Concern #1: Donors might shift their focus to health-related projects.
Your Best Response: Your donor communications should explain how your organization is responding to the situation. Include details about what you’re doing to help protect the well-being of stakeholders at your organization that your donors care most about.
Your Best Response: State upfront that your organization puts your community’s health and well-being first. Then make the appeal that support now is more important than ever to ensure your organization is in a strong place when this lifts to get back to creating joy and great art.
Think about ways you might use digital events to engage your donors. A performance might not make sense, but what about a conversation with your artistic staff about how a project is developing? Could you do a virtual script reading?
Concern #3: Corporate giving is the first to contract in a down market.
Corporate donors should be a low priority now for solicitations. Put the top priority on family foundations and individuals. They’re most likely to take the long view on the markets and have some cushion. Reach out to the business partners and sponsors who you have very close, long-running relationships with. Otherwise, most corporate/business contacts will need time to see how they're impacted.
Concern #4: Older donors are totally self-isolated.
For major gift plans long in the works with individual donors, ask for the meeting when your campaign is ready, but start out by asking how they're doing first and listen. It's possible they might be willing to do a video call for a request if you've cultivated them well and recently -- and if they signaled that they were ready in the past several weeks to be asked for a big project. Be prepared if they say they need to wait a month or two for the meeting and be diligent about follow-ups.
Isolation means many major donors likely welcome your update call or email. Everyone is answering their phones right now. Reach out to your top priorities to keep the relationship warm and keep them updated on how you're managing through this.
Concern #5: It’s uncertain how long this will affect daily life.
Develop contingency plans for the efforts that really matter. Your board should have an emergency meeting if it hasn't already to plan 2-3 different scenarios. One of those should anticipate a six-month recession. How much capital do you have to get through the next months without new revenue? What can you do to stretch what you do have? Can you create new revenue streams with digital content? Are there any major restricted grants or gifts that you can talk to the donors about, asking them to loosen restrictions right now? How much would your fundraising team need to raise exactly to fill the gaps? By when? What if the fall appeal is impacted? They can't fundraise without goals and a clear picture. Larger donors will want to know.
Remember that since 1980, the US has been through five official recessions. Donors have continued to give through all of them, but with more focus on the organizations that earn their love and trust. We still saw growth in giving over those periods – but it was slower.
Concern #6: We don’t know where to cut the operating budget if we need to.
The last place to cut is where you’re still generating revenue. A strong fundraising effort needs to stay in place no matter what. Meet with your board, make sure they understand that their focus and collaboration are critical to help keep your fundraising programs strong to weather this. Can they call lapsed donors at the higher levels and ask for a renewal? Can they assist in nudging donors thinking about bigger requests? This is the time to make sure that the organization's leaders pull together.
About a year ago, a colleague recommended that I look into The Cycle, Michael Kaiser's management method for running high-performing arts organizations. At the time, I was just starting up my practice and needed to focus on other things, so I put a mental pin in it. This spring, after finishing up a house renovation and moving in, I was hungry to focus on some meaty professional development while *not* thinking about the miles of trim that I have yet to paint.
I was DELIGHTED to see that The Cycle isn't just a book now -- it's a free online course on Coursera. And WOW. It's excellent work well worth the time to watch the lectures, if not complete all the exercises.
Who's Michael Kaiser? He's the executive director that brought Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater back from the brink. And then he ran the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, for about 13 years. He started a management institute there, honing this method of focusing tightly on making great art (the easy part!), marketing institutionally, and building relationships with what he calls the "family." Guess which part is my favorite? As Kaiser acknowledges, the lessons apply to all sorts of organizations beyond arts and culture - that just happens to be his bailiwick.
The institute how lives at the University of Maryland, and has expanded its scope. I can't say enough about the quality of this course. And hooray for free!
Here are the documents from the Making the Major Gift Ask training session. Thanks again for participating. Feel free to reach out with questions.
I've been working with a nonprofit in ABQ that wants to improve the attention they give their top sponsors once they've signed on. This type of stewardship work is critical to making sure your sponsors find value in their support and want to renew with you next year. While it's natural to focus on creating VIP-only events - and those are terrific - there are other ways to give extra attention without a huge drain on your resources. Here are a few favorites:
1. High-touch RSVP outreach: Any time you invite a key VIP to any event, give them a personal call or email a few days before the RSVP deadline. Top donors are super busy and they'll appreciate the heads up in advance of the respond date. (Avoid reaching out the day of the deadline. My experience is that VIPs feel guilty for not being on it sooner.) Simply share that you hope to see them attend. If they can't, let them know they'll be missed. It's a warm, genuine interaction that boosts your VIP engagement, and you decide exactly who and how many to reach out to. You can even delegate this one to another staffer and it still works beautifully.
2. Think logistically: Any time you extend an invitation to a VIP, whether formally or not, think through the logistics that they'll have to negotiate to show up - and clear the path. Chances are they'll be running through a hectic day and getting stuck along the way will only have them showing up late or frustrated. Are they unfamilar with this venue? Need parking? Is there valet right outside? Do you know if construction down the block will snare traffic? Will coat check take more than a minute? Share the useful details upfront, either in the invitation if it's a quick and tidy explaination, or after they RSVP. Everyone loves it when someone else saves them time and aggravation.
3. Treat their assistant like family: An assistant is far more than a gatekeeper. That person at the other end of the line is more like an extension of the family, often running your VIP's personal affairs as well as their office. They can't live without that person, and neither can you if you want to build a strong relationship with them. In my experience, assistants run the spectrum from efficient air traffic controllers to quirky, quirky, quirky. It's your job to figure out how to work with each one best. Build trust with them, and think to offer them an occassional perk along the way, and it's a win-win-win.
Emilie, Principal and Owner