Barbara O’Reilly, CFRE, joined us to talk about the challenges facing nonprofit leaders today and what we should be focused on, how we must balance empathy and urgency in our messaging, and her approach to navigating through each stage of a crisis: the response (our current phase), recovery, and resilience building.
Barbara brings more than twenty-five years of annual fund, major gifts, and campaign fundraising experience at major nonprofit organizations including Harvard University, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Oxford University, and the American Red Cross.
She serves as president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Washington DC Metro Chapter and as a former member of the Advisory Panel for Rogare, The Fundraising Think Tank in the U.K.
Her firm, Windmill Hill Consulting, helps nonprofit organizations of all sizes cut through the noise and develop a profitable fundraising strategy that focuses on the resources, skills and tactics they need to build more effective donor relationships and catapult their revenue.
4 Keys to Fundraising During the COVID-19 Crisis
Barbara brought her years of fundraising experience, especially disaster fundraising, to advise our listeners on how to keep going during the COVID-19 Crisis. These four key takeaways will help you get through.
1. Start with the End in Mind
What kind of organization are you trying to be? What kind of fundraising do you want to do? Before you can get to where you want to be, you need to know where you’re trying to go.
“As Franklin Covey says ‘start with the end in mind,’” Barbara says. “ I’m always thinking about where does that organization want to go programmatically for sure, but also fundraising-wise, what do they want their fundraising revenue to look like, their development systems and strategies, and then, where are they now and how do they get to that point? So it’s always about building the infrastructure to get them to that end in mind.”
That infrastructure will include donor relationships. What kind of relationships do you need to have with donors to be the organization you want to be? Barbara asks, “How do we then build the segmentation, the personalization, the strategies in this new way of existing? It’s always coming back down to the fundamentals of donor relationship building.”
Don’t simply dive into crisis fundraising–take a minute to figure out where you’re headed and what you need to get there. Then, identify the donor relationship building techniques you need to prioritize.
2. You Might Not Need More Donors
It’s easy to think that everything would be fine and you could weather any crisis, if only you had more donors. Barbara takes a different view. “I talk to organizations sometimes who will say, ‘We need more donors.’ And when I ask the question, ‘Well, how many names do you have on your file?’ They might say, ‘Ten thousand names.’ I say, ‘You don’t need more donors. You need to actually figure out what to do with the donors or the names that are in your file now.’”
Acquiring and immediately losing new donors isn’t a sustainable strategy — it’s churn. If you’re going to make it through a crisis, you have to connect with your current donors on a human level.
Barbara says, “ If we are only ever counting checks, or credit card contributions, or online donations and not thinking about what are the pieces behind that, who’s behind these contributions, how do we build relationships and steward those donors and then figure out how do we build within our own file?”
The height of a crisis is probably not the right time to revamp all your fundraising systems, but Barbara recommends using the time to get to know your donors. Fundraisers, she says, “can spend some time digging into their file a little bit more, doing some strategic segmentation to understand who are the donors that they might personally reach out to, who are the ones that they can do some tailored communications to, who’s coming forward in making gifts now when it feels like it’s impossible to be asking for a gift?”
3. Donors Crave Connection During Crisis
During the COVID-19 crisis, loneliness and isolation have been a real issue for many people, including donors. Nonprofits that find ways to personally connect during this time will stand out.
AFP DC has hosted virtual town halls. “Those have been terrific in allowing members to be able to just talk to each other, share advice and ideas,” says Barbara. “And it’s the same in your organizations to have in your ED or program directors to share some firsthand experiences and to be able to allow for that Q&A, which is going to be so important.”
In addition to the ubiquitous video calls, Barbara recommends trying the good old-fashioned phone.
“I have been advising organizations to pick up the phone and call their older donors. They are the ones who are especially socially isolated right now so that picking up the phone if you’ve got the phone numbers for them is a wonderful touchpoint.”
If you’re facing fundraising shortfalls and overwhelmed by the crisis, picking up the phone may not feel like you’re doing much, but Barbara says organizations that do this, “…are showing those donors that the organization sees them as donors, as people, and people who are going through the same things that we’re going through. And so, that’s really powerful because that donor will remember that call, and will remember that personal outreach more than they will the weekly email updates they might get.”
