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June 1, 2020

What should you do about your major donor campaign?

Craig Shelley

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If you were in the midst of a major donor campaign or planning one, odds are good you’re wondering what to do next. We’re here to help. In this “office hours” style webinar, fundraising expert Craig Shelley from the Orr Group and communications expert Sarah Durham from Big Duck and Advomatic discussed the pros and cons of stopping, starting, slowing, and speeding up major donor communications and fundraising right now and in the months to come.


Craig Shelley: Thanks everybody for joining on a Friday afternoon. I know this is an interesting time, but we’re grateful for those of you that saw fit to join us today. My name is Craig Shelley, I work with Orr Group. Orr Group is a firm that partners with nonprofits across the country to fundraise and build leadership and provide capacity. We have offices in New York and Washington, D.C., though I guess not that relevant at the moment since none of us are in our offices, but there’s about 50 of us. I’ve been with the firm for about seven years. I tend to focus on sort of helping organizations accelerate their fundraising and scale their operations. I do that through campaign planning, campaign management, outsource development, strategic planning, coaching, counseling, you kind of name it — we do it.

Craig Shelley: My background prior, I spent most of my career with the Boy Scouts of America, led fundraising nationally there. Before joining Orr Group, also spent time as a Chief Executive Officer of a Boy Scout Council in the Jersey Shore and a Chief Development Officer for the Boy Scouts of New York City. I’m joined by Sarah Durham, a real good friend. First met Sarah at an AFP New York City board meeting, we were both on the board at that point. I forget exactly what we talked about, but I had some predictably obnoxious viewpoint and Sarah came up to me right afterwards and was like, “This is great. We’re going to get along fantastically.” And we have ever since. She’s with Big Duck and Advomatic but Sarah, I’ll let you introduce yourself and your work.

Sarah Durham: Sure. Thanks Craig, and welcome everybody. I’m delighted to be here with you. So as Craig mentioned, I’m the CEO of two companies — Big Duck and Advomatic. Big Duck is a communications firm that helps nonprofits build strong brands, strong campaigns, and strong communications teams. And we do that particularly during moments of growth and significant change. A lot of the work we do, probably… maybe 70%, maybe more than that, is powered by fundraising. It’s communications in service of or supporting fundraising to advance the mission. I started Big Duck in 1994, so I’ve been doing that almost 26 years. And Advomatic is an agency that builds and maintains WordPress and Drupal websites for nonprofits, and it’s really a sort of a technical… technical strategy and technical excellence web dev shop. It’s been around since 2004 and I took it over about a year ago. And I think specific to this topic, one of the things that I’m excited to talk about today, but is also a big passion of mine, is major donor communications and capital campaign communications. So I’m delighted to be here, thank you for having me.

Craig Shelley: Excellent. So major donors, right? Major gifts, major gift programs, capital campaigns, campaigns generally… You know, for most organizations, focusing on major gifts is going to be your best bet in terms of, you know, return on investment. I say that with the caveat of a lot of people come to us, they understand that fact, and they want to launch a major gift program — it takes time, right? So initially, major gift programs are probably not a great return on investments, but over time as that program matures it certainly is a great place to focus. I’ve always hated the statistic of, you know, 80% of philanthropy comes from individuals, it’s skewed dramatically by religious giving and other things. But the reality is even if you take that away, individuals really drive philanthropy with their own wallets and then, you know, individuals are making decisions at foundations, at corporations.

Craig Shelley: So I mean, this whole idea of how do you approach people to give you larger gifts I think is sort of a bedrock of success for any nonprofit and should really be top of mind for all of us. Now, there’s some unique challenges in the environment that we’re in, and we can talk a little bit about that because I know that’s sort of what’s top of everybody’s mind and there’s going to be great chances for you guys to ask questions. I am going to say, sort of two notes, sort of a housekeeping perspective, the Q&A thing at the bottom, if you’re on Zoom, if you can submit your questions there that’ll be the easiest place for us to monitor those. Then there’s also a chat function at the bottom of your screen, if you chat in A) just who you are and where you’re from, because that’s kind of fun, and then secondly, if you have tech issues or sort of more logistical questions, put them on the chat function and then we can deal with them there. So questions, Q&A, tech stuff, and sort of introduction of who you are on the chat. So — but as we talk about major giving generally and major gifts campaigns generally, there’s a couple of sort of bedrock or sort of basic things that we like to think about in terms of what goes into a successful program, no matter when you’re doing it. But I think these things get a little bit heightened in the current environment. You know, first off, if you’re going to secure major gifts or you’re going to secure big dollars, you got to have the big idea, right? Small idea, small dollars. So, we think of that in terms of a case for support is probably the vernacular that you’ll most likely hear in our sector.

Craig Shelley: But big idea, right? You have to go out there with something that’s compelling and exciting to donors, and that’s going to be sort of a core piece of a major gift campaign. Second is a dynamic sales force. Now, that can be your CEO, it can be your board members, it can be your development staff. The reality is you need a group of people or an individual that are really good that can go out there and sell this big idea in a very exciting and compelling way. I also like to think of that piece of it as a little bit of a stalking horse too, for… you have to invest in fundraising, right? You have to have an investment in a team and a sales force that’s commensurate with your ambitions, right? So you can’t go into a major gift program and just say, you know, we’re going to just put ourselves out there and things are going to come.

Craig Shelley: So, big idea, great group of people or persons selling, and then you need access to lead gift prospects, right? So the… when I started my career, the thing was always, you know, can you get Oprah to give you a lot of money? Then it became Bill Gates, probably here locally in New York where I’m based it’s, you know, Michael Bloomberg, you know, maybe it’s… CZI, you know, whatever it is. Thinking about like, people always go to that first idea of like, okay, we should get money from, you know, boom, Michael Bloomberg’s going to think we have a great idea. Now there are these, if you don’t have an access to those prospects, the best idea in the world with the best sales force in the world and they don’t have the people they can get in front of that have the capacity to do that, your major gift program isn’t going to go anywhere.

