Nonprofit executives can help us make sense of this uncertain moment

COVID-19-related news is producing tremendous uncertainty. There’s so much information flowing at us in real time that it is difficult to process it all.

The opportunity calls for nonprofit presidents and CEOs to do what they do best: lead.

Over the last few weeks, our leaders have had to look after the health and welfare of their constituents, including their staff, students, alumni, faculty, curators, musicians and artists. At the same time, they have the responsibility to work with their peers in their own sectors, each of which is experiencing extraordinary dislocation.

The current moment calls for executives to communicate clear messages to each of those constituencies, as well as donors and volunteers. Those messages should be designed to comfort, offer perspective and direction and help make some sense of this moment.

As advancement professionals, here are three areas that we should encourage them to focus on.

Engage top donors

Presidents and CEOs should use this opportunity to reach out to their top donors for peer-to-peer, or CEO-to-CEO, conversations.

These can be mutually beneficial dialogues that help participants learn how others are attempting to lead their organizations through these extraordinary circumstances. As peers, they can share their concerns in confidence and draw from each other’s expertise.

While we often only share the good news in fear that donors will abandon us if there are problems, many top donors and volunteers feel more connected and valued when we engage them in the real issues that affect our institutions. Increasingly, donors want to understand how leaders think, manage and respond to challenges before they make significant investments in our institutions.

These one-on-one interactions are an opportunity for CEOs and presidents to demonstrate their leadership. The exchanges can give donors confidence in the institution that may ultimately help it advance the organization’s mission.

Communicate to select volunteer and donor audiences

Leaders should also look to communicate with other key constituencies. For example, they may begin holding more frequent calls or videoconferences with campaign committees or other volunteer groups to personally brief them on the pandemic’s impact on their institution and the steps they are taking to address them. The meetings should invite participants to pose questions and engage in a back-and-forth with senior leadership.

While campaign or fundraising goals and objectives remain relevant, this is an opportunity for our leaders to deepen the connections with our most ardent supporters and allow them to become more effective ambassadors.

Regular written communications from CEOs and presidents to select donor populations can provide insider access to the latest developments, issues and decisions that leaders are making.

It’s important whether in group meetings or written communications to express empathy by sharing personal stories of how the institution’s people and programs are responding to events around them. For example, they may share details from a grateful parent’s letter, a conversation with a medical researcher or an example of creative inspiration from an artist.

Encourage internal partners to communicate the impact of donors’ gifts

While the current uncertainty may slow gift conversations in the short term, CEOs and presidents can use this time to ensure their institutions are effective stewards of their donors.

Institutions are typically effective at thanking their donors. But they often fail to communicate the value of those contributions to the organization. According to studies from DX—GG+A’s SurveyLab Donor Experience Dashboard—74% of donors surveyed were satisfied with the acknowledgements and recognition they received for their gifts, but only 45% reported understanding the impact of their giving at the institutions.

Often the responsibility for demonstrating a gift’s impact falls to the people–deans, students, curators and program directors–who directly benefit from philanthropy. And they often fall short. Leaders can send a strong message to all internal constituents that we must be good stewards.

Institutions can take a systematic approach to bolstering their stewardship efforts by asking the beneficiaries to conduct an inventory of their gift funds to ensure the institution is fulfilling the donor’s intent. This type of initiative builds on itself and can lead to long-term gains by improving donor satisfaction. It also helps build a sense of connectedness within our communities.

This is a unique time that offers presidents and CEOs an opportunity to do the work that may not always get the attention it deserves. But engaging with top donors, evangelizing the institution’s purpose and pushing staff to do internal housekeeping can lay a strong foundation for long-term success. Once this current situation passes—and it will pass—those executives may find themselves in a stronger situation than they were before the pandemic hit.


If you need help developing a messaging strategy, please contact Pete Lasher at plasher@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Pete Lasher

Senior Vice President

Pete Lasher, Senior Vice President and Higher Education Practice Leader, brings more than 30 years of successful fundraising experience, including leadership of five separate billion-dollar capital campaigns at private and public institutions in the US. As GG+A’s higher education practice senior leader, he currently advises universities in North America and…