4. Self-Care is Necessary for Crisis Fundraisers
Fundraising during a crisis is hard work and can take a lot out of you. Barbara draws from her experience fundraising at the American Red Cross during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to recommend that fundraising professionals make sure to take care of themselves, to avoid burnout.
“Take that self-care of just allowing, resetting our expectations for what productivity looks like, resetting our expectations for how others and our teams can be performing, and being able to allow ourselves that space to do good enough work and not be trying to be overachievers every single minute of every single day because it’s impossible right now,” she cautions.
Consider your expectations for yourself and others during this time. Are you being reasonable? What can you hit “pause” on for the time being?
Full Episode Transcript
Barbara O’Reilly: In addition to the paralysis that you and I were talking about, there’s also that assumption that donors aren’t going to give, but everything I’m seeing and certainly what history has been showing us is that donors do give.
Noah Barnett: From Virtuous, I’m Noah Barnett and this is the Responsive Fundraising Podcast, a show where we talk with fundraising leaders and thinkers to uncover how today’s top nonprofits craft remarkable donor experiences and build lasting relationships at scale.
On this episode, I’m joined by Barbara O’Reilly. Her firm, Windmill Hill Consulting helps nonprofit organizations of all sizes cut through the noise and develop a profitable fundraising strategy that focuses on the resources, skills, and tactics they need to build more effective donor relationships and catapult their revenue.
She also serves as the president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Washington, DC Metro chapter, and is a former member of the advisory panel for Rogare, the fundraising think tank in the UK.
During our conversation, we lean on the vast array of experience Barbara has had serving with and alongside nonprofits, big and small, and discuss how the current crisis we’re amidst in 2020 is impacting nonprofit leaders and what they should do about it. It’s a great conversation and let’s dive in.
Where Should Nonprofits Focus During a Crisis?
NB: Barbara, you have a vast array of experience serving with, and really alongside, nonprofits both big and small, and this vantage point really provides a unique lens to sift through the current crisis we’re amidst in 2020. We’re recording this both from our home offices, in quarantine, kids are at home, we’re in the middle of all this. And so, I’m curious how you are thinking about this and what you believe orgs should be kind of focused on right now in the midst at this time?
BO: Sure. So, Noah, in a pre-COVID-19 world when I’m working with organizations who are looking to scale their fundraising, I’m always thinking about the … As Franklin Covey says start with the end in mind.
So I’m always thinking about where does that organization want to go programmatically for sure, but also fundraising-wise, what do they want their fundraising revenue to look like, their development systems and strategies, and then, where are they now and how do they get to that point? So it’s always about building the infrastructure to get them to that end in mind.
And right now, more than at any point in time, that heightens the urgency of this. So we’ve got organizations that are either full steam ahead because they are directly related to COVID-19 response in some way, shape or form, whether they’re human services, they’re food banks, they’re healthcare.
And so they’ve got that very unique situation of being on the front lines and now also, seeing probably unprecedented levels of revenue coming in, philanthropic revenue, which they now have to manage both from a donor stewardship, donor sort of processing to programming.
The other side of the spectrum, though, are those who are finding themselves in very uncertain grounds, as we all are, but for them, they’re not sure how do they make their case, set their case in the light of the current situation and how do they mitigate then the losses, the financial losses that they’re expecting?
Because they are not the direct services, they feel like their story and their mission might not seem as important right now in light of everything else, the more urgent societal needs.
So it’s a matter of thinking about what are your scenarios that you have hopefully done? We’ve done some scenario planning to understand what’s this organization going to look like over the next one month, two months, six months? How much projection do we think we are going to see in terms of revenue, but in terms of also especially lost revenue?
And where are the things that we need to be doubled down on in our donor relationships, in our fundraising? What are the things that we can’t count on and how do we then build the segmentation, the personalization, the strategies in this new way of existing? It’s always coming back down to the fundamentals of donor relationship building.
So we’ve got to be thinking about our short term, one-month, two-month, six-month strategy in that lens of making sure that we are keeping connected with our donors and that we’re still fundraising in some way, shape or form because those who are tangential right now, I see they are paralyzed. They don’t know what to do next.