Craig Shelley: And in terms of, like, sort of launching major gift programs, that’s actually the piece that typically trip people up. You have to have access to those with capacity. Now, that capacity can vary based on, you know, major gift programs, you know, major gifts for you might be $5,000 for somebody else it might be $5 million, right? So there’s some sort of… level setting within your own organization. But if you don’t have access to people that can make gifts the size that you need, you’re not going to get very far. Now, access doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve been past donors. They don’t have to have been, though it’s certainly going to be helpful if they’ve made some sort of gift to you in the past. So just wanted to sort of share that concept, those concepts and those ideas just sort of to give us sort of a foundation to talk about major gifts.

Sarah Durham: Great. So, we promised you that this session would be largely office hours and what that means is that we want you to feel free to ask us anything. Craig is an excellent fundraising expert and consultant and he’s available here, and I’m a specialist in capital campaign and major donor communications. So, as Craig mentioned earlier, you can chat in your questions into the Q&A box and Craig and I will see them and we will ask… them of each other and what we will do is we’ll filter them to try to surface the questions that we get first that feel like they have the most universal applicability to the people who are participating today. I also have some questions for Craig that were pre-submitted and I want to kick us off by asking him some of those questions and… as I’m going or as we’re going please, you know, chat in any questions or comments you have in whatever way is most comfortable for you.

Sarah Durham: So, Craig, just to kick us off, let’s imagine, you know, one of the things that’s been coming up a lot in the conversations I’ve had with nonprofits over the past few weeks is this question about what to do with the campaign. So, I’ve talked to a number of organizations who have a campaign underway, maybe they’re well into the quiet phase of a campaign or they’re just about to go public. What are the pros and cons of stopping that campaign now or going ahead with that campaign now? So, what do you advise?

Craig Shelley: Yeah, I mean, this is, you know, this is a little bit like a shoe salesman telling you that you need new shoes, but there’s really no… there’s almost no scenario where my advice would be that you should stop your campaign. You know, the way I look at it is if the world needed the funds that you were going to raise and the mission you were going to accomplish via those funds three months ago, it’s going to need it now. You know, campaigns are multiple years for a reason and I think we often forget this, right? There’s lots of, “Oh, we can get bigger gifts because people pledge them over a number of years, it’s going to take time to build momentum…” But another reason that campaigns, large campaigns, have typically been, you know, three to five years is because it allows you to spread giving over multiple economic cycles, right?

Craig Shelley: So when you think of that, even just as major gifts that aren’t connected to campaigns… and when you’re asking people to stretch, you’re asking them not to give what they have in their wallet just now today, you’re asking them to look on the whole and say, “This is what I would like to contribute.” Even the most pessimistic amongst us on the economy, know that over some period of years it’s going to come back. So, particularly if you’re looking at multiyear gifts, you know, and most campaigns you are, 100% you should move forward. Now, do you adjust your activity? Probably. Do you adjust the length of your campaign? We saw a lot of campaigns that were going 2008, 2009, you know, end up getting extended. So yes, I think that’s certainly something that’s possible. But I don’t think you come full stop, I really don’t.

Craig Shelley: I think you need to figure out how to continue and there’s ways, right? Look in different segments of donors, people that have already made pledges… is that a conversation around, “Can you change your pledge, you know, schedule.” People that were about to make pledges, you know, they had the paperwork, they were thinking about a gift, is it just, again, I’m helping them understand that you don’t need them to necessarily commit or pay it all right now today. So, I think there’s the different things you would do with different segments, but I would move forward in almost all cases.

Sarah Durham: I agree. And I’ve got a question here from somebody who has — who wants to drill down a little bit into this. This is somebody who’s got a campaign that is underway currently and she writes, “How would you recommend communicating with donors around the low IRS discount rate and CLTs even though they are rare?” That’s, I don’t know, that’s one I don’t know about. I’m curious.

Craig Shelley: Yeah, that’s a pretty specific question. So, in terms of like, yes, the low rates on sort of those… long-term gift vehicles like that, that’s hard. That is not going to be the most appealing sort of product for someone to make a planned gift right this moment. So you have to think with them, what are they trying to accomplish? Are they trying to accomplish ongoing life income? That might not be the best product for them right now. If they’re just trying to accomplish how they’re going to make an impact on your organization long-term and how are they going to make an impact from their assets? There’s lots of other planned giving vehicles that they should be looking at. But a lot of giving is, I mean, that’s the one product though I think a lot about, IRS motivations. That’s the one product where it really does matter most places like even, you know, I know a big part of the CARES Act was this increase in the charitable deduction… very rarely is that a prime motivation for larger giving, right? A lot of people are giving well beyond what they could deduct to begin with, so sort of, I don’t typically worry too much about IRS stuff and major giving, but yeah on those rates, that is what it is right now.

Sarah Durham: You know, one of the things I have been thinking about a lot when I’ve had conversations about existing campaigns and what to do with them is the question of the donor’s philanthropic priorities right now. Because to your point, if you’re in a campaign and you’ve already got pledges out and you’re already talking to donors, you’re probably talking to people who consider your organization one of its top philanthropic priorities and hopefully that hasn’t changed. The question is, has their situation changed? In which case is the ask maybe going to shift a little bit or the trajectory of when they can make the gift going to shift? I also think there’s this question about, is there a different way they can support you in this campaign? I’ve heard a number of organizations who are doing things like creating relief funds for the community that they serve and some major donors are pivoting the gift to support the relief fund in the short term. And that might be shifting the level of the gift or the timeline of the gift on the bigger fund. Is there a case for speeding up your campaign? Like if… you had an ambitious goal, should you step on the gas in any situation right now?

