Fundraising now and through a recession

Nancy Chambers, Chair SWDDF

I thought I would share some of what I have learned about fundraising through a recession from 30 years in the job. I have lived through five recessions and fundraised through three. It was during the most recent in 2008/9 that I began running my fundraising consultancy. In fact, my starting point for this article was one I wrote in March 2009 which I was surprised to find was relevant today's situation. In this short article I will look to the likely recession and how charities can plan and adapt to the road ahead. I hope it provides you with some insight and a few ideas. Remember - if you do your job as a fundraiser right now, you will help your charity not just survive but thrive. Your starting point Much has been said and written about reaching out to supporters during the pandemic. Your first step must be to ask how they are affected. Next is your chance to reflect back how important they are to your charity. As Giles Pegram said in the recent Institute of Fundraising session on the donor experience, “compassion is spreading faster than the virus”. No-one has united the British public quite as well as Colonel Tom Moore. When we are all experiencing a lack of control, exercising our emotional and philanthropic muscle by supporting charities that are meaningful to us is something which can and should make us feel better.

1. Recognise the financial impact and stay positive.

With organisations cutting costs, we are in danger of making a drop in fundraising income a self-fulfilling prophecy by scaling back our investment in fundraising and in the recruitment and cultivation of donors. Supporters often apply a similar rationale to donations as they do to investments and will pull back if they doubt your conviction to succeed. Acknowledge the economic impact of the current pandemic by emphasizing how the needs of your beneficiaries continue and may increase. Avoid what may be considered unrealistic grand plans for the future and concentrate on solid plans for today. Maintain your enthusiasm, optimism and passion about your cause. Be authentic and present the reality for your charity right now. Show what measures you have taken to respond to today’s needs and how these will change in the coming months. Above all, maintain contact with donors throughout.

2. Prove that you are financially responsible.

Let donors know that you are doing your part by being financially responsible – furloughing staff, applying for emergency funding and making best use of government support. Make sure you have good controls in place and that you are examining marginal programmes for possible deletion or postponement. Keep your (their!) money safe by making sure the charity’s investments are in funds guaranteed by the Government and review your investment policy.

3. Do not give up on your corporate supporters.

When the recession hits, corporate donations will fall but your corporate supporters may recognise the need to top up their falling cash contribution by volunteering time or giving pro bono work. This could help your charity raise more funds e.g. through virtual events and will writing services or by kerbing costs such as HR and legal support. Companies which increase their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities now will find they have a competitive edge through positive PR and when tendering for major contracts, particularly in the statutory sector, arguably their best source of new contracts over the next two years. It also helps them maintain staff motivation and consumer loyalty through the tough times. Your charity can help by providing positive social media content they can share for mutual benefit. Some companies continue to do well and will offer financial help but for various reasons, may not want their name slapped across as ‘sponsor’ so be sensitive and creative in the recognition you offer.

4. Diversify your funding

Based on past recessions, major donor and charitable trust gift levels are likely to be maintained or raised despite a downturn in investment performance but giving priorities have shifted to front-line providers. How long this lasts is anyone’s guess. With investments expected to fall in the short term, smaller trusts and foundations will cut back and delay giving until investment performance returns. As most charitable giving is made up of small donations, make use of additional volunteer support while people are furloughed to raise your charity’s profile with telephone calls to your most crucial supporters, to re-ignite dormant donors, or data-capture as the bedrock for new support. Use social media channels to build your networks and simple viral films are inexpensive ways to reach more people. Online donation platforms, virtual events, Facebook Fundraisers and Instagram stickers allow smaller gifts to quickly add up while expanding your donor base ready for the economic recovery. Interestingly, in the 2008 recession, new donor acquisition was maintained; the most notable change was that people who would have refused anyway had a new reason. In the next 3 months as the recession begins to hit home budgets, there will be a tendency for donors to cancel direct debits so personal communications are more vital now than ever to ensure existing supporters feel valued. As the majority of donors have yet to be directly affected by the recession, do not be too swift to offer existing supporters donation holidays or less frequent gifts but remember these useful tactics if individual donors indicate hard times. Offer donors who are unable to help financially other ways to help e.g. by introducing a friend to the charity.

5. Don't pull the plug on major campaigns, but be prepared to slow down.

If you are starting or mid-way through a major capital or revenue campaign do not stop, but consider amending the message to show why it is vital that you continue and if you can, consider slowing down and extending the timeframe. Recognise that getting those lead gifts in the size you want will take longer and be dependent on how the economy recovers. If you ask for a multi-year gift, and the donor resists, seek part of that gift now and go back later for a top-up. Donors may be understandably shy about making long-term commitments in this economic climate.

6. Maintain communications, up close and personal

Building a buzz about your work will help build your donor relationships. The more they know and see your name about, the more likely they are to contribute to your cause. Consumer confidence affects us all. Getting stories in the press is great, but fundraisers who place greater emphasis on one-to-one communication that is personal and sensitive to individual circumstances will maintain profile and ensure donors feel recognised and appreciated. Concentrate on your top donors and prospects and pick up the phone to ask how they are. Let's face it - most people are at home right now and for some, your call may be the only one they receive.

7. Offer something of value

It has been said before but it is worth repeating that uncertainty breeds anxiety. We all seek ways to exert some control at this time when we have been disempowered and doing a good deed can be one way to make ourselves feel better. Think about what good deed you can offer your supporters – it could be tips for maintaining mental wellbeing, a virtual exhibition or museum tour, healthy recipes from store cupboard ingredients, positive signs in nature, or health advice for people in vulnerable groups, use your expertise as a trusted and valued source to help those who help you. Remember, in this time of crisis, those who have the ability to help, want to help. And some of those you help might choose to help you back. If you would like a conversation about ways your charity can build goodwill and support, please email me on here or call on 0117 377 6064 • 0779 375 3331 Nancy Chambers is a charity and fundraising consultant based in Bristol, with 30 years senior management experience within the UK charity sector