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Client Roundtable Discussion on the Path Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed every organization to work differently. On April 30, 2020, Benefactor Group hosted a virtual roundtable discussion for clients and friends on how to plan and operate over the next twelve to eighteen months. Leaders and staff from more than forty organizations joined the conversation.

Scenario planning for 2020 and beyond

Laura MacDonald, principal and founder of Benefactor Group, set the stage with lessons learned from past crises and some thoughts about what recovery might look like.

While fundraising revenue will likely decrease industry-wide as a result of the pandemic, a look at past crises shows that individual sectors were affected, and recovered, differently. Some sectors even saw an increase in giving in times of recession—human and health services saw a surge of giving as it drew attention for meeting the surging need.

In addition, during the Great Recession, corporate and foundation giving held fairly steady, while individual giving dropped; within five years, though, all sources and sectors had rebounded.

While we don’t yet know exactly how the COVID-19 crisis will play out over the next year, organizations need to plan for their “new normal,” or risk being caught unprepared. As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, “In planning for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Quarter-by-quarter scenario planning

Below is a quarter-by-quarter thought experiment— one consideration of how fundraising organizations might be affected as the US recovers from COVID-19. The graphic is based on information from several sources, including projections from the Congressional Business Office and scenarios developed by the Conference Board. This is a tool for nonprofits’ own thoughtful scenario planning, a guide that should be adapted to your own situation—not a crystal ball.

the best case for nonprofit scenario planning.

This graphic assumes that the remainder of this quarter will likely continue much as it began – employees will work from home where possible, and nonprofits will run virtual events and visit donors with the help of technology. The economy will remain unstable, and nonprofits and businesses will continue to need CARES Act resources. It also assumes an optimistic medical outlook – with a breakthrough in early 2021 that speeds recovery.

Looking ahead, nonprofits will need to plan for a gradual recovery, taking into account possible setbacks if COVID-19 cases spike again. Fundraising targets will need to be revised frequently, based on conversations with donors and economic recovery.

Overall, nonprofits will need to revisit their scenario planning on a semi-regular basis and keep an open mind about challenges and opportunities.

New tactics for fundraising under the threat of COVID-19

Following Laura’s introduction, roundtable participants joined breakout rooms to discuss specific tactics—lively conversations in which participants shared successes and sought advice. Key takeaways are below.

Alternatives to in-person fundraising events

Large, in-person gatherings will likely not happen for a while – months at least, and perhaps not until a vaccine is available.

  • This is an opportunity for trial and error, reinvention, innovation. Your loyal supporters understand—they really just want to see you! We are in a forgiving moment right now. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
  • Always have a “Plan A” and “Plan B.”
  • Include your constituents in developing and refining the events – gather feedback from your constituents via calls, online surveys, etc.  
  • Volunteer leaders and influencers matter now more than ever to ensure attendance and engagement.
  • Many technology options are available – OneCause, Classy, SquareSpace, Greater Giving, Instagram fundraising, Lights On, etc. These options improve every day.

Strategies for conversations with major donors

At this point, most fundraisers have completed wellness checks with their donors, with successful outcomes. What’s next?

  • Start with the right perspective – put yourself in your donors’ shoes. What would you want to learn, hear, or receive? 
  • Bring donors into your planning process as you pivot to more traditional cultivation – ask them for advice about when and how to broach the topic of major gifts with them and other donors. Ask them what would be the most meaningful way for them to help make a difference to your organization. Listen for cues that will prompt you to go back for a follow-up conversation.
  • Give them varied options to connect with you – offer a menu of different ways to engage and interact. 
  • Share the many voices of your organization – experiment with messages from employees, the CFO, etc., and share the impact this time is having on your organization
  • Speak directly to the donor – create a special video message for each major donor, rather than a one-size-fits-all communication.  

Managing the team

With so much uncertainty, managing teams is more complex than ever.

  • Metrics and KPI must evolve to measure current events and to help people do their best work. Fundraising targets may go out the window, but fundraisers’ jobs haven’t changed: creating meaningful relationships that result in support for organizations. Adapt contact records to include the medium (phone, mail, text, in-person, video) and whether contacts are substantive. 
  • A decentralized staff makes centralized data even more important. If you have a high-performing system where goals are tracked centrally and reports are connected to the SSOT (Sole Source of Truth), then it will flex to the new measures. If not, consider this the right time to create that system. 
  • Plan your moves with your donors. Have conversations with the gift officers about each prospect. Go person by person—take a guess as to how the opportunity will progress. Track it in the system.  A “C+ guess” is better than an “A+ nothing.“
  • Returning to work may mean continued work from home, especially if it increases productivity. Those who require quiet space (think accounting, grant writers) have taken to remote work. Gift officers should be out of the office anyway, and this period can help reinforce that culture. However, remote work is not for everyone. For creative organizations, being together and feeding off each other’s energy can be essential to their effectiveness. 

Stay tuned for the next Benefactor Group webinar

Benefactor Group will continue to do client round tables in a similar format. The topics will be responsive based on feedback from our clients and colleagues. We appreciate your time with us, and we look forward to the next virtual gathering. Stay tuned!

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