And that’s where you’ve got to just keep going. You’ve got to keep fundraising because history has shown us that giving has never stopped ever, even going back to the Great Depression. So if giving has never stopped, it has slowed. It has been redirected, as we will very clearly see I’m sure in how donors are giving to direct response and not direct response, but donors have never completely stopped giving. So we have to, as fundraisers, have to be allowing them to be supporting our organizations as they have done in the past.
NB: Indeed, and I think you highlighted so many key things. I kind of want to kind of summarize them a little bit because I think they’re important in a variety of different ways as leaders or listeners of this podcast are trying to navigate. And the first that you mentioned is this idea that we need to reframe the circumstances. We’re in the middle of this, yes, that is true. But it will end, that is also true. And there’s a future beyond this because we serve a societal need.
And I think it was Richard Perry or someone was saying that you serve a societal need. You need to remember that your mission matters also even in the midst of this. Not that it’s more than, but it’s also, and that’s important and there’s going to be a future.
I think the second thing you mentioned is just this idea that right now, it’s so important for an organization to have operating systems and processes as to how they systematically go through and think from a funding standpoint or programming standpoint. It’s never been more important to have systematic planning and process.
And I was talking to Sarah Olivieri over at PivotGround, and she was talking about how organizations need an operating system that focuses on the process for improvement, not necessarily the process, but it’s like you actually have a process designed to improve at rapid paces, and like you mentioned, that organizations are adapting and evolving in real-time.
How Do I Create a Culture of Fundraising?
NB: And the third thing I know you mentioned previously in a conversation is the importance of culture. And I wanted to kind of pull back on that, and why is culture so important? Because culture has been well socialized, but I feel like we’re in the midst of a moment where culture might be more important than ever.
BO: You are exactly right. Culture is to me, and you’ll hear this in phrase, culture of philanthropy, culture of giving, or what’s an organization’s culture, fundraising culture, and for me, that boils down to how do they view fundraising? Is it measured in transactions? So is it just measured in dollars raised? Or do they absolutely value the donor relationship?
So they understand that there is a human being behind every gift that comes through that is prompted by a deeper meaning for that particular donor that is beyond what that organization’s mission is.
So we know from lots of surveys and research that donors give because they want to make a difference. They want to have an impact. But that’s what leads them to an organization because there are personal causes that are deep within them that define their philanthropic priorities.
So with that in mind, if we are only ever counting checks, or credit card contributions, or online donations and not thinking about what are the pieces behind that, so who’s behind these contributions, how do we build relationships and steward those donors and then figure out how do we build within our own file?
I talk to organizations sometimes who will say, “We need more donors.” And when I ask the question, “Well, how many names do you have on your file?” And they might say, ” Ten thousand names.” I say, “You don’t need more donors. You need to actually figure out what to do with the donors or the names that are in your file now.”
NB: Oh, a hundred percent.
BO: Right? Right. I mean —
NB: Yeah, absolutely.
What Does Donor Cultivation Look Like During a Crisis?
BO: And so it goes back, and the organizations say, “We need more donors.” They don’t need more donors because that’s just churn. So things like really fundamental practices to your point just a minute ago about the systems and the processes in place, what are the metrics that they’re using to define their progress? How are they measuring their fundraising effectiveness and success beyond just revenue raised?
This is now not the right time probably to put the systems in place quite honestly, although, they can spend some time digging into their file a little bit more, doing some strategic segmentation to understand who are the donors that they might personally reach out to, who are the ones that they can do some tailored communications to, who’s coming forward in making gifts now when it feels like it’s impossible to be asking for a gift?
So there are things like that. And it might be this is the moment where they can reset that culture if they have only ever thought about this transactionally. Because right now, we all have time, right? We are all at stay-at-home orders. We are all behind our desks. We are all craving interactions of some sort. So this might be the time where they can start to develop those relationships a little bit more effectively than they had previously.
NB: Yeah. And you hit on a key point that donor stewardship is foundational to effective fundraising and now more than ever, that’s true. Yeah, I think that you talked about this paralysis and I think there’s two parts of this, but one is that our current moment has really stripped us of many of the familiar mediums fundraising professionals really depend on to fuel donor stewardship, maybe its donor events, one-on-one meetings, et cetera.