Craig Shelley: I think it’s, you know, the best answer for most questions, it depends. But I think if you are directly related in any way to this, right, if you are at a medical center that is being overrun right now with patients, and that is the clearest illustration ever of a need to grow your capacity, and your campaign was to build a new hospital that’s, you know, 2x the current hospital, like 100% now is the time to step on the gas because there is no greater time than right now to be able to realize the value of it. You know, an interesting one too is, we do a lot of work with sort of friends-of-parks type organizations… like there’s a very interesting case that we’re trying to figure out how to break through to there of, people now are valuing that public outdoor space in a way they never did before, right? Almost more than they should because we are having issues were there’s sometimes too many people crowding parks. But, I predict we get to the end of this, people are thinking a lot differently about their parks. So there’s a specific message that sort of can accelerate your campaign if it’s specific to what’s going on. If it’s not though, to your point, people are going to give to the things that they care the most about. So, what you can do right now is make sure you are reminding people why they cared about you three months ago and why they’ll care about you three months from now. You can do that through communication and I’d love, Sarah, to pick your brain a little bit about like how you would be communicating right now, but… people are going to remember everything about this, right? Like I mean this is this kind of thing of… you’ll remember you gained 15 pounds over — whatever it is you did over this period of time in quarantine. The interaction you have with the nonprofits you care about right now will have an impact for a long time. So I know Sarah, like how would you be communicating if you were… how are you advising people to communicate right now?

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Well, I think there are… two levels in which I think communications have to be considered right now. One level is evergreen. It’s what is effective with major donor communications or any donor communications ever. And, I’ve got an ebook that I’ll chat out about capital campaign communications that people can download which says more about this, but the philosophy that we use at Big Duck with capital campaigns is that anytime you’re asking a major donor for a gift, the materials that you use, the conversations you have, have to do three things. They have to inspire, they have to inform, and they have to reassure. And I think that actually correlates really nicely to what you said, Craig, earlier about the big idea. You know, it can’t just be, this is why we need your support.

Sarah Durham: We need to, you know, we need more beds in our hospital… we need more of that. I mean that’s important, that’s what the work is about. But the donor has to see themselves in it. They have to feel that this is an opportunity to create something that is transformative, and that’s usually not just about, you know, bricks and mortar. So, how does the campaign inspire, how does it inform, how does it reassure? Those are sort of evergreen communications practices that have to be baked in. Right now though, I think there are a number of things we have been observing that people are doing very well and some rare examples, thankfully not that many of them, of people really not communicating well with donors in this time. What I think people are doing well is being authentic and telling a true story.

Sarah Durham: And there are so many examples, and I’m thinking about some of New York’s green spaces — a couple of those organizations I think are on today’s calls. And I’ve seen some really great emails coming out of places like the Prospect Park Alliance this week about how people are using the park, or the, you know, the role that the park is playing or Green-Wood Cemetery, which is another great Brooklyn institution talking about, you know, what’s happening and how you can use these outdoor spaces. So, reinforcing your value and your presence in an authentic way I think is really important. What is not working right now is humor. Humor is really feeling inappropriate. Too many people are sick, too many people are dying, too many people are struggling, and it’s just not funny. And also, I think, what we have not seen a lot of, but I’ve seen a few examples of that’s not great, is the kind of, “You think this is bad? Well, boy, we had it bad — we had it badder.” You know, the — I have seen one or two emails from health-focused organizations who will talk about how the rate of prevalence of their disease is actually greater than the rate of prevalence of COVID. That may actually be true, but that isn’t going to motivate a donor to give. It’s going to feel a little inappropriate I think in this environment. So I think you have to be particularly careful about your writing and the tone and style of your asks. And most of the fundraisers I’m talking to right now really get it and they’re being really smart and creative with how they’re doing that. I think, actually, the challenge with communications is more… sometimes at the board or the CEO level that people are reticent to ask period.

Sarah Durham: So, that’s a bigger thing. I’m just going to — I’ll chat out a link to where you can download some of those resources about some of this stuff. Craig, we have a question about kicking off campaigns. A few questions have come in, but there’s one in the chat I want to elevate. Which is, “How do we kick off a major giving campaign when so many other organizations are doing the same, and how do we really break through?” And that’s… that question is, the first part of it I think is for you and the second part of it might be for me. It’s — I like that you’ve asked the question that way because it is true. It’s not just about launching, it’s about making sure that you’re heard.

Craig Shelley: Yeah. And I think… I do think the differentiation, differentiating yourself is definitely a communication thing. And I’d love to hear Sarah’s thoughts on that, but in terms of like — and we are in a number of conversations in a number of organizations that are on the verge of launching some large campaigns. I mean this coming on the end of sort of a huge economic sort of upswing had everybody either in campaigns or about to be in campaigns or wants to get into major gifts or wants to, you know, 3X their revenue. All those things were all happening. Everybody was super ambitious three months ago. But so if you’re launching a campaign though, I don’t think you do anything terribly different on the sort of locking and tackling than you would normally. Now, messaging, standing out — probably you got to be a little more nuanced. But in terms of like how do you launch it, it’s about leadership, right?

Craig Shelley: It’s about getting the right group of people together that believe, will give, have that capacity, right, so that sort of third piece of campaigns that I referenced earlier on access to lead gifts, right? Those people that have the ability to make the giving. If you can get a group of them together as your leaders, you’re in great shape. And so right now, if I was launching a campaign — as we are in a number of places, I would focus on expanding my leadership group because those are people that are one degree or connected to me. So, I can talk to them right now. They’ll take my call, they’ll talk to me on video. So it’s not — you’re not going to do great strangers right now, but you can recruit your leaders because they’re close to you to begin with. And you can start to work on that case. I mean, I always say, nobody — I’ve never met anybody that’s absolutely in love with their case. They all want to tweak it and change it and make it different. I mean, people that work with Big Duck much more happier than most others, but like everybody’s still working towards perfection on their case. Wherever you are in this process, now’s a great time to focus on it. So I’d love, Sarah, how do you — how are you thinking about cases right now and sort of how organizations can differentiate themselves?

Sarah Durham: Well, I think you’re right. I think it does begin with the case for support and I think the case, whenever you write a case, has to speak in donor-centric compelling terms. So, usually when we are working with an organization on the case for support, the first question is what has the donor research or the feasibility study uncovered that is like the gem — the reason why donors really want to give, and how can you really tell that story in a way that feels inspiring and motivating and isn’t just a, “We need your money so we can do X, Y, Z, P, D, and Q.” I think that’s a universal thing. But, you know, part of this question is about breaking through the clutter, which is — which speaks more to later stages of the campaign when you’re maybe not just talking to the, you know, the top givers or when you’re going public.

