Generosity in Uncertain Times
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” said no one in 2020. It has been the worst year for many of us.
It began with such promise. The economy was expanding. Nonprofits were thriving. Business was booming. And then…not so much: COVID-19, shutdowns, protests, isolation, and racial tension. Then more protests, a divisive election, and even more protests.
The year that begged to be one of “perfect vision” (come on, I know many of you had that in your strategic plan somewhere) became totally unpredictable in virtually every segment of society. As we’ve heard way too many times, it was unprecedented in our lifetime.
2020 has been the epitome of “uncertain times.”
Pivot… back to the basics
Everyone has their favorite COVID-binge-watch show. In our house it has been Cobra Kai. The campy revisit of the characters from the ‘80s classic Karate Kid has been fun for this child of the ‘80s to watch. The music, the references, the memories, they’re all so good. Cheesy? Yes, that too. But fun! In the original series Mr. Miyagi had Daniel focus on breathing, taking his mind back to the simple, basic concepts of life.
For those of us in fund development, this year has offered a chance to get back to the roots of our work; to those simple, basic concepts. It has caused us to ask: “What are the basic strategies that raise the resources for our programs and ministries?”
It’s easy to forget the basics, and chase shiny new things.
Here at Buckner where we’ve been caring for “orphans and widows in their distress” for 141 years. It’s easy to forget the basics, and chase shiny new things. Maybe it’s been like that for you too. But, I want to encourage you that the principles that have long worked in philanthropy remain your best shot at fundraising success today. Trust me, I’d love to stumble upon the next “ice bucket challenge” – for 2020 it would be a bucket of bricks! However, the reality is that the nonprofits showing the most success right now are those that stick to several key core principles.
Allow me to share a few principles that have greatly impacted our fundraising success this year.
- Lean into relationships.
Back in April, I heard someone suggest that we cut back on our donor communications. Donors needed a break. They were overwhelmed by the fatigue of the long pandemic. (Remember when we thought it had already been a long time back in April?) This advice suggested we needed to ease back from calling/mailing/newslettering our donors.
However, I am so glad I didn’t follow that advice. Instead, we have tried to appropriately lean into our relationships with those who support our work. We created intentional communication plans for each level of the donor pyramid, and worked those plans in the early months of the pandemic.
Phone calls were scripted (including plenty of listening time) and assigned. And not just to gift officers; we had program leaders and frontline staff members get involved. Of course Zoom calls became a huge part of the “how.”
We set up weekly calls in which our CEO updated key donors on how Buckner continued providing foster care family training in the lockdown, and how families could still access counseling. We continued our cultivation and stewardship emails and letters. We tried to utilize every available channel to stay engaged.
Your donors and volunteers need to hear from you, and often. They got involved with you because you were helping them solve some of the world’s problems, and they want to solve those problems even more right now.
- Shore up your stewardship.
In early 2002, I was just starting to get on airplanes again for work after 9/11. I flew a lot of Southwest Airlines in those days, and they sent me a little “thank you” gift in the mail – hospital booties. While I never actually wore them, I still remember thinking, “Southwest gets me.”
So much of our work needs to be thanking donors for their generosity.
So much of our work needs to be thanking donors for their generosity. We launched an aggressive donor acquisition strategy in 2019, but quickly realized that if we didn’t steward those new relationships and work hard to keep those new donors, they often went out the back door as quickly as they entered the front.
In uncertain times you’ve got to enhance how you say “thank you” to your donors. Think about upgrading your welcome process for new donors. Perhaps you can think beyond just the standard annual report and create stewardship reports tailored to specific donors. You need to celebrate what your donors accomplished by supporting your programs. And then thank them again, and again, redundantly, over and over.
- Acquire new donors.
When the pandemic hit the hardest in April, we hit “pause” on the aggressive acquisition we were in. I wish we hadn’t, I think it was a mistake.
Right now people know how broken the world is. They see it in the news every day. They long to make a difference; and you need to let them know how you can help them fulfill that longing! Buckner has jumped right back into the thick of donor acquisition through direct mail appeals, social media packages, and even radio. You might even be able to get some of these things more cheaply than in more robust economic times. It takes a little creativity to find new donors, but we’re finding it is well worth the effort right now.
- Diversify your revenue.
Have you always wanted to launch that mid-level donor program? Do it now. Has your event strategy stalled in recent years? This is the time to reevaluate that and try some things that you might not have even considered in normal times. Uncertainty can create opportunity.
I often joke that when I arrived at Buckner in 2016 our donor pyramid looked like the Washington Monument. Buckner had been focusing strategy on the higher parts of the pyramid, but the breadth of donors at the base and in the middle wasn’t providing the pipeline needed to support the long-term goals of the organization. So we launched more mass-communication strategies in 2017, and then in 2018 created a mid-level team.
Fast forward to 2020, and everyone needs to act like the mid-level team. Meeting in-person is important, but in a world where that just can’t happen, our gift officers had to shift to a more mid-level type strategy, engaging using relationship-building tools that could be practiced in a socially-distanced world.
Getting back to the basics is primary, but we do have the opportunity to think outside the box and start an extra revenue stream or two.
- Take care of your people—and yourself.
We are all fatigued. Introverts, you need to check on those extroverts in your world, they need you right now! In all this craziness you need to care for your staff, your volunteers, and your donors.
Here are a few ideas we’ve tried:
- More unstructured conversations. While having agendas for most meetings is vital, you need to create some space where staff can just talk. Vent. Ask questions. Play games. It’s hard to do virtually, but your people need it.
- Flexible scheduling. It was already not much of a “9 to 5” world anymore, and this year has been anything but schedule-friendly. As much as you can, encourage people to flex in their schedules. Take time away from the computer screen and go for a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood. Read a book for fun. Watch an episode of Cobra Kai during lunch.
- Lean into the King of Kings. Much of what I’ve shared here isn’t deeply spiritual, but let’s be clear: uncertain times need a certain God. In our hurts, pains, doubts, successes, failures, isolations, and fears (every emotion of 2020), in the middle of it all, the sovereign God who loves you and me so deeply is calling your name. He’s whispering words of sweet grace to you right now. He sits on the throne of the universe – especially when it doesn’t look like anyone is in control. Trust him. Talk to him. Engage him. He’s there for you.
2020, what a year! We are all hoping for a better 2021. Honestly though, those of us who lead fund development at Christian organizations might in some ways have been in the best place to cope with this kind of uncertainty. We have always needed to rely on God and the generosity of his people.
Arnie Adkison has served as Chief Development Officer at Buckner International since 2016 (www.buckner.org). Buckner follows the example of Jesus by serving the most vulnerable children, families and seniors with excellence. Arnie and his wife Sandra live in the Dallas area and have 3 young-adult children.