And so obviously, you’re dealing with this in real time with clients or advising the members of AFP DC and others. So what does staying connected with donors and donor cultivation look like now? What does that look like? What should it look like?
BO: Yeah. Right. It’s funny ’cause in a pre-COVID-19 world, I would’ve said, you’ve got to ensure you’ve got diversity of media so you’re not over-relying on digital or events or any one form of fundraising. But right now, we are completely dependent on digital because we don’t have those other forums. You don’t have print ’cause every printing house is closed. We don’t have events, right. We don’t have the more in-person one-on-one meetings.
So the first and foremost words of advice I always give is that fundraisers can’t be silent. So it goes back to that paralysis. Even if they aren’t sure what to say, the fact that they can say, “These are the things that we’re doing right now. This is how we’re modifying our work. These are the things that are keeping us up at night,” to their donors is absolutely okay.
Because again, every single one of us has experienced this in some way. And the donors who are either donors to or subscribers to an organization’s mailing list, they’re there for a reason. They’re there because something has struck a chord with them. So they do want to know how that organization’s adapting.
So I would say that we’ve got this very unique moment where we have to be reliant on everything digital and everyone’s craving some form of interaction. So donor events can now become digital. They might become smaller so you may want to curate some sort of virtual happy hour or virtual town hall. You might ask a board member or a volunteer to host something that is an opportunity to gather maybe 15 or 20 people to talk about the organization and to get to know them.
You might also do, I’ve seen, if you’re reliant on things like runs, sponsored runs, you might do a sponsored virtual run or a sponsored virtual cycling race where people will get on, can do it virtually and be sponsored, and still have that same sort of fun of competition and engagement. But there’s also things like assets, so assets that you might have that are videos or recordings.
We support a music school and they have been terrific about sending out recordings of or links to their website where there are recordings from students. So that’s a really nice … It was not expected. I was delighted, in fact, to get that email where they had a hyperlink to all the different student recordings and some of the past events, performances they had done. So that was just a really nice way to remind me of the great work that they’re doing.
Virtual town halls, we are doing that at AFP DC, and those have been terrific in allowing members to be able to just talk to each other, share advice and ideas. And it’s the same in your organizations to have in your ED or program directors to share some firsthand experiences and to be able to allow for that Q&A, which is going to be so important.
The other thing though, aside from all these sort of digital video calls or video settings, it’s the good old-fashioned phone. So I have been advising organizations to pick up the phone and call their older donors. They are the ones who are especially socially isolated right now so that picking up the phone if you’ve got the phone numbers for them is a wonderful touchpoint to say, “Hey, we just want to say thank you. You have been a supporter of our organization. We want to check-in and see how you’re doing.”
That will go a long way and, of course, as long as it’s done authentically.
I posted something on LinkedIn around, and I can’t remember exactly how I phrased it, but it was something like “In this new digital setting that we’re in, I hope that it will allow us to create more authentic relationships.” And so, the ideas of being able to have these virtual face-to-faces, and then the old-fashioned sound of your voice on the other end of a phone are tried and true ways that we can continue to stay connected with our donors.
NB: Yeah. And I think like what you mentioned, too, is it’s sometimes the simple things that we overlook in the midst of chaos or uncertainty. It’s like going back and taking a step back and be like, what are the fundamentals here? What’s the simplest thing I can do right now to move the ball forward?
It doesn’t have to be this big strategic plan or this, that, and the other. It’s like … I know I talked to a chief advancement officer, a hundred million, multi-hundred million dollar nonprofit. He was like, “I don’t know. We’re just making phone calls.” That was it. I was like, “What’s your strategy?” He’s like, “I don’t know. We’re just making phone calls.”
BO: That’s right.
NB: And that was it. That in very few words, and that was his recommendation. It was just like, “Just pick up the phone and call. I don’t know. I don’t know what else to do right now.”
BO: That’s exactly right.
NB: So let’s just do that first and see what we learn.
BO: And that right there is especially powerful. I think just being able to go through say, depending on how many donors an organization has and what staff capacity they have, they might have to segment so they prioritize a bit. But I think that very active, personal phone calls are really powerful.
So even though it may feel like they’re not doing anything else, they are showing those donors that the organization sees them as donors, as people, right, and people who are going through the same things that we’re going through.
