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Find the silver linings in these uncertain times

Alyce Lee Stansbury, Notes on Nonprofits


Much has changed since COVID-19 became a daily part of our lives. For many nonprofits, this has created new challenges in delivering services, maintaining the health and safety of staff and people being served, and plummeting revenue from cancelled events and lost earned income.

All is not bleak. I see some silver linings that I hope will continue after the crisis is over.

1. Less events, more connections

As a sector, nonprofits have been over reliant on special events to generate annual revenue. In some cases, the glitz and glamour of golf tournaments and galas has overshadowed the charitable mission. For some events, the cost to raise a dollar was up to eighty cents.

Board members, and even fundraising staff, are often more comfortable asking someone to buy tickets to a fun event or play a round of golf than asking them directly for a donation. The fear of asking is real and special events have been a welcome alternative to asking people for money. Over time, some nonprofits put too many of their eggs in the special event basket and are struggling to stay afloat without them.

With most events being cancelled, postponed, or reimagined, the silver lining is more nonprofits are focusing on relationship building. I know nonprofits who are calling every member and every donor to thank them for their support. With more people at home, the likelihood of reaching someone has greatly improved.

Fewer special events have opened the door to more connections and a greater focus on getting to know the people behind the gift.

2. Better use of snail mail

After years of attending fundraising conferences where the most popular sessions are social media and digital fundraising, snail mail is getting some love and the attention it deserves. Despite rumors to the contrary, direct mail fundraising has never gone away. It is an effective way to communicate and raise funds as part of an overall fund development program.

I have spoken with numerous nonprofits whose spring mailings have exceeded previous years’ results. Handwritten notes have always been a good idea and now more nonprofits are sending them. The silver lining is more donors, members, and volunteers are feeling appreciated in new and thoughtful ways.

3. Board attendance is up

Prior to the pandemic, some nonprofits struggled to get a quorum at every board meeting. I know a few that had more people calling in remotely than were sitting in the board room. If you have ever led or participated in a meeting like this, where half the people are in the room and half are not, you know how difficult and unproductive it can be.

When board meetings went virtual, nonprofits started “seeing” board members they had not seen in months. Perhaps the convenience of virtual meetings and lack of other events and activities competing with board member’s time has resulted in the increased participation.

Whatever the reasons, this is a good thing and I hope it continues. The people being served deserve to have every board member at the decision-making table.

4. Making your mission relevant

A necessary component to a successful fundraising program is the case for support. It defines the essence of why the organization exists and the compelling, persuasive reasons why someone should make a gift. As a result of the pandemic, some nonprofits have questioned if they should be asking for money.

Not every nonprofit is on the front lines of the crisis which has led some board members and staff to wonder if they should pull back on fundraising. My answer is no. While it must be done thoughtfully and not in a vacuum, asking is the answer.

Steven Shattuck, CEO of Bloomerang, said it like this: “There is no such thing as a non-COVID-19 essential charity. Every mission matters right now. Any diminished serviced offering has an impact and every mission is worthy of support.”

The silver lining is seeing nonprofits think harder about why their mission matters.

At this week’s Building Better Boards program, hosted by Leadership Tallahassee and sponsored by Big Bend Cares, I gave attendees a homework assignment. Write down three reasons your organization matters. Then write three ways it matters more.

Now is the perfect time to identify and define in specific terms why your mission is relevant to the community. The better job you do, the more money you will raise.

Special thanks to Bob Harris, CAE, for his suggestion to write this column. I will continue to look for silver linings and hope you will share ones you discover during this crisis.

Notes on Nonprofits is written and edited by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting and Kelly Otte, MPA, who is on sabbatical. Send your comments and questions to notesonnonprofits@gmail.com.

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