Finding the Silver Lining: Reframing Our Fundraising Practices During the Pandemic

Cropped view of person's hands typing on laptop computer

“I’ve been a remote, work-from-home fundraiser for five years now, for a school 2,000 miles away from my home office. I see so much worry out there in higher education advancement, and I’m here to tell you, it’s going to be okay. You may have to give up some of your ideas about what’s possible and not possible, but if you’re willing, let’s explore the opportunities and reframe our fundraising practices.”

So much of the debate about whether and how to engage donors right now is coming from a place of fundraiser discomfort. This discomfort needs to be examined and reframed to continue to do our jobs with compassion and effectiveness. This reframing is an important practice during traumatic situations; it can help us bring meaning to events and give us the resilience necessary to move forward.

We can and should reframe the COVID-19 situation as an opportunity that will lead us to:

  • leave behind a 20th century mindset about metrics and communication methods;
  • examine whether our scripts for engaging donors truly lead with compassion and respect for our donors as people; and
  • examine whether we are really practicing patience with our donors or merely using artificial deadlines to move our work forward.

I’ve been a remote, work-from-home fundraiser for five years now, for a school 2,000 miles away from my home office. I see so much worry out there in higher education advancement, and I’m here to tell you, it’s going to be okay. You may have to give up some of your ideas about what’s possible and not possible, but if you’re willing, let’s explore the opportunities.

21st Century Institutions

One thing COVID-19 is surely doing is dragging many institutions that were hanging onto 20th century attitudes into a 21st century mindset. It’s doing this fast, too.

Look at this chart (which I compiled from several sources) showing the differences between how 20th century institutions and 21st century institutions operate:

20th Century Institutions21st Century Institutions
Top-Down HierarchyCollaboration and Partnership
Revered for CredentialsTrusted for Integrity and Results
Broadcast Marketing (One Way)Two-Way Communication and Marketing
Measuring ActivityMeasuring Impact
Command and ControlTrust-based Management
SpecialistAdaptable Generalist
FailureStepping Stone
Work-Life SeparationWork-Life Integration
Brick and Mortar (at a desk)Virtual and Flexible

Many institutions of higher education are clinging to models of leadership that are grounded in the 20th century mindset. Offices that cling to metrics around in-person visits will lose ground with donors during this crisis. Managers that wring their hands over whether their employees are being “productive enough” are missing the point. Mark Murphy at Leadership IQ cited that remote employees are 87% more likely to love their job than those who work in offices. That’s an astounding statistic and one that I can say is true for me. Working from home is all about trust. If you cannot trust your team to achieve the desired results, you need to take a hard look at your leadership.

Focus on what you need to get done during this week or month. Be a coach for your team, not a metrics micromanager. Embrace new technology like Zoom, even as a platform to meet with donors. Measure outcomes, not activity. Assume everyone is doing their best and support them in doing that, and you will foster a kind of loyalty that will serve your organization well beyond this pandemic.

Lead with Care and Compassion

I’ve wondered recently why so many fundraisers are uncomfortable with engaging donors right now. And I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that perhaps the scripts we’ve been using do not genuinely lead with care and compassion. In higher education, the calls are often filled with some insincere, nostalgic attempt at early rapport. Of course, fundraisers using those scripts would be afraid of getting shut down and shut out. Do your scripts for getting meetings with donors really lead with care and concern? If you reach out for a meeting and you don’t inquire after the health and welfare of the donor and their family (particularly during a crisis), you must change your approach. If your meetings begin with jumping into the needs of the organization without checking on your donor’s family, again, regroup and revise.

Lead with relationship and care deeply for your donors as people. Connect with them over the mission and values of your institution. Communicate clearly the priorities of your organization right now. (Hint: the first priority should be the health, safety, and welfare of those your institution serves and the employees of the organization. Everything else follows that.) If you are at a point in the relationship where an ask seems correct and natural, ask. Lead with care for people, but don’t let your fear and discomfort lead you.

Patience Wins

The economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis will be with us for perhaps longer than virus itself. Where some organizations are afraid to engage donors meaningfully, others make the opposite error, blindly pushing ahead with artificial deadlines and arbitrary goals. This is a mistake that can lead you to place pressure on your donors, rather than treating them with compassion and patience.

When you value your donors as people, patience follows naturally. Donors may need to wait several months for the stock market to rebound. Others may not have headspace to talk right now, especially if loved ones are ill or vulnerable. All of that is okay. You want to value long-term relationship over short-term revenue. All goals need to be adjusted to accommodate this reality.

This is an unprecedented situation, and organizations will either rise to this challenge or become obsolete. Choose to reframe this challenging moment as an opportunity to reset your goals, enhance your trust in your team, and retool the ways you approach donors, so that your institution will emerge from this crisis stronger.


Learn More from Jessica Cloud

The transition to an all-online working environment has presented challenges for major gift officers accustomed to building donor relationships face-to-face. Things that usually feel intuitive like structuring communication touchpoints and knowing what to say and what tone to strike are now much more difficult. But there are ways to continue to be proactive and build relationships in ways that feel authentic and further fundraising goals.

Jessica Cloud’s online training Frontline Fundraising in a Virtual Environment has been designed to help you address both mindset and action around frontline fundraising in today’s context. From discovery calls to solicitations to donor stewardship, Jessica will help you understand how you need to be thinking about these critical touchpoints during COVID and offer creative ideas to translate them into action.