2021 has arrived! Finally.
If you’re like me, there were days you thought we’d never get here.
The past year was hard, maddening, and at times traumatic. And the difficulty lasted much longer than any of us expected.
Yet, when chaos and disruption become the norm, we have to recognize the value of surviving. Maybe we didn’t all thrive in 2020, but we’re still here—doing good work on behalf of good organizations. And that’s something.
Hopefully we learned some things too.
Surviving 2020 (and early 2021)
When lockdowns began last March, my team embraced a threefold mantra:
- We are not going to stop communicating with and caring for our donors
- We are going to be honest and transparent about how the pandemic is impacting our organization and the constituents we serve
- We are going to ask donors, with all appropriate sensitivity, to continue supporting our mission
Pretty simple stuff. But it was the right stuff.
It would have been much easier to crawl in a hole—and to make assumptions. People don’t want to hear from us right now. Our donors have bigger problems to worry about. Nobody is going to give right now.
I’m glad we didn’t take that approach.
Yes, some people had to put their charitable giving on hold. But philanthropists didn’t stop being philanthropists. Some gave more generously than they ever had before.
Even #GivingTuesday saw a 25% increasing in giving in 2020. As it turns out, people like to rise to the occasion during a crisis and hear about concrete ways they can help. We saw this at our organization.
And we didn’t abandon those having a difficult time. Even now we continue to check in to ask how they’re doing and see if there’s anything we can help with. People remember who stuck by them in a crisis. I’m confident that the goodwill we’ve built up during this season will be worth it in the long run. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.
If we had thrown up our hands and stopped communicating with our donors, we wouldn’t have known who was ready to help us and who needed our help.
We also didn’t stop asking.
We pivoted our traditional gala to a virtual event in May and raised 40% more. Here again, we were honest and transparent about how the pandemic was impacting our constituents. And we gave our donors a relevant opportunity to respond to the crisis.
We’ve also seen our most generous benefactors increase their support for operations by significant margins. This is important during a season when we know that fewer people are going to be able to support our work.
All of this was yet another reminder that fundraising is all about relationships and it’s important to play the long game.
Our team has also learned some technical skills. I hope your team has as well. Think Zoom will go away post-pandemic? It won’t. And that’s a good thing for fundraisers. It’s another tool in our tool belt.
And many non-profits have learned how to take in-person events online. I just shared our story. Virtual events open up the potential for new and broader audiences, all for much less expense. Let’s not be so quick to go back to the old way of doing things.
So where does that leave us for 2021?
Well, we’re not out of the woods yet. Vaccine progress is promising, but we have some time left before the world is fully reopened again.
And the business climate? The stock market is back and better than ever, but many small businesses are struggling or have closed. Nobody truly knows what 2021 will bring.
In short, we need to stay the course, but also prepare for reopening. We need to continue to stay in touch with our donors, check in, stay friendly, stay top of mind. And we need to keep taking care of people to the extent we can.
We also need to stay in touch with our donors to prepare them for post-COVID life at our organizations.
Believe me, when things reopen, it’s going to be a party. Imagine all the pent-up energy of this period just exploding. People are going to want to get together and do things they haven’t been able to do since last March. If you haven’t been in touch with your donors for months, a year, longer…good luck getting their attention when things reopen.
Preparing for Reopening
So how are you preparing your constituents now for reopening? Consider putting the following on your reopening preparedness check-list:
- Special stewardship for those who supported you during a difficult season.
- Articulated plan for transitioning from crisis mode to being able to focus again on your future.
- Communication and outreach strategy for getting your donors excited about your post-COVID future.
Maybe you need a reopening task force? Or a post-COVID roundtable conversation? Something to engage your best supporters and get them excited about what comes next.
Whatever reopening will look like for your organization, you have to be thinking about it now. If you wait until after things actually reopen, you’ll be behind. And it will be much harder to get people’s attention.
What else? Well, we’ve said it before…
Zoom is not Going Away
One commentator wrote that 10 years of technology adoption happened in about six months thanks to the pandemic. Video conferencing is mainstream now. And this has implications for our work as fundraisers, particularly in the area of major gifts. We need to consider how this might actually be an advantage for us.
Face-to-face interaction is so important to our work. That will never change. But it takes so much energy and effort to get to those face-to-face conversations. Our prospects/donors are busy; it can be hard to get schedules to line up for in person visits. Video conferencing is an opportunity for us and we’re just scratching the surface.
So, embrace it.
Take a both/and approach to the technology instead of either/or. Adding a new tool or skill doesn’t mean you scrap everything that has made you a successful fundraiser up to this point.
Here are some ways you can incorporate video conferencing/chatting into your day-to-day work:
- Discovery and Qualification: I still prefer a 30 minute “get to know you” office visit for first meetings with prospects I’ve never met. But not everyone is immediately comfortable with an office drop-by, let alone lunch or coffee with a stranger. And what about prospects who are constantly on the road or don’t have an office? For these folks, a 20-minute Zoom meet-and-greet could be a much easier way to get started.
