Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My: Fundraising in Times of Crisis

As I’m writing this, Hurricane Florence is barreling toward North Carolina. Watching the news reports, I’m reminded that the best way to weather a storm is to prepare before one strikes. The tragic situation in the southeastern US can serve as a metaphor for coping with any type of crisis, even for the nonprofit sector.

The best way to deal with a crisis is to prepare for one before one strikes. 

Guest blogger Sophie W. Penney, PhD is a big believer in that axiom. Sophie is President of i5 Fundraising and Senior Program Coordinator/Lecturer for the Penn State University Certificate Program in Fundraising Leadership. As the co-editor and chapter author of the soon-to-be-released book, Student Affairs Fundraising, Raising Funds to Raise the Bar, Sophie will be sharing her insights at the CT Alliance 2018 Conference on October 2, 2018 where she will present a session about leading through challenging times, Lions, Tigers and Bears: Leading Through Crisis.

A crisis can affect any type of organization. The nonprofit sector is not immune. As I point out in “What is the Most Important Thing You Can Learn from Recent Nonprofit Scandals?” there are three broad types of scandals or crises: 1) self-inflicted scandals beyond your control, 2) self-inflicted scandals you could have avoided, and 3) guilt-by-similarity scandal.

I’m grateful to Sophie for her willingness to share with us a few tidbits from her upcoming presentation that will help us all become better prepared to weather any scandal or crisis as we continue to strive to raise more money:


Michael Rosen’s recent blog post, “The Dark Side of the Fundraising Profession,” was a clarion call to fundraisers. The piece served as a reminder that a profession designed to bring joy and result in great good can be fraught with challenges.

Fundraisers are pressed to raise ever-larger sums (and the sooner the better); as a result, it can be compelling to focus on fundraising tips, tools, and techniques that will bring in ever-bigger dollars. Yet a crisis, particularly legal or ethical in nature, can derail fundraising not only for a fiscal year, but for far longer.

Fundraising in times of crisis hit home for me in 2011 with the advent of the Jerry Sandusky Scandal. This child sexual abuse scandal toppled the Penn State University President, resulted in the abrupt firing of the University’s revered football coach, led to the sale of a nonprofit founded to serve the very types of children who became victims, and rocked a small community previously known as “Happy Valley.” What’s more, the scandal came to light in the midst of the University’s billion-dollar capital campaign, which was on the verge of going into a public phase. Yet, the Sandusky Scandal is just one of many such crises to rock the nonprofit world:

The list goes on and on; other nonprofits, small and large, have experienced crises of some form. It’s why as lead co-editor of a new book about fundraising for student affairs that I wrote a chapter about legal and ethical issues and invited another professional to write a chapter about fundraising in times of adversity (Student Affairs Fundraising, Raising Funds to Raise the Bar, anticipated release Spring 2019, NASPA). We also include a lesson about legal and ethical issues in Penn State’s all online Certificate Program in Fundraising Leadership.

Following are some lessons one might learn from the book chapter or LA 802 Fundraising Leadership II: Achieving Success:

  1. Be able to define what constitutes a crisis. When Your Company Has a Problem It Can’t Ignore is a good place to begin to understand the term. (Harvard Business Review, October, 2014).
  2. Take care of staff. Rod Kirsch, VP of Development at Penn State during the Sandusky Scandal made sure staff, some of whom may have been traumatized or re-traumatized by events, were aware of available support systems.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate with your constituents, and engage them where possible. Mark Luellen, who was AVP of University Advancement at UVA at the time, and his team developed a list of ways in which alumni could help UVA during the crisis.
  4. Develop a crisis communications and crisis management plan BEFORE you have a crisis.
  5. Learn about leading through change and a term I call “Sticktuitiveness.”

For more information you can turn to books such as Fundraising in Times of Crisis by Kim Klein and Fraud and Abuse in Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Prevention and Protection by Gerald Zach. Articles such as “The Unraveling of Donor Intent: Lawsuits and Lessons” (Miree and Smith) address issues that may directly involve donors.

If you will be attending the CT Alliance 2018 Conference on October 2 of this year, I will be presenting about leading through crisis. I hope to see you at my session – Lions, Tigers and Bears: Leading Through Crisis. Otherwise please feel free to contact me at sophie[at] or through a comment below; I look forward to hearing about what you have learned about leading through crises.

Finally, if you aren’t already, be sure to follow Michael’s blog. Michael, who leads ML Innovations, is a leading expert on this and other topics and has been cited as one of the top 25 fundraising bloggers.


I encourage you to consider attending Sophie’s upcoming conference session. Also, keep your eyes open for her soon-to-be-released book and, in the meantime, checkout her blog.

Finally, please join Sophie and me as we keep the people of the southeastern US in our thoughts and prayers.

That’s what Sophie Penney and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

One Trackback to “Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My: Fundraising in Times of Crisis”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: