How will Coronavirus Affect Your Fundraising Efforts?

Coronavirus is spreading with profound implications for the nonprofit sector. As I write this post, there have been 98,088 global documented cases of COVID-19 resulting in 3,356 deaths.

This is my third post about coronavirus. Previously, I looked at how you can keep yourself and your colleagues healthy, and I have written about what the Association of Fundraising Professionals is doing to ensure a safe, successful International Conference later this month.

Now, I want to look at some of the ways the advance of COVID-19 might affect your fundraising efforts. Most of the points were shared with me by Ken Wyman, a Canadian-based consultant and Professor Emeritus from the Fundraising Management graduate program at Humber College. I thank Ken for generously sharing his insights.

While there is no reason for you to panic, you and your nonprofit organization should prepare for what is happening and what could happen. To help you with your planning, here is a list of just 17 ways your fundraising efforts could be affected:

1. Special events may need to be canceled. Already, the American Physical Society canceled its annual conference; the Global Health Conference has been canceled; the American Bar Association canceled its National Institute on White Collar Crime; Chicago State University has canceled some basketball games; and other nonprofit and for-profit events have been canceled. You might need to cancel certain events out of real health concerns or because attendance would be low because of fear.

2. Staff and volunteers may need to work from home, and/or take sick days. Sick people should stay out of the office rather than come in and risk infecting colleagues. Not only will this protect people from coronavirus, but it will also protect them from many other illnesses as well. To allow for this, your organization might need to revise its policies and procedures.

3. Donors may value your health-related projects more. If your nonprofit is a healthcare organization or a charity that offers health-related programs, you may find greater donor interest in your services. Be sure to let people know how your organization is responding to the current health situation.

4. Corporate donations may go down as profits and stock markets decline. The US stock market has seen several days of sharp decline and extreme volatility. Leading economists anticipate a global reduction in Gross Domestic Product because of COVID-19. A decline in corporate profits will likely result in a decrease in corporate giving. When appealing to corporations, be sure to demonstrate how giving to your organization will deliver value to the corporation.

5. Don’t lick envelopes for thank-you cards. Eww! The same goes for any correspondence you mail. Instead, for high-volume mailings, automate the process; for low-volume mailings, use a damp sponge or paper towel to moisten envelopes. The bonus is that you won’t risk getting a paper cut on your tongue.

6. This is a good time to remind donors about gifts in their Wills. A gift in a Will is a great way for someone to support their favorite charities when they might not be able or willing to do so with a current cash gift.

7. Isolated lonely donors may welcome phone calls. As people start spending more time at home rather than risking a trip out in public, some will begin to feel isolated. These supporters will appreciate a phone call from you even more than ever. Call donors to thank them, update them about a program, survey them, etc.

8. Virtual board meetings are less infectious and better for the environment. Instead of gathering your board members around a conference table, you can host a virtual board meeting. You have a number of technology options to accomplish this ranging from a simple conference call to a video meeting. The bonus is that using technology will reduce greenhouse gases as board members will not have to drive or fly to the meeting.

9. Foundations may give less if their investments in the stock market go down. The stock markets have taken a big hit and continue to be volatile. Unless there is a strong recovery, foundations will have less money with which to contribute. So, anticipate slower growth or a reduction in giving by foundations.

10. Individuals may give less. For decades, individual giving has correlated closely with Gross Domestic Product. So, if GDP slows, giving will likely slow as well. Again, economists are predicting that the coronavirus will dampen GDP worldwide.

11. Nurses are the most trusted profession. Get one to sign your appeal. This makes obvious sense for healthcare organizations. However, other types of nonprofit organizations can still engage a nurse as a letter signer if that person has a relevant attachment to or role with the organization.

12. Government grants may shift to other priorities. If you are not working on health, plan for cuts and diversify funding sources. Over-reliance on government funding has always been risky even in the best of times because political winds change. In times of crisis, government funding becomes even more precarious as officials focus on emergencies.

13. All the usual proven methods will still work. If you haven’t done so already, master and embrace fundraising fundamentals. What has worked will continue to work. The coronavirus is not the first threat the nonprofit sector has encountered. Through each crisis, those charities that have continued to do what works for fundraising have done comparatively well.

14. Be honest with all your people. If there is a problem, disclose it early. If your organization experiences challenges related to the coronavirus, don’t hide the fact. Instead, share the news with staff, volunteers, donors, and the public. Let people know the difficulty your organization faces, what it is doing to meet the challenges, and how supporters can help. Transparency is your friend.

15. Get tech ready for webinars and video chats. Just as you can use conference calls or video meetings when engaging your board members, you can also use technology to communicate with supporters, constituents, and the public. For example, the Cancer Support and Welcome Center at Jefferson Health offers certain educational programs as both live events and webinars. The Free Library of Philadelphia offers live events and records many of them making them available for download online. You can even use video chats to meet one-on-one with donors.