Sarah Durham: And I think that’s an evergreen challenge that nonprofits face and particularly face in economically challenging times. And in my experience in the last 20 years, nonprofits have become much more sophisticated about branding and the importance of branding, particularly, actually, in economically challenging times. You know, I remember, because so much of the work that Big Duck does is branding nonprofits, after September 11th, communications was the first thing that got cut. And a lot of the projects we were working on at that time just kind of disappeared because organizations felt that when times were tough, they should let go of the marketing staff, let go of the communication staff, let go of projects like branding because those things felt secondary and the programs were primary. And you can make that case. But actually in 2008, we saw the opposite. We saw that programs in some cases got cut before communications or marketing.

Sarah Durham: And when I spoke to people in organizations then, and this is happening a little bit now too, there was a sense that like, you know, it all hurts. Everything hurts when you’re feeling the pinch, but you have to be able to communicate effectively and you have to differentiate yourself in a tight economic climate more than ever. Branding is key to that. And I’ve had some very interesting conversations this week with organizations, actually a lot of Brooklyn-based organizations in the arts and culture space, about how challenging it is to differentiate yourself and to have your organization’s voice or brand get through the clutter when you’re now doing your programs in Instagram, you know, or you’re now doing your programs through Zoom where it’s really different from the experience of walking into a place and seeing the signage and meeting the people and having that human touch.

Sarah Durham: So, Big Duck’s creative director, Claire Taylor Hansen, actually just wrote a blog about this we’ll be posting in a week or two, about how brand strategy and brand identity is always important, but it’s particularly important or useful now because it gives you the basis for how your organization communicates, full-stop. And in a campaign or a major donor communication, now is the time you build on that. Now is the time that the campaign hopefully reinforces all those reasons why people love you and it should — and hopefully you’re differentiated to begin with. So that was a… long answer to a short question. We have a lot of… questions coming in here and I want to get to some of the things that people are asking that are a little beyond traditional campaigns. But this one, Lauren’s question, actually feels related to what we’re talking about. Lauren writes in, “How do I best convince my board members to participate in my major gift solicitations?” That’s another way you cut through the clutter, right? You get all hands on deck. What do you think, Craig?

Craig Shelley: And this is a challenge all the time, right? So, like how do you get — so first off, and I’m just, you know, a secret that we all have recognized, but maybe need to say a lot more often, like people who do not want to ask other people for money will always find an excuse, right? There’s always going to be a reason that we’re not quite there, the cases isn’t right, the program isn’t right, the timing isn’t right. And now it’s the greatest excuse ever, right? Like you don’t, you know, you can find a reason not to ask. So I think one, you have to accept that you’re never going to get everybody to do it. But the people that you can, what I always say is, like, as a fundraiser, my job with board members is to give them as many opportunities to be successful fundraisers as I can.

Craig Shelley: Like, I work with board members that will sit down with anybody and ask them for money and all they need is sort of a reminder like, “Hey, you are going to call Sarah and Craig instead of a meeting and we are going to go ask them for gifts.” That’s all you need to do. But there are other people where you need to find the environment of, they want to bring somebody to, you know, I don’t know, an event in somebody’s home, right? They want that sort of soft likability to introduce somebody, that’s the bad guy right now. But maybe, you know, you need things for people to come to, right? So I don’t have to ask my friends for money, but I can say, “I care about this organization. I’d love for you to learn more.” And then they could come, they could learn more.

Craig Shelley: And then the stuff where somebody else can ask them — ask my friends for money once they get excited on their own. Or some people are like, “Hey, just give me a thing I can put on my Facebook page and I’ll do a fundraiser.” So, you have to have as many tools as you can to overcome as many excuses, some legitimate, as people have, why they don’t want to ask people for money. So that’s the way to think about that. It’s not every single person’s going to do exactly what I want. It’s how do I provide a menu of opportunity to get as many board members involved as I can and then accept that some portion of board members and never going to do it. And maybe that’s okay, they have other value, right? I mean, I’m a fundraiser so I want them all to raise money, but there are other really, really valuable things that board members do, right?

Craig Shelley: So, but know that they’re not all going to come to that point. In terms of right now in the environment, I would say that thing you have to be careful for, and board members, again, they do this all the time, but probably do it a little bit more now, is they’re going to project their circumstances onto your organization, right? So, and I’ve seen this numerous times already, you know, they’re in a bad financial situation, so their company is cutting. So they’re bringing up in board meetings, like, how are you cutting staff? That may be required and maybe you have to do furloughs, you know, but it may not, right? Your financial circumstances are not necessarily their company’s financial circumstances. So helping board members understand what’s real and what’s perceived, that’s always huge.

Sarah Durham: I love, I love so much of what you just said and I want to lift up two things in particular that really resonated for me in your comments, Craig, about… as I’ve been talking to nonprofits. The first is, I love your suggestion that to get those board members to step up and to give, you have to give them a menu of ways to ask, a menu of choices. And one of the things that people are talking about a lot right now, and I think it’s a little early to say what the results will be but I think we’ll start to see the results in the next month, are making events that used to be in person like galas virtual. And I wonder actually about the Zoom house party. I think so many people are using Zoom in personal ways now.

Sarah Durham: And I actually wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see forums where board members can invite members of the organization, staff, and their friends and do house parties and cultivation events on Zoom. It’ll be interesting to see if that works. But, so bringing a multitude of options to the table so that board members have lots of ways they can start to support the organization and bring in people that they ask. The other thing that I feel is, I don’t know, such an interesting moment that we face right now that’s going to be so important is to think about the timing of where, trying to think about how to phrase this… I guess what I want to say is, you know, there is a kind of a culture of philanthropy that some organizations embrace and some organizations just don’t have it.

Sarah Durham: And part of what I think a lot of organizations are struggling right now is how do I get that rolling? You know, if I’ve never… built a culture of philanthropy on the board or I’ve never created that menu of ways to give or I’ve never done that branding work, how do I get it started? And I think in some ways this is a, it’s certainly a challenging time to start up something you’ve never done before, but in many ways it’s kind of an ideal time to do that if you have the capacity to, because it’s a moment where the unexpected seems normal and there, I think there is a real opportunity and we’re seeing it with a lot of organizations to innovate. And that may be one of the ways you break through the clutter here too, you know, is by innovating.

Craig Shelley: Yeah. I think… you’re right. Like, it is hard to change a culture, but in some ways like moments like this are all about leadership, and culture is all about leadership, right? So, this is an opportunity to lead your organization to wherever it needs to go. And I have this, like, new parlor trick I like where like I can meet your board chair and your CEO and I can tell you everything I need to know about your culture, right? Like, because it comes from the top. So, like, if you can lean in right now and decide that building a culture of philanthropy is how you are going to spend your time and what you are going to do, you can lead your organization there. People are dying for leadership right now. So yeah, there is a great moment to change culture. But it’s hard.

Craig Shelley: I mean it’s hard on a good day. It’s always going to be hard. But, so actually to that point and I swear there was a question around getting your board members to give, so what I always say like if you want board members to give more money, everybody does, what you need to do first is sort of, it’s a cultural thing, right? They all sort of, whether they admit it or not, they sort of side-eye all the other board members, they benchmark the board members, they know their most financially alike and they want to give similar amounts of money. So, what you need to do is, you need to find the board members that are most influential that everybody looks up to, get them to raise their giving. So I think back, first major gift program I ever launched earlier in my career, I knew, you know, we were the $10,000 charity, but I was watching these people give these huge gifts to these other, you know, their colleges, their universities, their kid’s boarding school, and then they give us $10,000 and we’d say, “Oh, thank you.”

Craig Shelley: So, it started with getting the board to share, one other person or two other people on the board, one who was sort of the loudest voice, one who was clearly the most wealthy, and then the board chair, all to take their annual giving to $100,000, and let me tell people about it. Fast forward a year and a half later, you know, 12 other board members had raised their giving from, you know, $10 — $20,000 to $100,000 a year. At the time, you know, I guess at any time that’s super impressive. At the time though, I was like over the moon. But it happened by figuring out who the influencers are, getting them to raise their giving, and letting you tell other people that they did it. And you’ll see the levels will come up. Now again, there’s the question of if you don’t have the right board members and no one has that capacity, that goes to that access to people that can make the giving, but a lot of us have the people, they’re just not giving at those levels.

Sarah Durham: Right. And this may be the moment where you ask those people to step up. I mean, that’s the creative opportunity here. A question we got in that I think I’ve heard a few times, I think is really an interesting one for this moment, is what about planned giving campaigns? The person who wrote in this question said, you know, “Do they feel insensitive during this heartbreaking time? How best to continue the launch of those or to make it a softer offering? Are there tools or resources?” What advice would you give about planned giving right now?

Craig Shelley: I think it’s going to be more important than possibly it’s ever been before because as people, short-term assets or short-term income comes into question but they still want to do things that they’re passionate about, planned giving is going to be a huge piece of it. It is never not, I mean, I shouldn’t say this, I don’t find it to be an awkward conversation. People that find it to be an awkward conversation, it will always be one, you know? Now, if you meet with someone and they’re sick, right? They’re, “Oh, I’ve just tested positive for COVID.” I mean, yes, wildly insensitive to ask them for money, period, no less a planned gift. But for those other donors that are talking about the impact that they want to have, it is no different, right? You bring it up as part of, you know, I think the best way to get to a planned gift is talk about the impact someone could have at X and they say, “Oh, I would love to do that, but I can only give you, you know, X minus 10.” Like, well actually, maybe we can do something with your estate that’ll allow us to realize that full gift over time and have the impact that you want to have.

Craig Shelley: So, I think that’s how do we talk about planned giving. But certainly now, like, you can market it, you know, the sort of — the soft marketing of planned giving should be ongoing and continuous without a doubt.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And in your remarks, what I’m thinking about is sort of pivoting your thinking around planned giving, because I think a lot of times organizations don’t have planned giving programs or campaigns and so they’re thinking, should I launch one now as a kind of an evergreen kind of thing we do? I think what you’re proposing, if I’m understanding you correctly, is that actually the most important thing is… to embrace a strategy that leads with donor — one-on-one conversations. And so, if you’re talking to me as a donor who supported your organization in the past or maybe who’s made a pledge to a campaign or something, the question is, you know, “Sarah, how are you? How are things going in your world? Are you still interested in making, you know, honoring this pledge? If you’re not able to now or your priorities have changed, here are other ways, one of them is planned giving, right? That it’s leading with the donor and their situation. Okay, there’s a couple of other questions we have in here… I also just, I want to go back to something you said earlier, Craig, that I realized I didn’t pick up but I thought was really important. You talked about how sometimes board members are… their organization or their business is struggling and so they assume the nonprofit is struggling and they start talking about, you know, the house is on fire, we need to cut, we need to do this, we need to do that. And I want to say that I have found that to be… I have found there is an extremely wide range of how organizations are fairing in this time. Over this — over the past month, I’ve made a point to reach out personally to as many of Big Duck’s clients and Advomatic’s clients as I can connect with and to talk to them about, how they’re adapting to working remotely? What’s happening with their fundraising? What’s happening with their programs?

Sarah Durham: Are they able to serve the communities they normally serve? What’s going on? And the answers that I’m hearing could not be more diverse. They range from organizations who are actually in some ways innovating and thriving and donors have stepped up proactively. There’s one organization I spoke to said, when I asked about how fundraising was going, said, “You know, our donors totally get it. They understand this is a crisis moment and they value us and they’re reaching out to us.” That’s incredible, you know? The other end of the spectrum are, in my experience, mostly direct service organizations or place-based organizations where their programs are shut down and it’s very hard, they’re just working overtime to try to figure out how to bring — how to make programs work that really are reliant on interaction. And those organizations are having to spend a lot of money to pivot and they are really struggling the most. But, you know, talking to your board members and talking to your donors about what’s really happening is so important. It’s such a grounding variable to make sure that they understand the urgency of the need. Yeah, you want to respond to that?

