has helped organizations strategize, implement campaigns and strengthen relationships during a time when it seems impossible to do all three. Let’s take a look at these questions and share some of the strategies that will better enable you to confront the challenges inherent in pandemic fundraising and close the year as best as you can.
This Year, We Find Ourselves on Zoom
In pre-COVID times, many if not most nonprofit organizations relied heavily on events to drum up annual support. To replace event revenue this year, we must utilize the full range of tools in our toolbox. Here are a few.
Online Events – While nothing can take the place of in-person gatherings, technology provides a very helpful substitute. By now, you don’t need me to tell you how to run a zoom event. Organizations have pushed the boundaries of technology, finding creative ways to personalize virtual events and make them more authentic and intimate. To add that wow-factor, utilize humor, tap into the ability to reach mass audiences, and touch your audience with personal drop-offs or drive-by’s. Share swag that people actually want.
Hybrid Events – Allow participants to choose their preferred method of participation. One New York City nonprofit reserved tables at several high end restaurants throughout Manhattan from which dinner participants could choose, attend with peers or colleagues, and be connected by screen to a virtual program. Participants of course also had the option of tuning in from home.
Event Chairs – Engage your volunteers and ask each to choose an event to back – virtual or in-person – one that they make a commitment to promote, attend and for which they will raise funds.
This Year, We Work With Reduced Budgets
Nonprofits are notoriously known for being stretched thin. COVID has exacerbated this reality, with many organizations needing to make cuts or freezing new hires.
It is especially important this year-end season for fundraisers to prioritize the strategies with the highest returns and not only work hard, but work smart. Focus on retaining major gifts. Prioritize donors with the most ability and interest in your cause. Comb through your LYBUNT list. Draft personalized donor communications, then adapt slightly and reuse for other donors and for your board. Hire contractors for projects where the ROI significantly outweighs the cost. Ask lay leaders to step up and take personal accountability for individual solicitations, recruiting peers or organizing a fundraiser.
This Year, Lay and Professional Leadership Work From Home
On-site staff meetings, board meetings, and committee pow-wows were entrenched ways of doing business pre-COVID. With the advent of the pandemic, many organizations lost out on full-team participation because in-person meetings came to an abrupt halt. How can an organization mobilize its team to act in such a climate?
First, maintain expectations. Keep up with your regular meeting schedule and team member responsibilities, even though you migrated to virtual. If you’ve lapsed on this, it’s not too late to get back on the horse! Closing end-of-year gifts is a great reason to reconvene your leadership.
Next, listen to your teammates – whether staff or professional, what do they need from your organization to be able to support it through this period? Maybe they need more frequent friendly reminders or individual check-ins.
Finally, depending on geography and weather, get together for an outdoor, socially distant convening to reconnect face-to-face and reinvigorate the team. Share some cocktails or dessert to thank them for their service or celebrate successes won during the pandemic.
This Year, We Ask Meekly or Not at All
The paradox of philanthropy is not unique to COVID, but it is in stark relief at this time. The paradox is that when the demand for philanthropy is greater than it was before, there are fewer philanthropic dollars available, in this case because of COVID’s financial devastation.
Even though the stakeholders of the philanthropic world are in a more precarious financial position than in any recent year, donors recognize that the needs are enormous and those with privilege have a responsibility to do their part. A recent survey from The Nonprofit Alliance and RKD Group shows that 80% of people plan to give the same as or more this December as compared to last December. While there are the 20% who will decrease their giving, we should not be timid about asking for support at this much-needed time (but of course still approach solicitations with sensitivity). While there will be some donors who are unable to give, don’t decide for them! Barring sensitive situations where families have lost jobs or significant wealth, do not be afraid to ask across giving levels.
It could be helpful to create a separate COVID fund, which “gives permission” to ask for an increase or a new gift during a challenging time.
Answering Hard Questions
This year, we’ve had to ask some hard questions, some of which we never even envisioned asking. In Judaism, asking questions is encouraged and admired. We often struggle to find sufficient answers, but we use our core beliefs, values and understandings to work our way through them. The same is true for fundraising. I hope by the time Passover rolls around this year, we will be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel and plan for the future months with a more familiar understanding of “normal.” Until then, continue to use your fundraising instincts and ingenuity to hold your ground and even to break into new terrain.
Rachel Cyrulnik is founder and principal at RAISE Nonprofit Advisors and a sought-after thought leader, helping dozens of organizations succeed in fundraising in these challenging times.