- Cultivation: Video chats are a great way to check in and provide updates. You can also use them to make introductions that might otherwise be logistically challenging.
- Solicitation: For ask meetings and/or proposal presentations, in person is still preferable. But you can do these over Zoom! (And depending where you’re based, you may need to for months still to come.) Video conferencing is also great for follow-up conversations. It makes it easy to clarify details, provide more information, or loop in other parties (like attorneys or CPAs) who may be part of the process.
- Stewardship: Zoom, WebEx, etc. are excellent tools for donor stewardship. They make show-and-tell presentations easy. They also offer a convenient way to involve others (program staff, philanthropic beneficiaries, etc.) in the thanking process.
Zoom and its equivalents are also going to remain powerful tools for volunteer management and small group cultivation.
Even pre-pandemic it was getting harder and harder to get people out to events. Particularly if, like me, you’re based in a large metro area with lots of traffic!
Organizations would do well to trim the number of events and in-person volunteer gatherings they host. That would allow them to focus on a select few that are truly special and/or add extraordinary value. Everything else can happing via video conferencing.
Take small group cultivation for example…
In the “before times,” I had to reach out to 25-30 couples just to get 7-8 together for a small reception with our chief executive. For a recent Zoom equivalent, I only had to reach out to 14 to get 11. Roughly half the work to cultivate/steward more donors!
Now, I will concede that things are still pretty locked down and people have less to do at the moment. The point though: Zoom can make staying in touch easier for our always-busy donors.
Consider how you might use Zoom in the months ahead to organize small-group cultivation opportunities. Here are few ideas:
- Convene a roundtable conversation around a particular topic or area of interest. Invite a group of donors and/or prospects to take part in a discussion with your chief executive, a subject-area expert, or a dynamic member of your program staff.
- Host a meet-and-greet that offers new higher-level donors an opportunity to meet a few members of your board.
- Organize an investor relations-style update for donors of a certain amount. Perhaps you can focus on those who share an interest in a particular area of your organization.
You can, of course, use Zoom for larger events too, like virtual town hall meetings or other presentations.
Still need to get caught up on the basics of the technology? That’s OK! Here are some helpful links to get you started:
- Basic video meeting etiquette
- Best at-home lighting and set-up for any budget
- More advanced Zoom features and ideas
The Future of Events
This past year, many organizations were forced to cancel or at least re-envision fundraising events, including large galas. That was certainly true for my organization. And many, like us, ended up engaging more people, and raising more money overall because of lower event costs.
Now, it’s unlikely that virtual events will ever become a permanent replacement for well-established galas and other fundraisers. It’s still fun to bring a lot of people together for a good cause and show them a good time! And, in all honesty, recent successes with virtual events likely have something to do with people being stuck at home and other pandemic-specific factors that may never be repeated in our lifetimes.
So, we can’t expect the same results after things open back up and the crisis has passed. There are, however, some lessons learned from virtual events that I think are worth considering.
In particular, I believe hybrid events are the way of the future. Events are an important part of the culture at many non-profits and some have galas that still work. (Many galas should be shut down, don’t get me wrong, but those aren’t the ones I’m talking about here.)
But now we need to consider galas that also incorporate live-streaming. Live-streaming technology is pretty good. Pre-pandemic, I had no idea how easy it is to produce live video content and deliver it to any device anywhere.
What if there were multiple ways to experience your gala—in person, or from the comfort of your living room? Not everybody likes galas, but they may still want to support your cause. Others, of course, love the charity event experience and need to be wined, dined, and entertained.
An online viewing and participation option with no ticket price is also a way to make fundraising events more inclusive. We had 850 attend our virtual fundraiser. Typically, no more than 550 will pay to attend our gala. Technology not only enables people to view from home, but they can also bid on auction items from the comfort of their couches. And raise their (virtual) paddles (on their smartphones) during fund-a-need opportunities.
As fundraisers, we know how much time and energy can go into not only producing great events, but also getting people to them. I think the rate of technology adoption we’ve seen (even among older adults!) is cause for an increase in hybrid events. There can be an in-person component for those able to make it and a live-streamed option for those unable to attend or preferring to stay at home.
Although 2021 looks a lot like 2020 so far, it won’t end the same way. At some point between now and December things will reopen, gradually at first, but then all at once. Are you ready? Are you getting your community of supporters ready?
And, of course, let’s not forget the timeless fundamentals of fundraising. Philanthropy that truly moves the needle almost always has its origins in relationships. That’s what we’re really talking about here.
Three key questions for you to answer as you embark on this new year:
- How are you building and maintaining relationships now with maximum honesty, transparency, and sensitivity?
- How are you preparing those relationships for what comes next at your organization?
- How are you going to apply what you learned in 2020? How can technology help you connect more people to your mission and forge deeper donor relationships in 2021?
Best of luck to you in the year ahead! I’d love to hear about your lessons learned and plans going forward. Please leave a comment below.