Fundraising in a Crisis

At times like this, when my financial situation is threatened…it is difficult to trust my heart. My head gets in the way and tells me to be practical and hold back. Collectively, if we all do that, we will be in danger. I must trust my heart, regardless of the current situation, and continue to give, be it time or money, whatever I have. And, it would be a great service to the world to lead by example. Trust my gut and move my feet – even when I am afraid.

If you assumed this is what donors are thinking right now, you could be right. But this quote is eleven years old, from the first edition of The Burk Donor Survey which we deployed in the depths of the last recession. Yes, the underlying cause is different this time, but it is a crisis of unknown duration and it is very likely going to have an impact on fundraising.

During the last recession, we conducted research with donors to better understand how they were managing their philanthropy in a new financial reality. If I had to boil it down to a single statement, it would be this: during a crisis, donors continue to support not-for-profits that they trust and they find it much easier to drop those that they don’t. Given very recent research on whether and to what degree donors trust charitable organizations, that must make fundraisers shiver.

  • The Better Business Bureau found that 70% of respondents said trust is essential before making a donation but fewer than 20% had a high level of trust in charities;
  • The Indiana University School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable have charted a decline in trust among donors from 66% in 2000 to 53% in 2016.

Trust Is a Byproduct of Something Else

“We’re not-for-profits dedicated to doing good work so you can trust us,” is a position long held by the charitable sector as a substitute for reliable evidence on what donors’ contributions are achieving. And, certain fundraising practices that hammer donors relentlessly have exacerbated the problem. But if not-for-profits are responsible for the decline in trust among donors, they can also rebuild it. They, and their fundraisers, just can’t do it by coming at the issue directly. Trust is engendered by doing away with practices that cause donors to stop giving and by interacting with donors in ways that make them feel proud of their attempts to do good in the world.

According to our research, these concrete steps build trust among donors during a crisis:

  • Acknowledging that donors, not just not-for-profits, are negatively affected in a crisis;
  • Offering sincere, personal gratitude whenever donors give;
  • Facilitating direct contact from the people in your organization that have influence with donors. Their influence comes from the positions they hold and the fact that they are not paid to raise money. That means, above all others, leadership volunteers and Chief Executive Officers.

Over the next several weeks (longer if necessary), I will be writing about how fundraisers and their not-for-profits can maneuver through this crisis, retaining as many donors as possible and even acquiring new ones in these extraordinary times. Meanwhile, here is a story about how our research and, specifically, the three strategies outlined above, helped one of our clients ride out the 2008/09 recession.

My firm was hired to conduct a feasibility study for an arts client on the west coast. Just as we were about to start interviewing donors, the recession hit. The Artistic Director and I met to decide what to do and we both quickly agreed that the project should be put on hold until the crisis eased.

 Then we fell into a broader conversation during which the Artistic Director asked me, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”

 “I know exactly what I would do,” I replied immediately. (I remember he was a bit startled by my confidence.)

 “I would write to all your season subscribers, your single ticket buyers and especially your donors and tell them that you know they must be hurting right now. And, you should tell them you are OK and that the theatre will survive, not because you are asking them to give but because they have been there for you in the past. Their loyalty has made it possible for the theatre that you and they both love to get through whatever is coming.”

 Well, he did it; and because he is an artist, he crafted a letter that was outstanding.

 A few days later the Artistic Director called me to report that his voicemail was full, he was inundated with emails and letters, and patrons were stopping him on the street to say how much they appreciated his kind and caring letter. I wasn’t surprised that many donors also responded with unsolicited gifts. Even so, it wasn’t about the money. At that moment in time, when everyone was holding his/her breath, that letter and its inherent gesture of respect was the priceless gift that deepened donors’ trust.


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blogs to help readers sustain donor loyalty in challenging situations such as we are facing right now. All content is evidence-based, drawn from 20 years of research with donors, including research on how donors manage their philanthropy during challenging times.

  • Jean Sywulka

    Thank you for the push to contact donors and what to say. Very timely info for me.

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