Immediate Actions for Fundraising Through a Health Crisis

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

We have fundraised through the HIV/AIDS pandemic, through resurgences of tuberculosis and its drug resistant strains, and the often hidden Hepatitis-C, not to mention a long list of childhood genetic impairments.

We must do the same now.

In the face of the novel coronavirus, now officially declared a pandemic, social distancing is already breaking down the safety net for nonprofits that rely on volunteers. Further, if your nonprofit relies on client fees, you may lose revenue tied to serving clients who are backing away from attending trainings, screenings, meals, etc. Human contact is the lifeblood of so many health and human-services and arts and culture organizations, essential not just to deliver services but to generate revenue to survive. We must introduce innovative ways to connect and to manage and avoid social distancing.

Here are immediate actions I urge you to take.

Define Your Recovery Fund: In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, New York foundations (Ford, New York Community Trust, and the United Way) mobilized with national funders (Kresge, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Prudential, and U.S. Trust) to set up the New York Recovery Fund. The fund, run by Nonprofit Finance Fund, channeled crucial grants to affected nonprofits, with a rapid turnaround and quick assessment to determine what losses resulted directly from service disruptions after the terrorist attack. The Robin Hood Foundation had their own impressive initiative. Many nonprofits were able to bounce back only because of this support.

Here’s what to do now.

You must immediately call for such a fund to be created in your community. You will likely need recovery funds to counteract social distancing and to replace lost revenue. These funds will be needed especially for organizations on the front line of health care. While hospitals come to mind, it’s more likely that community health centers need more support.

Assessment: You must make your nonprofit’s needs, or projected needs, abundantly clear to your local and national funders, by specifying exactly what you need to thrive, and what losses you may face. Involve your whole staff and board in this exercise. Move with speed and accuracy. It does not have to be a perfect assessment.

Action: Once you’ve done that, then call your funders and start talking about what you need. Write them, ask for a video conference to discuss the matters, coordinate with your colleagues at other nonprofits so they too take this preparatory exercise seriously. (Share this blog post with them.) Your needs will not be met unless you know what they are, even if it’s a projection, and communicate that news.

A one-page document is sufficient. I’d be glad to look at your drafts and give you feedback if you’d like to share them with me. This assessment can also form the basis for a direct mail/email appeal.

Your Gala: Using the assessment of your recovery fund needs, immediately recast the way you think about your Gala or fundraising events. You likely think of your Gala as a specific date event. That won’t work anymore. Instead, think of it just like election day, there are things that lead up to it, and things that happen after it. Yes, the date still needs to be set, but you should not rely on the event itself to raise the funds because your attendance is likely to be poor.

Instead, boost the lead-up time to the event ten days out, and pepper that lead time with well-done online video solicitations that lead to an online paddle raiser the day before. A Paddle Raiser is a simple fundraising tool during which you ask the members of your virtual audience to “raise their paddles” to donate. They’re not buying anything, not receiving anything (except a tax deduction), instead they’re giving your nonprofit the money it needs to achieve its mission. And this is the good stuff,  unrestricted donations to support your general operations. Our colleagues have many ideas about how to execute on this strategy.

Secondly, prohibitions around gathering for large events may not be a bad thing. If the gala is your primary fundraiser, most of us know that they can be a poor substitute to developing long and enduring relationships with potential major donors. This is a chance to go visit more donors 1-on-1, or have video conferences with them. Crisis always hold the opportunity to breed innovation.

Legacy Giving: Do not think me moribund; but at times like these we all ponder our mortality and donors need to hear from you about how they can help you should they leave this earth. Here is a vital read about how to approach your donors now to secure planned gifts.

My fundraising colleague Rodney Walker says that “Some people wish things were better, others make them better.” Which path are you choosing?


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