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More Crisis Fundraising, or 'Now what do I do?'

Earlier this week, GG+A’s leadership put out a statement addressing the protests happening across our country in response to the murder of George Floyd and the fragile moment in which we find ourselves. Our nation has faced pandemics, economic collapse, and massive protests before. But never simultaneously.

So as a firm dedicated to supporting and serving nonprofits, we feel a deep responsibility to communicate our values and to redouble our commitment to the public good work that our clients carry out every day. As part of that commitment, we now offer some guidance to help fundraisers move forward in what has become an increasingly uncertain time in our history.

A preface

It’s important to know that I had vigorous debate with my colleagues as I wrote this piece. We considered numerous approaches, but in the end appreciated that our expertise is in fundraising and decidedly not in issues of racism and social justice. We will leave those topics to those much better suited to address them. In the end, we are taking our own advice: stick to what you know best.

We understand that many leaders and fundraisers in the U.S. may be overwhelmed—this is hard stuff we are dealing with right now. It can be difficult to know what to do and say and in what order, and how to ask donors for funding amid the crises. Indeed, there may be disagreement within your organization on how to proceed with fundraising. What we know is that your core work of building relationships, keeping donors engaged, and asking for money to fuel your mission to create good in the world, must continue.

So, in this difficult moment for our nation, the message we offer you is: keep doing what you do best. Your institutions embody the optimism the nation needs right now and that is critical to our recovery. Whether it is through discoveries in science and medicine, creative expression that provides solace or fosters understanding, or education that lifts lives and sparks innovation and growth, your mission matters.

Those who lead and raise money for universities, museums, schools, performing art companies, and hospitals have a responsibility to maximize philanthropy to secure their institution’s future.

Four action steps

To help you focus work in the coming days and weeks, we offer four guideposts. If you have been following GG+A’s work during the COVID crisis, these will be familiar tenets. But they bear repeating, especially in times of such unrest.

1. Define your value. A clear articulation of your institution’s mission, value, and impact (on your constituents and on the larger community) will help sharpen your message and ensure it is relevant, positive, and future-focused. Avoid appearing out-of-touch by centering your messages on what you deliver to audiences and how you improve lives, rather than on institutional need.

This is a time to gain strength from your mission–both internally and externally. In our experience, nearly everyone who works at a nonprofit is passionate about the mission. Listening to staff concerns and reminding them of the importance of their work can boost morale and spur dialogue and collaboration to effect positive change within your organization.

Externally, your stakeholders believe in you and are invested in your success. Echoing your value inspires their loyalty and confidence in your future. Reflecting on my own experiences, I draw lessons for today from 9/11. On that fateful day, I was a fundraiser at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and in charge of donor communications. At a time of such tragedy, it was difficult to know what to say to our audiences. Our mission led the way. It helped to underscore that in such times of deep crisis, the role of institutions like ours becomes more important. Our messaging inspired people to view the Met as a place of renewal essential to the municipal and national recovery. The same is true now, for each and every one of your organizations.

2. Engage your donors. Fundraisers have had to pivot to a digital environment and find new ways to connect with and engage donors. Keep doing this work, and keep thinking creatively. Were your donors grateful for the check-in phone calls you made when COVID-19 struck? Make another round of calls now. Encourage clear and thoughtful dialogue, listen with compassion, and acknowledge institutional challenges. Invite deep conversation by asking for insights on the tough issues: for example, what do they see other organizations doing to create more inclusive structures, and what steps can your institution take that would make them proud?

Communicate with donors in those cities most affected by violence.

Communicate with donors in those cities most affected by violence. A colleague shared that she worked at West Point when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. Their fundraising team mobilized to reach out to Houston-area donors. Other West Point graduates stepped forward to offer housing and other resources to those in need. Those combined efforts have created a community that remains closely connected to the Academy through both volunteer efforts and donor support.

Recognize that frontline fundraisers and leadership may have to navigate difficult conversations, however. We have all been put in that uncomfortable position during a donor lunch of listening to points of view that diverge with our own. Provide leadership, volunteers, and staff with clear, balanced talking points to help them keep the conversation focused on the institution during those moments. Include points of pride for the donor.

And when the time is right, ask for gifts—with permission. You will enter the conversation with confidence if you have made your business case, articulated a compelling and positive message, and outlined a funding priority that is relevant and mission-driven.

3. Postpone, don’t cancel. We understand that many organizations have scheduled fundraising appeals ready to send this week or next. Consider your local and national context in the coming weeks to determine the right timing, and the right messaging. But in no instance do we recommend cancelling them. In fact, a number of nonprofits have experienced tremendous growth in their fundraising appeals this spring—demonstrating the value of their organization in their donors’ lives, especially during difficult times.

If you have virtual events scheduled, you may consider postponing depending on the program content. For example, we know that several virtual galas planned for this week have been cancelled. But if you can pivot content to remain relevant and the event will provide your audience with relief, joy, or a platform for robust discussion, you may decide to proceed with an event that engages donors fully in your mission and the positive change you bring to the world. Even if the event is not focused on racism or social inequities, or on a response to COVID-19, acknowledge the reality in which we live before shifting the program to the topic at hand.

4. Plan for diversity. While the broad issues of diversity and inclusion fall outside our expertise at GG+A, we know that it is important to bring different perspectives to the table—perspectives that reflect our society as a whole and enrich the dialogue. There is a compelling body of evidence that shows groups with diverse perspectives make stronger decisions, which lead to better outcomes. Our institutions should reflect this.

Focus on what you can control. Make an actionable plan to build diversity within your fundraising team.

As an advancement leader, you may have little control over institution-wide policies. Focus on what you can control. Make an actionable plan to build diversity within your fundraising team. Engage experts to ensure you are asking the right questions, not reinforcing stereotypes, and building candidate pools that meet your aspirational goals. Some fundraisers may also be able to influence a plan for the Board. This may include a strategy for ensuring that Boards represent a diversity of experiences and opinions, that representatives of the organization’s constituents are engaged in developing policies, and that outside experts are invited to weigh in on programmatic changes.

Evaluate your donor programming and recognition vehicles to ensure that long-standing policies and procedures are still relevant today. For example, we have seen some organizations shift volunteer and donor recognition events from lunches, which may require people to miss work, to weekend or evening events that are family-friendly and help to remove barriers to attendance. In the coming weeks, GG+A will be gathering what we see as best-in-class examples across sectors and will share them on our website.

Finally, take time to pause and reflect. Allow your staff that time as well. The health and economic crisis laid bare the need for many nonprofits to radically shift their financial models. Fundraising will be more important than ever in the new model, and you and your team must be ready to innovate and collaborate, to build additional and stronger relationships, and to ask for larger and larger gifts than ever before.

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About the author

Chris Begley

Senior Vice President

Chris Begley, Senior Vice President, has spent her career advancing prestigious arts institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Academy in Rome. Chris joined GG+A to bring her deep museum experience to a wide variety of arts and culture clients. She enjoys collaborating with clients to find…