Never Waste a Good Pause

By Mary Hackett, Associate Vice President and JoAnn Yoshimoto, CFRE, Associate Senior Consultant

It was Machiavelli who first advised “never waste a good crisis.” By that he meant one could look at the opportunities afforded by a crisis to change, to innovate and to improve.

To paraphrase Machiavelli, we advise “never waste a good pause.” Whether it’s a lull in activity or a forced rethinking of business-as-usual, most nonprofits are experiencing a “pandemic pause.” At minimum, everyone should take a moment to consider how to effectively navigate in the new normal. For those who are experiencing a pause, the silver lining is that we can utilize this time to strategically prepare for the future.

We can explore ways to embrace the pandemic pause to PAUSE:

P – Position

A – Analyze

U – Unify

S – Steward

E – Evaluate

P – Position

During this pandemic pause we have the rare opportunity to take a step back and consider what we know and what we don’t yet know about our organization and the nonprofit sector. This is a great time to review philanthropic data and trends and evaluate how our organization fits in this context.

We suggest that you review the data compiled by Giving USA to inform how best to position your organization as we emerge from the current crisis. Consider overall giving against specific sector data and trends. Decide whether your organization should position itself for survival, for sustainability or for major growth. Consider answering the following questions:

  • What is the recent history of giving to your sector (human services, education, health care, etc.)?
  • Has growth in giving been slow and steady, or has there been a recent spike in giving? We don’t have a crystal ball, but a major spike in giving is not generally as sustainable as steady growth.
  • How can we best navigate this period of economic uncertainty? Taking a lesson from history, donors tend to be highly responsive to areas of greatest perceived need.

A – Analyze

If you and your team are not already analyzing every fundraising effort you undertake, then you’re missing critical pieces of donor intelligence – important clues to future success.

Take a look at your current annual fundraising plan and ask yourself big-picture questions. Are our various fundraising approaches still relevant? What should we omit in the future? What fundraising opportunities should we add or at least explore? In a new socially-distanced world, are we utilizing digital resources to maximum benefit? If results in certain areas are not as strong as they could be, how can we revise our approach?

We don’t want to send you into analysis paralysis, but each effort should be analyzed to determine results relative to the following criteria:

  • Was it financially successful?
  • Was it worth the time and money to produce?
  • What did we learn about our donors?

Then create a new rolling annual fundraising plan, which can start in any month, depending on when the time is right for your organization to move from “pause” to “play.”

U – Unify

Throughout the year we talk about, wish for, fantasize about a culture of philanthropy.

Now is an opportune time to make progress in this area since so much is changing, pivoting and reconfiguring anyway. Utilize the pandemic pause to unify the team. Invite colleagues in other departments to partner with you. Use this period to share fundraising messaging, hear their feedback and create the strongest possible unified message to refresh or retool your case for support and fundraising messages. Have open conversations about the roles that they (ED, program staff, administrative staff and others) can play in the fundraising process. Lead them to understand the aspects of their respective jobs that can have an impact on future fundraising success.

For example:

  • Program staff can keep an eye out for consistent tracking of outcomes, both measurable and anecdotal, to strengthen reports to funders or future grant applications.
  • Knowing that everyone can be/become a donor, reception staff can be sure to capture contact information from all visitors and folks who are “just” dropping off in-kind donations.
  • As s/he networks around the community, the executive director can look for people who would make good donors, board members, fundraising volunteers, etc.

Just as foundation funders like progress reports and donors thrive with good stewardship, your newer and larger fundraising “team” will benefit from feedback. Find regular opportunities to check back with staff, encourage them to share with each other fundraising-related activities they recognized and acted upon – and celebrate success!

For example, “Kudos” related to networking or fundraising can become a standing item on all-staff meeting agendas, demonstrating the organization’s shared value around philanthropy – its growing culture of philanthropy – and reinforcing this value among staff.

S – Steward

Now is the time to cultivate and steward your loyal, consistent donors AND give special care to your new donors. Sometimes, when we’re moving at the speed of light to complete all the things we need to do, our larger donors get our focus because it is impossible to provide personalized stewardship for every donor. Now is the perfect time to get to know some of your mid- to lower-level donors and learn why they have chosen your organization. Here are some helpful hints to reach out to your annual donors, who very well may become tomorrow’s major donors:

  • Choose three recent annual fund donors to call every day. Check in with them to see how they are doing during these times; some people benefit from that small level of human interaction. Share stories of how COVID-19 is affecting those who are served by your mission. End with an anecdote of how your frontline staff are reaching beyond normal daily activities and making a real difference.
  • Establish a regular process by which your database administrator sends you the list of all donors, their gift amount, designation and phone number. Take these names, then divide and conquer: enlist board members, executive director and program staff to make a small and manageable number of thank you calls. Be sure to provide talking points.
  • Don’t let stewardship efforts end with the thank you phone call! Donor retention is a never-ending challenge, and it’s particularly difficult with new donors who have responded to an emergency fundraising appeal…unless you give them the information they need to remain loyal to your organization. Develop a series of informative updates spanning the entire year, to illustrate what you’re doing that is innovative or beyond the usual delivery of services, and clearly explain how philanthropic support enabled you to undertake these additional activities in spite of the unforeseen expenses. When it’s time to ask these donors to renew their support, they will be well informed, have a sense of regular connection to your organization, and will be that much more likely to say “yes” when asked.

Take a look at this recent webinar to learn a simple, doable and effective five-step process to maximize retention of new donors who supported your organization in response to the current crisis.

E – Evaluate

Any decisions you make about your development program, structure, strategy and tactics should be data-driven. Only when you set aside time to evaluate and think through all elements of your development program can you build a sustainable, proven model for your organization. Pay particular attention to what might be notable about your fundraising results over a three-year horizon. You can utilize the giving histories in your donor database, the size of your donor pool and your organization’s programming efforts to answer the following questions:

  • Does my staffing structure match the revenue model we need for today and tomorrow?
  • Do we have a growing donor pool with a pipeline for major and planned gifts?
  • Do our fundraising efforts echo the strategic plan and its projected growth in certain programmatic areas?

In Conclusion

We started on a philosophical note, and we’ll end with a quote attributed to Abraham Low: “If you can’t change a situation, you can change your attitude toward it.”

There is plenty of anxiety and uncertainty related to our current situation. We can’t change the uncertainty, but we can maximize our attitude toward it by intentionally and productively utilizing today’s temporary pause.

Through the rigor of PAUSE – Position, Analyze, Unify, Steward and Evaluate – we can strategically utilize this unique situation today and prepare for fundraising success tomorrow.

For more on COVID-19 response planning – check out our Working Toward the Next Normal: COVID-19 Resources Toolkit