2020 was a challenging year for nonprofits, to say the least. Still, some organizations continue to thrive in the face of all the uncertainty. How are they doing it? What are they planning to do next?
That’s what we asked five nonprofit leaders at the Responsive Nonprofit Summit. Working across cause sectors and leading a variety of organizations, they came to similar conclusions about how they tackled 2020 and prepared to head strongly into the future.
When everything is spinning around you, it’s hard to feel grounded. If you’re feeling at loose ends, or like everything you do has changed, you’re certainly not alone. When asked what changed for them in 2020, all of the panelists responded with a variation on “Everything.”
All of the usual ways of doing work shifted, practically overnight. Donor meetings, events, and even office work radically changed. In the midst of all this change, however, one thing stayed the same: your mission.
Nonprofits exist to solve problems and make the world a better place. While 2020 may have brought on unique problems, all the other issues did not stop being important. These are the moments in time to connect more strongly with your mission than ever.
“Our focus remains strongly the same, how we go about it has had to change,” says Beth Fisher. During this time of uncertainty, continually come back to your mission. What is the most important thing? How can you adapt to the new reality and keep pursuing it?
Top Takeaway: Your mission is your anchor in a storm.
As a nonprofit leader, your community looks to you to point the way. How you frame conversations can make a big difference in how people feel. “Overarchingly, I think our job as leaders is to remain positive,” Cynthia Ware advised. “Challenges always come, we’re not surprised, change is the constant.”
Chris Horst found the changes of 2020 required a new level of candor and transparency with his donors. HOPE International decided, “We’re going to be really forthright.” They explained the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on their organization and directly asked donors about their fundraising plans for the year. This was more direct than they’d been in the past, but they found donors responded well to it. Instead of keeping donors at arms’ length from the problems, they were invited to come alongside the staff and try to tackle it.
“The key to survival, for me, is empathy,” says Jo Sullivan. “That goes to team members, the donors that we all count on to serve our mission, and the people who are out there trying to serve their community.” In order to keep animal and care staff employed during the shutdown, Houston SPCA brought them into the development department, to make phone calls to donors. This helped the program staff learn more about donors and has increased understanding and created a “wonderful synergy” between the program and development departments. “As leaders, we are responsible for keeping our organizations moving forward,” Jo says.
Top Takeaway: Be positive, honest, and think outside the box.
It didn’t take COVID-19 to show that traditional fundraising wasn’t working like it used to, but COVID made that fact much harder to ignore. Organizations that were handcuffed to outdated systems had serious problems, while organizations that could pivot in response to new data adapted quickly.
Myrna Mulholland knew her organization needed to become more responsive, but there wasn’t urgency. “We were moving toward [becoming] donor-centric, but at a snail’s pace,” she says. The crisis showed the need to start listening to donor signals, shorten planning cycles, and respond to real-time data. Instead of waiting to feel “ready” they dove right in. “We’re building the plane while we’re flying,” Myrna says.
Beth also found that the COVID crisis proved what she already knew. “There’s no way that we can any longer just be here with our hands out, we have to have a bilateral relationship with donors,” she says. She led her team in a discussion, asking “Why are we so stale? What can we do differently? How do we provide value, as opposed to being takers?” Her team started to prioritize educational initiatives to give donors a deeper understanding of homelessness.
If things are slower at your nonprofit for the moment, take the time to dig deep into your systems and processes. Do they work? What kind of journey does your donor go on after they give? Is it the best it can possibly be? What can you leave behind?
Top Takeaway: Transitioning to responsive fundraising makes sense in moments of uncertainty and prepares you for the future.
This pandemic has been rough on everyone. As a nonprofit leader, you have the opportunity to reach out and care for others, including donors and staff.
Jo encouraged other leaders to look to the health of the team, especially in the new world of online work. Do you have appropriate boundaries around remote work? Does your team think that just because they could be online at 10 PM, that they have to be? Protect your team by making personal care plans and being clear about expectations. “We all deserve to be okay during this time,” Jo says.
Chris pointed out that social distance is particularly hard for people who love fundraising, because face-to-face time with donors is the part of their job that many development professionals like the best. He recommends that leaders prioritize their relationships with staff, and take on as much risk as they’re comfortable with to “express how much we care for them and how much we need them.”
Top Takeaway: Help your team prioritize their own well-being and show them you care.
A challenging season isn’t forever. Time will keep going and nonprofits have to make plans. But how do you best move forward? And how do you even begin to plan when everything is in flux?
First, things might not be so dire. Chris points out that data shows that the giant dropoff in giving nonprofits initially feared doesn’t seem to be imminent. Generosity is resilient. In the summer of 2020, HOPE consciously made the decision to shift away from a defensive to an offensive approach, and start talking less about the crisis and more about the mission and future. Keep engaging your donors with updates and appreciation, and focus less on getting them to do more for you.
Cynthia has found that the good strategies she was already adapting are still operational in the current world. One of the things she recommends most is mobilizing the influencers within your circle to carry your message to their own networks, a tactic particularly suited to our current moment when everyone is living large chunks of their lives online. While Pepperdine began enlisting students and alumni with large social followings a few years ago, she says it’s never too late for an organization to start. “This is a long game,” she points out. It may not result in immediate gifts, but pays off long-term.
Myrna plans to continue to deepen donor relationships. She points out that most individuals give to multiple organizations and to weather a recession, “I just need to stay in the top two.” Moving forward, she intends to prioritize mid-level donors, communicating with them more personally. Some level of personalization, she says, is within the reach of organizations of all sizes and budgets. “Don’t ignore the discernible trends around us,” she says.
Top Takeaway: This is not forever, but the things you do now can make you stronger in the future.
Figuring out what to do next is challenging, but you’re not alone as you plan for the future. Watch the entire panel discussion here to get all the tips and wisdom from these leaders who are right in the trenches with you.
Traditional fundraising strategies no longer work. This blueprint explains why today's donor expects more, and how nonprofits are shifting to responsive fundraising.