By: Ben Johnson, Lead Strategist and Founder of Frontier Marketing, a fundraising agency based in Victoria, BC.
I started fundraising in 2009 after the financial crisis of 2008, until mid-march of 2020 I hadn’t experienced any major fundraising crisis. In 2010 I left the large organization that I worked for and started my own fundraising agency, eventually growing it to a team of 24 overseeing tens of millions of dollars per year.
When COVID-19 arrived I was completely unprepared. It was so unclear how the virus would affect society, and within days our clients were asking for direction and strategic insights. There are a few lessons I feel that any fundraiser could take from my experience, and I believe that they are applicable in different crisis situations.
Remember your core message, keep going, and diversify.
The first thing that a fundraiser should remember in a time of crisis is to remember their core message. I wrote about this when the crisis first hit and it has remained throughout as a guiding strategy that an organization’s core message is more important during times of uncertainty, and not less.
Some organizations wondered if what they were doing was worth speaking to donors about because it didn’t seem to be directly fighting the virus and might be irrelevant to donors. I explained that an organization is in a relationship with their donors. For example, if a friend called me up and asked for help, I wouldn’t say, “oh are you struggling because you have the virus?”, and if they said no, discard their need. Most likely, I would say “I can easily imagine you’re going through struggles during these tough times, and I’m so glad you reached out to me – how can I help?”.
Now, your core medium of fundraising might be affected in a crisis. Event-driven organizations during the initial days of COVID-19 were left without any clear means of maintaining their fundraising revenue. It reminded me of the following quote from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits:
Concentration produces wealth.
Diversification protects wealth.
— James Clear (@JamesClear) January 9, 2020
Healthy organizations learn to welcome their primary fundraising channel’s strengths while building up secondary sources of revenue. During a time of crisis this will become incredibly important: to have more than one channel and be able to reach donors no matter what.
Bring in allies and form new alliances.
If you’re in crisis, and it’s more than an internal mishap, chances are so are others. Throughout time one of the greatest tactics to fend off an enemy is to turn them into a common enemy. Reaching out to other organizations and building bonds during a crisis might be easier than you think.
During the COVID-19 crisis we’ve reached out to our suppliers, partners, and competitors and formed new bonds that have helped us stay stronger. It’s a great time for charities to collaborate with supposed competitors, like Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission has done with the BC Salvation Army.
What’s more, donors can see this as a strength of your organization’s resiliency. Partnerships can exemplify your organization’s strengths and allow for co-association with your alliance’s strengths. For instance, Ocean Wise (the Vancouver Aquarium) has partnered with the Vancouver Whitecaps for a fundraising campaign that saw co-branded fabric masks sold to donors. The strength of both brands has been elevated through their partnership.
Look for sales and drive a hard bargain.
Lastly, I love bargains. During a crisis it’s often known that this is when stocks are on sale. Warren Buffett says “Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy”. Well, our organization was able to ask for deals, get special rates, and be aggressive on behalf of our clients.
One client got a 3-1 with their newspaper ad, and 75% off for transit shelter ads. We were able to produce an extra direct mail campaign for 25,000 lapsed donors for a client for 40% less the usual cost. While others were quiet and sitting on the sidelines, our team started shaving our pencils and asking for the finest deals.
I wasn’t prepared for a global pandemic to hit the world. No one was, and that’s the point. If a crisis is happening, it’s your job to ride the wave and do the best you can. Leadership and systems will be tested, but basic principles of who people are, why they give, and what it means to be generous and compassionate will not.
Tell stories, be empathetic, ask often, thank regularly, demonstrate impact and accountability. The rest of fundraising is situational tactics and system optimization.