Craig Shelley: Yeah, that was right. That’s 100% right. And… it’s a weird time because it’s almost like the more stable and diversified your revenue stream was as a nonprofit prior to this, the worse off you are now because if you were, you know, dependent on fee-for-service by people, you know, walking in the door to a location or you, you know, made a lot of income by renting out your facility for weddings, you know, name, all these things that were great, those are the things that have gone to zero. Like, if you had a really good core of ongoing fundraising, you’re probably all right. If you’re really dependent on events, not so much. But if you were dependent on major gift fundraising, sort of direct market fundraising, you’re probably doing okay. Now, the biggest variable is how much cash did you have on February 15th, right? The people that were in a strong cash position, they’re going to be fine. The people that weren’t, you know, that’s who is really struggling.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. So, there are a number of questions we’re getting about different audiences. The first one we got a while ago that we haven’t gotten to yet, but I think is an important audience to bring into this conversation, are corporations. And the question is, “Are corporations still doing corporate matching from employee donations to nonprofits at this time? Does it vary from company to company?” Yes, it — I think it probably does vary from company to company. I don’t know, I wonder if you know, Craig, are there laws that govern this about how companies can change their policies or can they drop that match at any time?

Craig Shelley: I think they did… I would imagine you could drop it at any time. I have not heard anecdotally anybody saying that they stopped it. You know, I don’t, I wouldn’t be surprised because I think corporations are going to, again, depending on your business, you’re going to struggle, right? So, you know, if you worked for Marriott and they had a matching gift program, I would imagine at some point they’re going to eliminate their matching gift program for some period of time, right? So I think that could happen. I haven’t heard about it happening yet.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. There’s a question here about the appropriateness of asking for a major gift at a moment in this country or a moment in a place like New York that’s really, you know, experiencing peak right now. And so the question is, “Should we wait a bit more until the markets and the virus settle down? I think asking donor for permission to talk about giving is a good strategy. Do you have other suggestions, or wait?”

Craig Shelley: I feel like… I knew I always liked you, Toby, but you have now keyed up the perfect question. So, of course… Now, hold on, I’m just going to try and pull up the slide to get in touch with us. So we hear this question a lot. Can I ask people for money right now? The answer is not only yes, it’s you have to, right? Like, you’re really not… if this was a two week thing, fine. We’re not in a position, by and large, to sort of sit back and not ask people for money if that’s how we make our, you know, funds right now. Hold on, let me get this to do the right thing. There we go. All right. So yes, you have to ask people for money right now. Now, you have to be, you know, you can’t be tone-deaf, right?

Craig Shelley: The world has changed and I think there’s an approach to asking people for money that’s very important. So, we’ve been talking a lot about these sort of four stages of asking right now, which I’ve thrown up on the screen here for y’all. Some people will move through it very quickly, some people will not move through it at all — you’ll get stopped at one of these stages. But let me talk a little bit about them. And I think they apply in the major gifts sort of one-to-one sort of hand-to-hand combat way, but they also apply broadly as well, right? Like, sort of, this is sort of the tone of your broader communication and contact with donors I think too. But first, you know, communicate authentically. You know, we talked about this earlier, you need to understand what’s going on in their world and their lives.

Craig Shelley: How is this impacting them? People are willing to talk right now, but first and foremost, they’d probably want to talk about themselves and what’s going on in their lives. Maybe that’s true all the time, but it feels more so now. So understand their situation. Now again, some people you will never get past that, right? Because their situation is they own a bunch of restaurants, right? And so their whole life has been turned upside down or, you know, their wife or their husband is sick, you know, or there’s lots of things that you may communicate there and you may just stay there and that’s, you know, that’s fine. Long term, that’s going to be fine for your relationship. But if that’s where they need to stay, stay. But it’s also important where you can to get to that second piece, which is Sarah’s point around organizations are being impacted differently.

Craig Shelley: Organizations are pivoting differently. Make sure they understand how this is affecting your organization, right? So, I happen to know where Toby works, right, Toby, it’s impacting you because the green spaces are being used a lot more, but you’re losing all this revenue because you can’t rent out facilities, you know, that kind of stuff. So, like whatever the impact is and whatever you’re doing to pivot to do it. Like, so we do a lot of work with the Girl Scouts. I have loved watching how they’ve pivoted their programs to a virtual way. And I’m like, geez, just talk about that, right? That’s what people need to understand how this pandemic is impacting Girl Scouts. It’s impacting us because we’re innovatively and creatively serving families in a time where they need service, right? So, make sure you do that. And then, Toby, to your point, ask permission to ask, right?

Craig Shelley: And then somebody asked, they’re like that’s great, but how do you do that? You just do it, right? You just ask them. You say, you know, now they’ve understood how your organization’s impacted. You understand how they were impacted. So we’re still in a position where, you know, we need to be out there and what we do is important. You’ve heard how we’ve pivoted our programming, you know, we have a need to continue to raise funds, would you be in a position to consider a gift right now? And they might say no. And if they say yes, then you go to the ask. And I think it’s — it gets over that sort of, like, you’re tone-deaf, how could you possibly ask me for money right now? It’s like, no, there’s been a whole conversation that has led to me asking you if it was okay.

Craig Shelley: If you saying no, it’s not okay to ask, no hard feelings. But if you say it is okay to ask, you’ve now given me permission to do that. So, this is the process we’re working through with a lot of donors right now, and I think it’s one that we’re seeing it work. I mean, we’ve seen seven-figure, six-figure, five-figure gifts of all sizes are still being made. And not just to relief efforts, like to organizations that have any number of missions. The only commonality is that donor cared about that mission long before this all started. So there’s a relationship there and you can work people through this process and secure gifts, 100%.

Sarah Durham: I love that four stage process. And actually from a communications point of view, there’s something I would layer into it, I think dovetails into it. Now I’m going to bring up a couple of slides. This is actually from a talk I would have been giving at the AFP ICON conference that did not happen a few weeks ago. But, so from a communications point of view, and this is something that a few of you are asking about too, you know, in a communications or a marketing context we often talk about the ladder of engagement. And the ladder of engagement is the idea that you have to kind of chum the waters to get people who are unaware to come in, get to know your organization, and then convert them into becoming donors or supporters in other ways before they become advocates.