And so, that’s really powerful because that donor will remember that call and will remember that personal outreach more than they will the weekly email updates they might get.
Should I Make Fundraising Appeals During a Crisis?
NB: Yeah. And I think this brings up, because it’s all nice and good to say like, “Oh, we should just call donors and just check-in and see how it’s going,” but being a fundraising professional and being in charge or in that chair previously, we know that there’s some urgency for a lot of organizations where they’re like, “Hey, we have fundraising that needs to be done.”
And I think that’s drawing out some paralysis where it’s like, “Do we send anything? Do we ask? How should we ask?” And so I’m curious, how would you recommend nonprofits really balance this empathy and urgency in their fundraising message? What’s the tone or posture organizations should lean into right now?
BO: So I would start by just being absolutely candid with the messaging. So every organization has, I hope by this point now with about four weeks into this, done their scenario plannings and redone their forecasts. So they should have a very clear sense of how COVID-19 is affecting your organization, both in terms of revenue and in terms of program and service delivery.
So I talked at the beginning about the two camps, the ones who are sort of going full steam ahead and the ones who are not necessarily directly related to the response in the front line, but there are impacts that COVID-19’s going to have on every vertical within the nonprofit sector.
So starting with that very clear candor of what the scenario looks like for that organization, what do they anticipate the short term and the long term implications are going to be? Does this mean that some programs have to be paused? Does this mean that some programs are going to have to be scaled up? What is that actually going to look like?
And every organization is going to face some financial downturns. Again, probably aside from the ones who are going to see the significant uptick, every organization is going to have some, most every other organization is going to have some impact on this.
And so, it’s okay to be clear with them, with those donors to say, “This is what we think is going to happen. This is where we’re going to have to adjust our programming or scale back because we are anticipating that ticket sales are going to go down, or our programs fees from education programs are going to go down or whatever it might be. We can’t hold our annual gala, which is a third of our budget” or whatever the implications might be.
It’s okay to be honest and open with the donors about that.
I think in addition to the paralysis that you and I were talking about, there’s also that assumption that donors aren’t going to give, but everything I’m seeing and certainly what history has been showing us is that donors do give, they do continue to give, and they’re looking in moments of sort of a seeming uncertainty and very clear uncertainty as we are right now, donors are looking for that sense of agency.
They’re looking for something they can control, the thing that they can control. And by giving to an organization that they have supported in the past, that’s important to them in their philanthropic priorities, that allow them to say, “No, I can’t make a gift right now to you because I’m supporting this food bank or I’m supporting this other organization,” but don’t assume that they’re going to not give to you.
And so, that’s where it’s candor in the messaging and being mindful that this is a new world order for everybody, mindful that the donors themselves are reevaluating their own situations, but that the donors will continue to be there in some way, shape or form.
And so, it’s okay. You may not necessarily lead the first communication with an ask, but maybe the second or third one. And it has to be framed in knowing that the donor wants impact. They want that organization to succeed. And so, what is it going to take now in this COVID-19 and then sort of post-COVID-19 world? What is that going to mean for how the donor can help that organization be successful?
NB: Yeah, and I think it’s a great reminder of things that I continually go back to, that the reason donors keep giving is because they have confidence in and connection with, and our strategies and our tactics that we do now should reflect that just as it did pre-COVID.
Obviously, it’s adjusting because we don’t want to be tone-deaf, but it’s how do we build confidence in and connection with our donors and our organization or the cause that we’re working on? You can only do that by communicating and actually sharing information.
And candid, I like that that use of the word, is a posture that I think pays huge dividends even if that’s human and kind of fractured. In some ways, it’s like, “Hey, well, this is just the reality of what’s going on.”
And I know there’s so much more around this that we could obviously get into, but don’t necessarily have the luxury of kind of extended periods of time. But I do want to get prescriptive and pragmatic.
How Can Fundraisers Practice Self-Care in a Crisis?
NB: Obviously, you have an interesting vantage because you’re obviously surveying what’s going on and looking at our current moment. And so, I’m curious what you’ve seen that you would discourage nonprofits to do? What have you already seen that’s like, “Ugh, I wouldn’t do that?” But what else or maybe an example of something you’ve seen that you would encourage organizations to do. I think examples are really helpful.
