Non-profits and a Bear Market: How to Fundraise in a Crisis

Welcome to Spring 2020. The coronavirus crisis has taken its toll on the economy and we’ve officially hit a bear market. Small businesses scrounge for ways to stay afloat, families look for ways to pay bills, the government tries to slow the bleed, and non-profits are left scratching their heads. They want to help and continue to do the work they’ve always done, but it takes money to make it all happen, and who has the nerve to ask people for money NOW? For larger non-profits, they need money for payroll, rent, and to keep their services operating on any level of normalcy. For smaller non-profits, even those that operate with an all-volunteer crew, they still need money to provide services to their target population. With many annual fundraisers cancelled, and regularly-scheduled business donations now up in the air, how does a non-profit work its way through the rock and the hard place? How does a non-profit ask for a donation without feeling like a selfish, tone-deaf jerk?  

The Harvard Business Review published an excellent piece by Alan Cantor that addresses this exact predicament. Cantor references an email he received from his local YMCA that so perfectly asked for a donation that Cantor took out his credit card rather than punching his computer screen.  (Pro tip: When you’re trying to decide how to handle something, look at companies you admire and companies that rub you the wrong way. What do you like about what they’re doing or not doing? What could they have done better?)

What was so special about how the Y communicated with its donors?

  1. First, the note came from the CEO. Not a general manager or anyone else.
  2. It explained the current situation so that everyone would be on the same page.
  3. It also shared what it was doing to help its members during this difficult time (waiving member fees, offering online resources, etc.). In a way, it was showing – not telling – how previous donations were put to good use for the community. It put its people first, not the organization’s financial goals. In times of crisis, there is no stronger message than a “we’re in this together” and “we’ve got your back.” (Imagine how it would have read if it said, “We’re going down if we don’t have your support! SOS! SOS!”)
  4. The CEO explained what they were doing to support employees, and how the Y was doing its best to help them during this time.
  5. At the end was the ask. “IF you are in a position to make a gift,” and he explains exactly how the gift would be used. In other words, the reader got to decide if s/he could help – there was no pressure or guilt tripping.

Words matter. So do empathy and transparency.

As a co-founder of a non-profit whose size pales in comparison to any YMCA, and as an individual who works with businesses on how to properly phrase things, I reiterate that words matter. If the CEO started off with a donation request, I can almost guarantee no one would have finished the letter. The CEO offered empathy, compassion, resources, and transparency.

During the following months and even the next year as non-profits look to small businesses and individual donors to financially contribute to their missions, it will be imperative now more than ever that the request be expressed in terms of mutual support as we all look to help one another in the best ways we are able.

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