Sarah Durham: But when we’re talking about these major donors, larger donors, we’re focusing on the top of the ladder of engagement. We’re talking on — we’re talking about people asking for permission from people who probably know you already, you know, which is very different than let’s say an email acquisition campaign, which is reaching people at the bottom of the ladder of engagement. And as we move up towards the top of the ladder of engagement, who is communicating usually shifts from people in marketing and communications or development towards people who are major gifts officers or have, you know, senior level responsibility for solicitations. And the conversation shifts away from email or maybe a phone call to a lunch or an event or more intimate face-to-face settings. So, I think that it’s through those intimate conversations, which now are happening in Zoom or email, that we ask for the permission.

Sarah Durham: It’s — and I’m bringing this up in part because I had a conversation earlier this week with a fundraiser who said that they were — I said, have you been in touch with your donors? And they said, yeah, we’ve been emailing our donors. And I said, have you been emailing your major donors? Said, yeah, we’ve been checking in with them on email, they seem to be okay. To me, that’s a lost opportunity, right? Getting a major donor on the phone, getting them on Zoom, is going to give you all kinds of information about how they’re really doing and will help you determine if it is appropriate to, you know, to ask them for an additional gift or a new gift in a way that email won’t. So I wanted to underscore that, and that kind of relates to this question we got in from Lauren about… Lauren asks, “I’d like to hear your thoughts about making the jump from email communications with major gift prospects to qualification, discovery, cultivation calls, or Zoom sessions one-on-one in lieu of face-to-face.” So, I mean, I’ve sort of — that was my two cents about it, but Craig, how about you? What do you think?

Craig Shelley: Yeah, and I think the nice thing about what’s, if there’s any sort of upside of how we’ve all experienced this, people have gotten more accustomed to this, right? Like they can, things you would not have done over Zoom before this, you can do now, right? So we have, Lauren, we just worked with a donor this week. Organization, probably if not the largest gift they’ve ever solicited certainly, yeah, one of the three largest gifts they’ve ever solicited, it was teed up to happen like two weeks ago. We were supposed to meet in person and do it. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And finally we just said, this is stretching on, let’s see if she’ll meet over Zoom. We’ve gone through this whole process, we have permission to give, she said send me the proposal, you know. So we did all of those steps and we did that last step, which is the most important one, over Zoom. So, I think it’s fine. Now, how do you make the jump?

Craig Shelley: I’m trying to think if right now I would get on Zoom with someone I’d never — no, I would. No, I am definitely seeing people that have never spoken to me before, speak to me for the first time on Zoom. So, I think as long as you’re — that person has a relationship with your organization, right, they’ve been cultivated in other ways, you know, do I think complete strangers are likely to jump on Zoom right now? Maybe. But I would be, that seems more speculative. But if there’s some donor relationship, even if it hasn’t come to a face-to-face relationship before, I think suggesting, “I’d love to catch you up on what we’re doing. Would you mind if we set up a Zoom call, or name your video product that you’d like to use?” I think that’s fine. I also think the thing we’re seeing a lot of success with is inviting those types of donors that are sort of cultivated but you’ve never — you haven’t made the leap to a real relationship with yet, invite them to some sort of virtual town hall where you talk about what’s going on in your organization, it’s a webinar like this… People are skeptical that people will show up to stuff like this, but I would also print out, you know, you all showed up to this and so you probably have something far more interesting that your organization can offer. People will turn out, people will come. And again, even if it’s 15 people show up, those 15 people just raised their hand as super interested, right? So, now you know those are the people to keep an eye on. So, yes, try and make the leap to conversations on Zoom. I think it’s fine. I think it works. And you should do it.

Sarah Durham: So, we’ve just got about 10 more minutes left. I want to encourage anybody who has a question or a comment that they want to share, if it’s a question for us, please chat it in to us. Either using the chat or the Q&A feature. If you have a comment, you know, I think it could be interesting if you’re comfortable for you to chat in for everybody to see if you are maintaining the campaigns you have going on. Have you been soliciting on Zoom? Any experiences you’re having that you’re comfortable sharing with this group, I think it’s always great to hear from each other too. Craig, I have a followup question for you. That Zoom solicitation you recently did, how did it go? Did they make a gift?

Craig Shelley: Yeah, it went very well. She’s still considering between two different gift levels but I’m optimistic. She will definitely, I can almost guarantee she makes a gift. I can almost guarantee it’s larger than any gift she’s made before. And, yeah, it’s good. It went well. And it was, you know, the other side of it is like, is your CEO comfortable with this technology and things like — and again, those things have all evolved, so, yeah, I went very well.

Sarah Durham: That’s great. Okay, let’s see what other… I’m just looking to see if we have anything that’s universally applicable here. I don’t think we do.

Craig Shelley: Actually, Sarah, I have something I’m curious about. So as people are maybe changing the cadence of their campaign, I refuse to acknowledge that anyone is canceling or pausing their campaign, but if they’re changing the cadence in some way, how are you seeing people talk about that? Like, how do you communicate, you know, I’m in the middle of the public phase of my campaign, what should I be out there saying?

Sarah Durham: You know, well, I want to answer that question a little bit differently because what I’m seeing that’s happening has more to do with the strength and stability of a communications capacity in an organization than necessarily where the campaign is. And so, what I’m seeing is that organizations that have a very clear voice and are good at communicating about their work or good about communicating about their campaign have just been able to pivot so much faster in this moment. They have infrastructure, they already have messaging. They know how to write and communicate in a way that feels appropriate. The organizations that don’t are the ones that are really struggling. And, because I think right now what we’re seeing is so many organizations are layering on top of whatever they used to do, all kinds of new stuff. You know, adapting programs to be online, thinking about launching, you know, a major donor campaign where they never had one, or thinking about launching an email campaign where they never had one.

