The current pandemic has forced us to reassess the way we do just about everything. Eating, working, walking the dog—you name it. None of it looks the same as it did six months ago.
In some respects, the new rhythms imposed by COVID-19 offer the chance to rediscover joys that were obscured by pre-pandemic customs. We might even use this interregnum to disrupt bad habits and discover better ones.
But the pandemic is hardly an instrument of moral improvement. It has swept away the good with the bad. We’ve been constricted relationally, spiritually, and professionally. We must find new ways forward.
This has all been the occasion for some anxiety among fundraisers and nonprofit leaders. The pandemic has already had a ruinous effect on many industries. Others seem headed toward ominous horizons. What will it take for nonprofits to navigate these troubled waters? Is it even possible to raise money in the midst of such widespread uncertainty?
Take heart, dear reader, and perhaps a deep breath. Your nonprofit can survive this.
That is the message of a new book by Jeremy Beer, the founder of American Philanthropic, and editor of Philanthropy Daily. The e-book is called Fundraising When Times Are Bad: A Guide for Nonprofit Leaders.
Beer’s central claim is that fundraising when times are bad is not so very different from fundraising when times are good. Yes, a few of the finer points will change, and yes, even the best laid plans are subject to revision. But the onset of a pandemic, or of any other crisis, is not the occasion for improvisation. If anything, the time-tested principles are more important than ever.
Beer suggests that fundraising remains, at its essence, a two-step process: “First, find new donors; and second, cultivate the donors you have, moving them up the giving ladder.” The hard part, of course, whether or not you’re living through a pandemic, is how best to acquire donors, and how best to cultivate them.
Without question, the best techniques pre-COVID remain the best techniques in our new era of drive-through testing and social distancing. Direct mail is still the foundation of a successful fundraising program. Planned giving programs are still one of the most efficient ways to raise a dollar. Communicating frequently and openly with your donors is still essential for winning their support.
Some things, of course, are not the same. Many donors probably aren’t interested in meeting face-to-face, which means you’d better get used to video calls. Some of your programs may have to pause or at least be modified to comply with current guidelines.
Likewise, fundraising events look very different than a year ago, assuming they’re happening at all. Beer offers detailed advice for thinking through whether your event ought to be postponed or adapted for an online platform. If it’s the latter, he has many suggestions for creating an event that will appeal to donors.
If the book has a watchword, it is communicate. Beer exhorts nonprofit leaders to communicate with donors, to communicate with vendors, to communicate with board members, to communicate with staff. COVID-19 has forced us all to retreat to our own homes, closing off or severely limiting our capacity for interacting with other people. It is the job of a fundraiser to traverse the grand distances, literal and otherwise, now separating us from one another.
There are, perhaps, larger lessons to be drawn from this slender book. One is that fundraisers really do not need much in the way of what Michael Oakeshott once called technical knowledge. Such knowledge is “formulated into rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned, remembered, and, as we say, put into practice.” Instead, fundraising relies heavily on practical knowledge, which, in Oakeshott’s words, “exists only in use.”
“In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book,” Oakeshott wrote. “Technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists.”
Cooking maybe a trivial example, but you get the idea. The same principle exists with fundraising: it requires the thoughtful and contextually-appropriate application of some fairly simple techniques. In a little more than 100 pages, Beer provides quite a bit of technical knowledge—how to set up a planned giving program, how to evaluate a donor database, how to calculate the cost of acquiring new donors—but he also preaches the value of practical knowledge, of patiently and thoughtfully applying time-tested principals.
“The governing virtue that leaders need in these times is prudence, or practical wisdom,” Beer writes. “This is the habit of being able to make sound decisions based on available information, in the right time and the right way.”
No book can bestow prudence on its reader. But a book certainly can identify actions that would not be prudent in the midst of a crisis—like laying off fundraisers, divesting from donor acquisition, or keeping your staff in the dark—as this one does. Added up, such advice begins to resemble a plausible path through the current crisis.
Still, it will be up to nonprofit leaders to exercise judgement in the midst of unique circumstances. And their success will be no small accomplishment. For at stake are not only the jobs of nonprofit staff members (important as those are), but the missions and life-altering work carried out by organizations across the country.
“America’s vital nonprofit sector is one of the great glories of our country. The private, voluntary nonprofit associations that constitute our civil society contribute mightily to human flourishing,” Beer writes.
Let the pandemic sweep away our busyness, our restlessness, and our voracious appetites. But our old habits of charity, generosity, and neighborliness—these must be preserved. It is work that extends beyond nonprofit associations, even if those associations are often the places where our best habits find fulfillment, and where civil society takes root.