16. Look after yourself. Eat healthy. Get rid of toxins in your life. Walk in nature. Increase your resistance. Self-care has always been a good idea. It’s particularly important when threatened by diseases such as influenza or COVID-19. You won’t be able to care for others unless you take care of yourself.

17. This too shall pass. Most of us will survive. The sun will come up tomorrow. I’m not being dismissive. I’m merely suggesting that we should prepare rather than panic. The coronavirus will soon be just a memory. The flu comes and goes every year. As the season changes, the coronavirus might vanish as the flu does. In addition, as with the flu, scientists will likely develop a vaccine that will protect the public in the future. From the fundraising perspective, that means that things will get back to normal at some point. By continuing to fundraise and by showing your supporters genuine gratitude and engaging them, you will ensure that your organization is well-positioned when normalcy returns.

What do you believe are some of the other ways that coronavirus might affect your nonprofit organization?

That’s what Ken Wyman and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

15 Responses to “How will Coronavirus Affect Your Fundraising Efforts?”

  1. Spot on observations and recommendations. Thank you, Michael and Ken!

  2. Great column and advice once again. Fear of the fear of the virus may be as bad as the virus itself. Hoping for warmer weather and a decrease in severity.

  3. Does anyone else feel that it sounds mercenary to bring up wills and estate plans when people are dying of COVID-19? It strikes me as somewhat inappropriate.

    • S. Tryan, thank you for your comment. While the COVID-19 situation is serious, we need to keep it in perspective. For example, last flu season, the CDC tells us that over 34,000 Americans died. This flu season, the death toll is expected to exceed 18,000. As of today, COVID-19 has claimed 30 lives in the US (4,295 worldwide). According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 mortality rate (among known cases) is 3.4 percent. WHO also reports that seasonal flu has a mortality rate generally less than one percent. Furthermore, health experts expect the mortality rate will be adjusted lower as more widespread testing identifies people with the virus who survive having only had a mild case or showing no symptoms at all. That’s a typical pattern with emerging diseases. Initially, it is always the most serious cases that are identified and reported. I’ve heard a number of health experts speak to the media about this and, I myself, have spoken to a leading executive at a major pharmaceutical company about this. The reality might be that the COVID-19 mortality rate is the same as or just slightly worse than the seasonal flu. Of course, while that’s still plenty serious, we need to be careful not to over-react.

      My point is, people are always dying of one thing or another. Some causes of death are far more common than COVID-19. If charities were to wait for some sort of mythical quiet time to discuss estate planning and gifts in a will, they would never engage in the conversation.

      I also want to mention that successful discussions about gifts in a will generally have very little to do with death and dying. Instead, the conversations revolve around how someone can take care of their family while supporting a charity they care passionately about. The conversations are about legacy, not death.

      Let me give you an example. When my recently departed 97-year-old aunt was still with us, I was once again trying to explain to her what I do for a living. The planned giving part of my work confused her. She asked, “Why would someone want to give to charity when they’re dead?” During the conversation, I learned she supported a local animal shelter. So, I asked her in return, “Who’s going to take care of the puppies and kittens when you’re no longer here to write a check?” Guess what? Just a couple of weeks ago, I learned she changed her will to leave a charitable bequest to that animal shelter. Even though she was dying, she was willing to have a conversation about planned giving because it was really about her legacy and showing her about how she could keep doing what she was passionate about doing when she would be no longer here to keep doing it.

      Our donors and prospective donors are adults. They are perfectly capable of making decisions for themselves. We should not decline on their behalf by failing to have the conversation. Once you do have the conversation and do secure a charitable bequest commitment, you can use that example when talking with other prospects.

      The one planned gift vehicle I’d be cautious about at the moment is seeking gifts of appreciated stock. Although many people will have some appreciated stocks, the market has been beaten up badly in the past several days. So, it might be better to hold off until the stock market rebounds a bit more before talking about appreciated securities.

  4. Useful tips, Michael. Thank you. As always, you are right on top of what’s most on folks’ minds today. In all things, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I would add this crisis might be just what you need to finally persuade your ‘powers that be’ of the need to build an endowment and operating reserve. For more on strategies for connecting virtually with supporters, my article today is on that topic.

    • Claire, thank you for your kind message and for sharing the link to your timely article. I hope folks take the time to read your post. I suspect that COVID-19 will drive many organizations to enhance their use of technology to communicate more effectively with people. For example, the Association of Fundraising Professionals will allow folks to virtually attend the International Conference online if they cannot attend in-person.

      I agree with you that COVID-19 and the financial stress it will place on organizations will provide an opportunity to persuade the “powers that be” of the need for endowments and operating reserves. Some might actually listen.


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