Keeping Fundraising Campaigns on Track During COVID-19

By Wendy Hatch, CFRE, Vice President and Michelle Bibbs, Associate Senior Consultant

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”  – Mr.Fred Rogers

Our country is facing challenging times as never before due to COVID-19. Fortunately, our nonprofit sector is rising to the occasion by responding in innovative ways to meet unprecedented demand for services. Less visible, but no less critical, is the rapid adoption of technologies for delivering programs, and quickly pivoting fundraising strategies to mitigate revenue loses.

Many organizations are also engaged in major campaigns to address important needs in their communities. Some have hit – or are considering hitting – the pause button, while others are modifying campaign plans and moving forward in new and creative ways.

The path forward

The path forward for a campaign during this current health crisis, and the uncertain economic future that almost certainly lies beyond, is as individualized as each organization on the journey. The way ahead depends on the impact of the pandemic on those served and the donors who support the work. For example, at your organization:

  • Has the demand for services increased?
  • Have traditional program delivery models been upended, forcing staff to create entirely new ways to meet the needs of participants?
  • Have you had to completely shut your doors and create alternative programming or engagement opportunities?
  • Most importantly, where are you in the lifecycle of your campaign – just beginning, in the middle or near the end?

How far along an organization has progressed can dictate whether it delays the campaign or creates modified strategies to move forward. One organization in the early leadership phase of a campaign might have already raised significant leadership gifts and have an engaged, active volunteer leadership group, giving them the confidence to move ahead as planned. Another may be at the very start of their campaign planning, making it more appropriate to pause and evaluate how and when to move forward. An organization in the major gifts phase may need to completely pivot to raising money for emergency funding, while another organization may find that doing fewer in-person cultivation events allows them time to more thoughtfully prepare for the campaign’s public/community phase.

Regardless of your specific circumstances or where you are in the lifecycle of your campaign, today more than ever you need to employ thoughtful and tailored approaches for engaging donors and prospects in raising the funds to make your vision a reality.

Embrace new ways of working

In “normal” times, consultants and fundraisers alike stress the importance of “best practices,” or starting with the “ideal” approach and then moving on from there. Traditionally, best practices for a major campaign effort call for in-person solicitation. Since this isn’t possible now and isn’t likely to be for a while, let’s harness our creativity to embrace new “second best practices” and perfect them for today’s realities.

Alford Group has successfully guided clients through campaigns during crisis situations including the recent Great Recession and disasters from earthquakes to hurricanes. Drawing on this depth of experience, we offer a few practical strategies and tips for keeping your campaign on track and moving forward.

Strategies and tips to keep your campaign on track

#1 Engage your board

  • The closer a “group” is to an organization, the more forthright and honest leaders can be about current needs. Board members have the highest vested interest of any group in seeing your organization through the current crisis and completing your campaign project. If you haven’t yet conducted your board campaign, consider doing it now instead of waiting until personal meetings are once again possible. Confirming board gifts will infuse a sense of forward momentum and position your organization for early grant submissions requiring 100% board participation.
  • If you are near the end of your campaign, consider going back to your board for second gifts, or to create a match pool to inspire giving in the public phase. Again, board members are your closest constituency — be bold in asking for their help.

#2 Keep volunteers informed and active

  • Even if you delay campaign efforts, be sure to keep campaign volunteers informed and engaged. Continue to hold regular meetings as scheduled, only virtually. Provide updates about how you are working to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances and to meet the needs of the people you serve and your community. Share content-rich information through a virtual behind-the-scenes “tour,” client or staff video, or interview with an invited thought-leader in your field.
  • Encourage your volunteers to keep educating and cultivating prospects. While it might not be the right time to solicit a prospect, keeping them apprised of what is happening at your organization and with the campaign will lay the foundation for asking for a gift in the future. Don’t be afraid to ask prospects what they think about how your organization is responding and adapting its services. In a recent article about fundraising during COVID 19, Dean emeritus of The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Gene Tempel underscores that this is the time to build trust.
  • You can still use annual fundraising events as cultivation opportunities for the campaign even if the character of the events has changed. For example, if your annual gala has transitioned to a virtual event, campaign volunteers can still use it to introduce friends and family to your organization and “host” their participation at the event.

#3 Communicate and cultivate

  • If early in your campaign, focus on building awareness of your organization and the campaign, identifying and communicating with new prospects, and cultivating existing donor relationships.
  • Ask leadership volunteers to make “caring” or “check-in” calls simply to see how your donors and prospects are doing, and to update them on how the organization and the people you serve are faring during this current situation.
  • Hold virtual cultivation events using Zoom or another technology, adhering to the same principles as if they were being held in person. Work with campaign volunteers to personally invite a selected group of guests to their “virtual home” for a short presentation and conversation about your organization and the campaign. Gatherings can range from a daytime “coffee klatch” to an evening “happy hour.” Take advantage of this time when many people are home and looking for ways to stay connected.
  • Transfer collateral print material into on-line formats for ease of use in virtual cultivation and solicitation meetings. For example, Alford client Sanctuary Centers of Santa Barbara quickly converted their major fundraising brochure to a digital booklet.
  • Finally, keep your mission front and center in all you do!

#4 Steward campaign donors

  • Even if campaign efforts have slowed or paused, it is more important than ever to keep in touch with campaign donors. Treat them as insiders, keep them informed and ask for their help or advice as appropriate. Donors who have already committed to your campaign are invested in your success!
  • Engage campaign volunteers, board members and executive staff in calls to major campaign donors to see how they are doing and provide an update on the campaign and project. They can do this regardless of whether they know the donor or not, sharing their own reasons for being involved and why they support the organization. Handwritten notes are another way to keep donors connected.
  • Work with donors if they need to extend the timeframe of pledges.
  • In addition to personally reaching out to major donors, create a simple written or video campaign update with similar information to send to ALL campaign donors. New technology tools make video messaging nearly as easy as writing. For example, showing progress on a construction project demonstrates a sense of forward momentum as well as an urgency for continued giving.
  • Explore/revisit why your organization matters to your major campaign donors, and then tailor short impact reports that address their interests, motivations and aspirations.

#5 Strengthen prospect identification and management

  • If you find yourself with a lull in campaign activities, now would be a good time to identify and prioritize new prospects for further qualification and campaign cultivation. Start by reviewing past event registration lists and lists of new, increased and lapsed donors.
  • Use this opportunity to build skills in prospect research and management. Study moves management strategies and determine how to pivot more traditional “moves” to virtual platforms.
  • Consider reviewing your pipeline to be sure you are paying attention to those prospects who you would have to engage virtually anyway because of location or other issues.
  • Segment prospects lists in different ways than you may have in the past– such as by location, industry/companies, similar giving levels, relationship to the organization, past event attendance, etc. Circulate lists with board members and selected volunteers to see if new prospects emerge for cultivation.

#6 Tend to your donor database

  • Take the time to analyze your donor database and find out how healthy your fundraising systems are.
  • Now could be the right time to conduct more robust donor wealth screening to identify and create strategies for the next tier of campaign prospects or for the public phase of your effort.
  • Examine (and improve where needed!) integration between your existing customer relationship management (CRM) system or donor database and email service provider (ESP). When system information is shared across platforms, donor records are updated automatically to reflect recent digital communication activities, opening “doors” for personal calls to donors and key prospects.
  • Dust off your list of “rainy day” database clean up items: tackle duplicate constituent records, correct erroneous coding on gifts or other data, and sunset old codes.
  • Spend any extra time fixing – and hopefully automating – those troublesome campaign reports that require a lot of manipulation outside the database. If challenges can be fixed within the database, do that now. If you still export data into Excel to report on your campaign progress, build formulas to automate it as much as possible.

#7 Restructure your campaign if necessary

  • If your campaign has several projects under one umbrella, create a series of smaller, sequential mini-campaigns. Celebrate as each project is funded to highlight progress while focusing less on the overall campaign goal.
  • Separate certain projects from the overall campaign that best lend themselves to being phased or delayed.
  • Reshape the campaign’s case for support to include new fundraising priorities arising from the Coronavirus crisis – possibly replacing previous campaign projects or priorities.
  • Lengthen the overall campaign timeline and/or the amount of time donors have to honor their pledges to allow for pandemic-related changes in your donors’ financial circumstances.

The bottom line is: don’t stop fundraising. History has shown us that the organizations that take a deep breath, pivot and adjust to the situation, and pave themselves a path forward fare well in times of crisis.

Wherever you are in responding to COVID-19, we hope these tips and additional resources assist you on the journey.

Contact Wendy and Michelle with thoughts, comments and questions.