Sarah Durham: Anything you layer on creates additional layers of complexity. And if you don’t have a base of knowing how to communicate to begin with, you’re starting with a blank piece of paper every time. So to me, this is actually a moment that really, not that I needed to believe anymore in the power of an effective brand, but I see it coming to life in very real ways right now how much easier it is for that. I also do want to kind of elevate a dynamic that I think is very real this week that is important for everybody to be aware of, and particularly fundraisers who are talking to donors, is that for those of us who are in places like New York that have been on lockdown for longer, you know, we’ve been sheltering in place now in the Tristate area for over a month for many people, or about a month for many people, and we’ve now been told that it’s going to continue for an additional month at least… We’re getting to a point where people have shifted from freaking out or figuring it out to normalization and fatigue.

Sarah Durham: And there is a conversation that’s emerged over the past week, basically everywhere I’ve been, about how tired people are and how fatiguing it can be to be on Zoom all day and how much people are looking for ways to take care of themselves even as their organizations are asking them to step up and do more. And I think people understand that right now it’s so important to be present, show up, and work hard, but they’re also just fatigued and worn out. And I think we have to really also on a week-by-week basis adjust our communications. Not only with our donors but with our staff that in a way that are sensitive to that too, that you know, we might’ve actually had better conversations on Zoom a week or two ago when it was a novelty than we will have in the next couple of weeks when people are like, “Ugh, if I have to book one more Zoom meeting, you know, I’m going to go bonkers.” So, I think that’s another challenge that we’re going to have to navigate. And I think that it’s probably likely that the channels that you use with different people need to really be dialed into their level of fatigue. It looks like we got a couple of additional questions

Craig Shelley: We do. I think there’s a really good one here. Something along those lines too, Sarah, like, so the question here is, “Do you see missions of nonprofits shifting and evolving due to this pandemic? How do you message to communicate that shift in mission?” So, you’ve touched on a lot of that, but what else would you say on that subject?

Sarah Durham: You know, there was a really great article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy this week that, I can’t remember the…title of the piece, and you have to have a subscription to The Chronicle of Philanthropy to access it, their content is gated, but basically it was like a checklist of things you should do in your organization in response in a crisis moment. And the checklist begins with the vision and mission. It starts with is our vision still appropriate? Is our mission still relevant? Yes. No. Meh. And it kind of from there it flows down and there are a number of things in there that are about communications and messaging. But what I really appreciated about that article and what I think is so true now is that in my experience, you know, I have yet to talk to an organization whose mission is no longer relevant.

Sarah Durham: But I have talked to a number of organizations who have found that their level of visibility right now on either a local or a national stage has shifted, or their donors’ sense of the philanthropic priority of their mission has shifted. So as you said, right now, you know, a hospital may actually solicit gifts from people who wouldn’t have considered giving to a hospital before. But if you are an advocacy organization working in a particular area that’s related to some of the things coming up in the election, you might find you’re getting a lot less air time right now than you were three months ago. And I do think that you have to both in some cases shift your messaging, but I think in other cases you also have to… you have to modulate the volume of your communications. You have to, you know, dial it up or dial it down to be appropriate to the atmosphere you’re working in. Yeah —

Craig Shelley: Okay.

Sarah Durham: Well I was just going to ask you this question. Soliciting gifts from corporate contacts. Is there anything specific to corporate giving that we should keep in mind when we reach out to that group? And I think that’s an interesting question too because, you know, reaching somebody in a corporation is a little different than reaching somebody in their home as a donor. What do you think? Is it different?

Craig Shelley: I think it’s going to be different in a few ways. And I think it’s going to be different from company to company, but to me the biggest difference is, like, and we often forget this one because we allow ourselves to be persuaded that it’s not true, companies are in business to make money, they’re not in business to help us. They help us to the degree they think it will help them make more money, right? That’s the reality. A lot of them aren’t making much money right now. So, you know, I think they’re not feeling particularly generous. Now a lot have come out with huge initiatives that they’re going to put into specific COVID relief. So, those companies that have raised their hand and said, “Hey, we’re in, we’re going to double down. We’re going to give more money.” If you can fit somehow within what they’re talking about, go full steam ahead.

Craig Shelley: If you have an existing relationship, go full steam ahead. You know, they’re at home, they’re working just like you are, you can reach out, follow that same sort of trajectory. But outside those that are sort of getting into relief funds, I don’t know that this is a time to bring on a lot of new companies. And I would imagine, I don’t know this to be true, I don’t have a crystal ball, I think you’ll see corporate giving shrink a little bit, you know, just… and it has over time. Over time, it’s continued to sort of tighten. I think this will accelerate that tightening just a little bit more as companies struggle a little bit, you know. Again, there are some that are going to make a lot of money. I mean, I don’t know, the companies out there that, you know, are on the right side of this thing… I don’t know, DoorDash? Maybe DoorDash has probably taken off, right? But other companies certainly happen.

Sarah Durham: Great. I’m going to just drop my email address because we’re about at the top of the hour. I’m just chatting it out. If people have additional communications questions or they want to learn more about Big Duck or they want to learn more about Advomatic, you can feel free to email me directly. and have all the information about what we do, also a lot of great articles that are about communicating during this time and beyond, too. So, I’ll put those URLs in the chat. And I just got a question, “What was the name of the capital campaign document you’ve mentioned?” I think I chatted out a link to it earlier, it’s on the Big Duck website. If you go to and then you go to insights, there are whole bunch of ebooks and books and other resources there. One of them is an ebook on capital campaign communications. Yeah, that’s all I have.

Craig Shelley: Excellent. Well, I think, yeah, thank you everybody for joining. I would say, you know, if there’s any final thing I’d leave you with, you know, thank you, right? Fundraising is a really fairly lousy, tough, difficult job. I love it, but it’s tough, it’s difficult. Thank you for what you do. Now, more than ever, you’re going to make the world a better place and that’s appreciated. And same thing, reach out. You could find me, I put my email in there. You can find our website. Anything you need, you’ll get an email after this with a survey. Just, you know, if you want to give some feedback. If it’s bad feedback, keep it to yourself. No, just kidding, any feedback is appreciated. And we hope to see you all soon.

Sarah Durham: Thanks for having me, Craig. This has been fun

Craig Shelley: Thanks, this has been great. I appreciate it, everybody, talk to you all soon. Bye. Bye.

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