Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
June 1, 2020

Fundraising and donor communications in uncertain times

Sevil Miyhandar

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Wondering if you should still send out that appeal? Keep your big campaign moving? Call your donors and share your organization’s financial worries? Big Duck’s Sarah Durham and CCS Fundraising’s Sevil Miyhandar are here to help. Watch this webinar conversation about how to navigate your fundraising decisions and communications during these uncertain times.


Sarah Durham: Okay. So, for those of you who were trying to participate in our webinar earlier today, I apologize for the technical difficulties. I’m Sarah Durham from Big Duck. I am joined today by Sevil Miyhandar from CCS Fundraising. And because we had such technical difficulties, we are just doing a short recording to share with you right now on some of the key topics we are hearing going on in fundraising. We’re going to send this out with the opportunity for you to contact Sevil or me and ask us some follow-up questions in another format. So Sevil, we’ll dig right into this because we’ll send out all the other information by email. Very, very high level, what are you hearing from nonprofits today? What kind of struggles are organizations having in light of coronavirus and what’s going on in the field?

Sevil Miyhandar: Sure. So, I think it’s we’re all aware of the sort of acute, immediate challenge around galas and fundraising season and events. So whether those were gap revenue-generating galas and dinners or cultivation events, those have all been taken off the table. So, the main, you know, the first sort of excruciating challenge was do we cancel? And then that was, you know, in short order sort of decided for nonprofits, which I think was actually better. I think there was before the sort of going indoors and the, you know, stay at home, you had a lot of organizations just agonizing as to whether or not to go forward. So I think we’re over, luckily we’re over that challenge. Now the challenge has become sort of how to replace that revenue. So, do we punt these events to the fall? Do we go virtual? How do we engage the people that we, you know, this really nice cultivation event with this wonderful host, how are we able to sort of replicate that and is it even appropriate? So, those are the key challenges. And then the second set of challenges are around predicting what the long-term impact through the fiscal year or through the calendar year will be on overall fundraising philanthropy. What will the hit be in direct marketing? What will it mean for our major donors? What will it mean not to have these events? And then having that reflected in sort of larger conversations around the budget and what kind of cuts are needed. So, I think this last couple of weeks it’s just been sort of getting everything in order and really understanding the magnitude of the potential impact. But now the pivot being what kind of emergency funds can we raise at this time for very specific, you know, initiatives or things that we’re doing? Whether it’s to, you know, help our artists, people behind the scenes or whether it’s to actually be able to do programming that is in direct relation to the pandemic.

Sarah Durham: So, you talked about two pieces: sort of short-term implications about what to do right now or what’s happening right now in terms of the decisions you have to make with fundraising, and then long-term implications to the budget or through your, you know, your annual operating income, et cetera. In terms of the short term, one of the questions we got chatted in earlier before we were — we had tech fail was about how much organizations are already feeling the pain. And I spoke to one executive director yesterday who does a lot of — whose organization does a lot of peer-to-peer fundraising and their organization was predicting a 30%… they were already off 30% of the annual budget. Basically because of peer-to-peer fundraising shifts that are already starting to come to light. I’m curious if you are — if you have any sense of what the impact is generally in the field, and I’m also curious if you’ve seen any interesting examples or heard of any interesting examples among your clients of organizations pivoting into online events or kind of innovating in this time to replace some of the major donor events they would otherwise have been having in person.

Sevil Miyhandar: Mhm. So, there’s definitely an immediate impact of not making, you know, not having your leadership out asking, not having the boards asking. So, there’s — it’s just like turning off, you know, the faucet in terms of solicitations and gift commitments. That said, you know, I think we’re in New York, so it’s a little… I think it’s a little bit different for New York organizations. I am hearing from colleagues around the country that they are still in some cases soliciting gifts and or closing gifts. So, I don’t think it’s, you know, widespread, although I think it’ll have a ripple effect. Like every community will eventually go through this significant pausing of that. But direct mail I think is on hold, you know, so that’s revenue that, you know, every piece that goes out causes revenue. And then there is certainly, you know, the type of revenue that comes in through, like we said, these events and I think the virtual events — some organizations had already had stay-at-home galas, you know. I had heard a couple of organizations that had turned sort of the paradigm and said, “We’ll let you stay home, but we’re still raising money.” The significant push, it was part of their annual fund. So, I haven’t been — attended a virtual gala yet, you know, but I think they’re, you know, trying to think about creative ways to bring in producers, you know, creative that will lend itself well to this virtual paradigm shift for them. So right now, you know, Sarah, I wish I had more to tell you about “here are some great takeaways from some virtual galas,” but I think we’re going to start seeing those a little bit later in April into May and perhaps early June and we’ll be able to kind of report back on that. But I think for a number of them, they are trying to do some type of programming where people can dial into that programming. Not quite as long, but something… videos. And then again, it’s a question of do you create new content for this or do you recycle old content? And some are going sort of the, “let’s just use what we already have.” And some are saying, “no, we actually really want to create new content to be able to share with our audiences virtually for this.”

Sarah Durham: Hmm. Yeah, I think we will see a lot of this happening in April. And I’ve heard a couple of organizations talking about, you know, a lot of people are doing these kind of Zoom social events with their friends and in the evening. And I’ve heard a couple of organizations talking about doing Zoom house parties or Zoom open houses or things that you can use to create that kind of intimacy you’d normally have at, you know, at a major donor — a small major donor cultivation event or stewardship event. Sevil, let’s talk a little bit about what leadership should be doing right now. If you are an executive director or maybe a board member or perhaps a director of development and you’re responsible for, you know, or essential to a major donor program, what should you be doing? Should you be reaching out to your donors? And if so, in what ways?

Sevil Miyhandar: Well, we definitely think you should be reaching out to your donors. I was on the phone with an organization yesterday who is in the advocacy space and said, “often we use this language like ‘now more than ever’.” And they felt — they reflected on this and said, “at this moment, it’s the hospitals that are now more than ever.” It’s the organizations and we don’t, we don’t fall into that category. And I said, that’s true. But I think, the — your closest stakeholders still want you to be in a position of strength at the end of this. So, while your leadership shouldn’t get on the phone and say, “my organization fill in the blank, now more than ever.” What the leadership can say is, “this is what I am managing.’ These are the challenges that my organization is facing. And often if it’s leader to, you know, another executive at a private sector, is probably managing and coping with some of the same things. And to be able to have that like peer-to-peer conversation to say, you know, this is what we’re confronting. We foresee this happening. This is how we’re triaging it or managing it, and open that conversation to sort of leader-to-leader advice, you know, being able to hear from each other. But I do think that executives should A) be calling and making sure that their major stakeholders are healthy and safe. You know, hopefully that comes from a really authentic place and we’d hope it does. And then, 2) to just be able to say, you know, maybe ask for advice, give advice, and be able to brainstorm with their donors about what’s going on.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I want to lift up something you said when you said coming from an authentic place. I think that that is a very useful communications framework to lean into right now, or value to lean into right now. That as you’re trying to decide who to communicate with, how to communicate, and what to communicate, being authentic about what’s happening at your organization feels really important. And we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, organizations that really… I think are using this crisis inappropriately to, you know, saying things like, “You think coronavirus is bad? Well, our issue impacts X, Y, Z people a year.” And that feels, you know, feels distasteful to a lot of people. And in the webinar last week on crisis communications, we got some great advice from Elizabeth Toledo to not compare your issue to the impact of coronavirus if it’s not related and don’t use humor right now — that doesn’t ring, you know, ring well either. So, be authentic, and using your organization’s values is important. And you would do that in any communications, particularly with major donors. Another communications piece we are finding is particularly applicable right now is to pick the way you’re communicating… tailor it to the audience you’re trying to reach. So for instance, you know, if you have a major donor that you have a deep relationship with, odds are good you can pick up the phone and call that person and you can check in the personal way you just described. But you may have mid-level donors or a broad range of people in your community that you can communicate with in other ways, too. And one of the things we’ve seen a lot of organizations doing recently that I think is very successful is holding webinar-based community forums. The Marfan foundation just did one about Marfan and COVID and, you know, what’s happening in that community. We’ve seen a lot of disease and disorder organizations talking about the impact or risk to their community in this time. So, I think that’s another piece for leadership to think about is sort of how do you adapt your organization’s values and be authentic and communicate with the right people in the right channels in the right way.

Sevil Miyhandar: I mean, I think that if anything, this is an opportunity to authentically get closer to our donors. Certainly at the one-on-one picking up the phone and calling them and checking on them. But also, as you noted through these communications where you are… I don’t think you want to be significantly transparent with your entire donor base to say, “Oh, these are the budget, you know, this is what we’re seeing in the budget.” But at the same time, having — being humble about, you know, the challenges that you’re facing as an organization. I think your constituents want to hear that because they have varying degrees of affinity for you, but they’ve opened your email so they’re obviously interested.

Sarah Durham: Right, right. So, there was a thread we were getting into earlier that I want to just circle back to before we wrap up, which is what to do with a campaign, a major donor campaign, like a capital campaign or something else that you might have already begun or were in the middle of or… So, maybe you print, for instance, have completed feasibility and you were about to launch, you know, the quiet phase of your campaign. Or maybe you’ve just completed the quiet phase, you were about to go public or something. How are you advising your clients right now to navigate their campaigns in this context?

Sevil Miyhandar: So, typically for campaigns you have a list of 10, 25, 50, 100 people that are the key to the campaign… and it’s not thousands of people. So, it is possible to go through case by case and kind of determine what the right approach is for those donors. So, if you have an ask that was already out and you had hoped to be closing it, our advice right now is to A) check in on that donor. But also to say, “We know that this is a challenging time and when the time is right, you know, we hope we can come back to you and, you know, have that conversation.” There are cases where donors were about to be approached for a gift, and think that the — I think we just have a pause on that until things settle. But it doesn’t mean you still can’t reach out to them and check in on how they’re doing. It just doesn’t need to include the ask now. For some donors, it may be, and your case, may be somewhat connected to the strength. So, if you’re doing a campaign for building a reserve fund, there are sort tie-ins to this moment that as a leader of the organization, we, this campaign was about strengthening our organization to be able to weather various challenges. And this is the challenge we’re in. So, the case is still strong and relevant and it can be… you can draw on it to have these, you know, some of these conversations. And so, you know, we actually found an organization last week that someone had scheduled a meeting to talk about a campaign gift that was done over Zoom and they asked for a proposal as a follow-up step. So, there are people who are open to these conversations and I think they will tell us whether or not they’re not in a position to have that conversation or they will invite it. But I don’t, at the same time, I think overall the solicitations are on pause with some exceptions.

Sarah Durham: Okay. So, there’s a lot of good advice here to unpack. I want to make sure that we wrap up this recording quickly so people have the opportunity to listen to it and then write us in with their questions. So, we’ll send out this recording and hopefully circle back to those of you who’ve taken the time to watch it or listen to it with an opportunity to follow up. Sevil, thank you for joining me for this.

Sevil Miyhandar: My pleasure. All right, take care.

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