COVID-19 and annual giving: 7 keys to continuity

I’ve spent the past week reaching out to my annual giving clients past and present to learn how they are weathering the current COVID-19 crisis. Most institutions have significantly adjusted their annual giving plans.

Here’s how they have adapted their efforts:

  • Most institutions have cancelled telephone fundraising to safeguard the health of their fundraising teams or volunteers.
  • Most, but not all, have cancelled reunions, cultivation events, and committee meetings that were set to take place between now and the end of June.
  • Some have made the decision to postpone or cancel Giving Days, while some are moving ahead with modified messages that are in line with the unprecedented nature of these times.
  • All are asking themselves questions about email solicitations, direct mail, and social media. To which countries should we send mail or email? Which countries should we avoid?

Annual giving best practices in the midst of a crisis

All institutions have had to rethink their approach to annual giving efforts in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. After all, the pandemic poses both public health and economic threats. During the midst of the 2008 Great Recession, total charitable giving dropped by 3.68%. The following year, it fell by 8.29%.

As fundraisers, we need to be prepared and proactive in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead. Based on my conversations with colleagues and my experience dealing with the Great Recession, here are seven keys to maintaining annual giving during a public health and economic crisis:

1. Develop a COVID-19 impact assessment for annual giving.

The plan should help you and your senior leadership understand the effect of decisions around activity. You should frame the impact in terms of the key metric that is important for your institution. For some, it will be revenue, for others it will be alumni participation in giving. The assessment doesn’t need to be lengthy to be effective. For example, Appalachian State University’s is only two pages long but covers all the potential revenue and donor impacts, broken out by channel (such as telephone, direct mail and email) and in terms of proposed changes to annual giving events and other activities.

2. Do not second-guess your donors.

Let donors make the choice around when they give.

When making the decision to pause or cancel solicitations, it is tempting to proceed from the unspoken assumption that fundraising is an unwelcome thing that donors will tolerate under normal circumstances but won’t when circumstances change. This mindset does a disservice to both your donors and your institution. Depriving donors of the opportunity to give to you may be depriving them of a chance to do something meaningful at a time when they may be feeling powerless in other areas of their lives. Let donors make the choice around when they give.

For example, McGill University in Canada pressed on with its Giving Day on March 11, and 5,370 donors contributed $2.96 million, a 25.5% increase from 2019. Those gains suggest that the institution successfully demonstrated the importance of supporting the university.

3. Remember your mission.

My colleague Melinda Church emphasized this point in her post last week. Your focus may be on securing needed revenue or increasing participation numbers—but these aren’t the reasons your donors give to you. They give because of the impact of their gifts. One of my higher education clients is highlighting how its campus provides a safe space for students who do not currently have a home to go to due to family circumstances.

In a recent GG+A survey, several of our education clients noted a spike in donor interest around scholarships and other means of student support. Some of our academic medicine clients are focusing on vital equipment, such as masks and other supplies, that are needed by their health care teams to treat patients.

What do annual gifts make possible at your institution? Consider where they will be called for most, as we move through and out of this crisis. Perhaps academic leaders will need more discretionary funds to help the students in their care. If so, include those details in your messaging efforts. Will CEOs need resources to help with patient assistance or developing vaccines? Will arts and cultural organizations offer emergency support for the artists in their community? If your institution has been playing a part in the response to this crisis, be sure to highlight those efforts in your communications.

4. Remember the purpose of annual giving programs.

If you do not give last year’s donors enough opportunities to give again this year, and they miss a year of giving, their behaviour will be radically different. We know that if we follow best practices, we should be able to renew at least two-thirds of last year’s donors (or members, for cultural institutions). However, as soon as someone skips a year of giving, the chances of recovering him or her as a donor drop to 1 in 5 (20%). If the donor then skips another year, the chances of recovering him or her drop to less than 1 in 10 (10%). You should point out the likely impact of this to your program in your COVID-19 impact assessment.

5. Look into running more online fundraising activity, rather than less.

This may seem counterintuitive. However, those institutions pressing ahead with Giving Days, like McGill, are not seeing a falloff in results. Perhaps you should investigate the possibility of running more targeted days of giving, rather than fewer. Remember that matching gifts—in addition to offering a great way to ensure the success of a Giving Day—also help engage major donor prospects, who will see immediate impact from their contributions.

Has your institution signed up for the fundraising tools offered by many social media platforms? If not, now would be a good time to consider it. Giving via these channels has more than doubled over the last three years, with over $2 billion given since 2015 and at least $1 billion in 2019 alone. They allow you to run quick-response fundraising, but also permit you to promote such tactics as alumni running birthday fundraisers on your behalf. You know all your alumni’s birthdays—so why not set up a program of asking them six weeks to a month in advance?

6. Be sensitive to people’s circumstances

In all of this, we should not forget that people are experiencing uncertainty and hardship, and we should message to it. One of my clients is sending a pre-email in advance of its high-value mailing to ensure that it is not a surprise when it drops on doorsteps next week. But it has not cancelled the mailing.

7. Up your stewardship game.

As donors continue to give amid the uncertainty and worry around them, we should be careful to tell them how much we appreciate them right now. Review all your acknowledgement letters to ensure they are thanking donors appropriately. If you know acknowledgements will be delayed because of a change in your gift processing arrangements, try to have an email process in place to thank donors more quickly.

Above all, be brave, and keep offering donors opportunities to give. If we believe that giving is a force for good, now more than ever is the time to stand by that belief.


If you need assistance adjusting your annual giving plans, please contact Adrian Salmon at asalmon@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Adrian Salmon

Vice President

Adrian Salmon, Vice President, GG+A Europe, brings 25 years of direct-marketing fundraising experience in the higher education, arts and culture, and wider nonprofit spheres. His particular expertise includes digital engagement and stewardship, direct mail fundraising, annual giving program management, and management of contributions from integrated mail and online appeals. Before…