BO: Yeah. So the first and foremost thing I would suggest is, and I can’t underscore this enough, it’s taking care of yourselves. So, I spent five years as a disaster fundraiser and the first half of my first year as a disaster fundraiser was at the American Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina.
NB: Oh, gosh.
BO: And that was talk about a trial by fire. It was a really intensive couple of months, certainly intensive one month to the point where I wore myself completely out, as did many other colleagues.
So thinking about making sure that this is … We’re in such a weird space right now, and we’re all … I’ve been reading a lot about grief and how this actually, we’re all grieving in some way, whether it’s the loss of our pre-COVID-19 lives, the anticipatory grief of we’re not sure what comes next, but this is impacting our productivity. This is impacting now we’ve got to be remote working, maybe crisis schooling, dealing with caring for other family members and so forth, all at once.
So take that self-care of just allowing, resetting our expectations for what productivity looks like, resetting our expectations for how others and our teams can be performing, and being able to allow ourselves that space to do good enough work and not be trying to be overachievers every single minute of every single day because it’s impossible right now.
So I really feel like that we are only month one into all of this. And this is going to continue for a little while longer, at least in the immediate phase.
The other thing that I learned about as a disaster fundraiser was that it is never only about the response. It’s about the response, recovery and then risk mitigation or resilience. So it’s a full cycle.
Everybody focuses always on what are the emergency unmet needs that have to be met to get a community through a disaster or communities through disasters. But then when those cameras leave, how does that community, that state, those states start to or that country start to rebuild?
What are the steps that they need to take to restart livelihoods or rebuild, physically rebuild neighborhoods and so forth? And then, it’s that resilience stage. And we are still in the response stage. So we have to pace ourselves really carefully and keep our eyes set on the resilience. How do we get to recovery and then resilience because those are what’s going to carry our organizations for sustainability through this time?
The other thing that I would say is to … So you asked for what not to, and it’s to not stay silent. It’s to be thinking about what’s your organization going to look like between now and December?
So maybe you stage it. Do “What’s our organization going to look like in two months, in four months, in six months?” What’s the organization going to look like and need differently, do you anticipate? What are the things that need to be reshaped in terms of your staffing, in terms of your program delivery?
One of the biggest don’ts is: Don’t cut your development staff. I see this, the development and marketers are usually the first to go when organizations are looking to trim their expenses, but fundraising is a revenue center. It is not a cost center and you need those fundraisers to maintain those donor relationships, especially right now, and especially to keep going to get to that resilience stage.
So ensuring that you keep the staffing infrastructure, you keep that long view in mind and then, backing it up to “How can we rebuild or redefine our fundraising strategy in light of what we are now in?”
So maybe then now is the time to clean up your data file. Now is the time to segment and start doing that more personalized communication. Now’s the time to be thinking about new and different ways to keep your donors thinking of you.
And it might be — think of all the for-profit companies that have suddenly now flooded our inboxes with little notes. Or I’ve gotten ones about we do a sharing recipes, or sharing funny videos, or different tips and ideas, book recommendations. I mean anything that you think.
So learn from our for-profit, our retail colleagues, and adapt that to your mission-centric communications and updates because at the end of the day, that’s what donors are looking for. They want to sustain your programs. They want to sustain the benefit to those you serve. And so, find ways to keep them connected in that and still build those relationships to that resilient stage.
NB: Yeah. And all of those are so important, whether it’s self-care, or sustainability kind of evaluation, or what does this look like, but also just sharing, and just being vulnerable and kind of keeping those at the forefront. So I think those are great reminders. And I feel like there’s so many great examples out there of organizations that are doing this.
So don’t be afraid to reach out to peers. I think that’s another thing. Don’t sit in it alone. We’re in this together, even though things are different for everyone and together, we can move through it and recover and then also, build more resilience.
So, Barbara, I know you’re an advocate of that and I appreciate the time.
BO: Of course. Noah, this has been great. I have so enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for asking me to share my perspectives.
NB: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Responsive Fundraising Podcast by Virtuous. Each episode, we’ve designed to really give you the insights into the philosophy, process and playbook of leading nonprofits so that you can grow giving and build deeper relationships with the people who matter most, your donors.