This post originally appeared on eJewish Philanthropy.

As we count-up towards the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and God’s giving of the Torah to Charlton Heston, I mean Moses, I’m thinking of the 10 commandments.

I’m also thinking about the recession in the early 90s. The 2001 dot com bust. The 2008 recession and Madoff mess. Doesn’t matter when it happened. There are certain basic fundraising and communications fundamentals which remain constant.

So while everyone is asking “why is this crisis different from all other crises”- and it certainly seems different- we can lean on lessons learned from the “ancient” past. Here are five do’s and five dont’s to help guide your current fundraising and communications efforts.

DON’T Go Dark

I know of nonprofit leaders who have ordered their staff to stop communicating with donors. The reasoning? “Now’s not a good time to be in touch.” Just the opposite! Now would be a really bad time to stop communicating with donors. Donor relations is an ongoing conversation with our supporters. Remember: Out of sight, out of mind.

The data: For the last decade plus, the average nonprofit retention rate hovers around 40%. It’s hard enough trying to acquire 60% new donors each year, let alone during a pandemic. Stay in touch!

DO Communicate

Your organization needs to be communicating with ALL your stakeholders: employees, donors, Board, volunteers, beneficiaries, grant funders, corporate partners and online followers. They need real-time updates.

Communicate how you’re continuing to fulfill your mission under the current constraints. Share the challenges you’re facing, how coronavirus affects your work and programming but also show your plan to overcome those obstacles. Remind them: Poverty/homelessness/domestic abuse etc. don’t stop for a pandemic. (Full disclosure: I Support The Girls is a client.)


DON’T Slash and Burn

I was a CEO during the 2008 recession and I know how tempting it is to just cut everything, especially salary. But cutting fundraising and communications staff is a HUGE mistake. Who will write the copy and make the ask next month? Or in three months?

Letting everyone go shows panic. That’s not what you want to communicate to the outside world. “The sky is falling” is not an effective approach to fundraising. Instead…

DO Be Transparent and Agile

Steady leadership during a crisis is critical to your organization’s future. Transparency and locating new and creative sources of funding will keep your donors giving.

  • Transparent: Now is the time for real-talk with your donors. Take an example from the CEO of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. They didn’t wait- they pushed forward early on and decisively took action to help their community survive. For example, they immediately announced the removal of restrictions on grant funds. Nick (the CEO) has been posting update videos and being as transparent as possible as to where funds are being distributed. This is EXACTLY the fundraising and communications response your organization should be following.
  • Agile: Is revenue down because of social isolation? Now’s the time to gather staff and Board and get creative. Need an example? See how this sanctuary farm is combining goats and Zoom to make up for lost admissions revenue. Communicate new programming with supporters via email and social media.
DON’T Talk About Me

Donor-centric communications is all about the donor and the impact they’re having. Your goal should be zero distance between donor and service recipients. Sending communications with an email subject line “Oy Oy Woe Is Us” which talks only about the organization is going to fall flat. Tell them about the growing need, explain the difficulties you’re facing but make sure that the donor is at the very center of all communications pieces.

Donors are helping people, not your organization.

DO Ask How They Are

Fundraising should be a two-way street and not just your organization holding out its hand for charity. Now is the time to build trust and strengthen relationships. How?

Demonstrate empathy: Start off communications by asking how your donors are. Are they safe and healthy? Is there anything your organization can do to help them? Keep in mind that you have donors who took a nasty financial hit via the stock market. Just like you, they’re worried about their family and friends. They’re stressed and anxious.

Fundraising isn’t about the money. It’s about the relationship.


See the below graph. People are searching for the term “coronavirus” way more than “COVID-19.” Therefore, in your communications, call it coronavirus. Speak the language of your donors. (Note: U.S. and U.K. trends match the worldwide trend)

coronavirus on google trends

DO Distance Socialize

Had to cancel your big fundraising event? Can’t conduct face-to-face meetings because of social distancing? Welcome to Distance Socializing!

There are plenty of solutions available:

  • Email: A personal email from the CEO to start a conversation.
  • Video: Send personalized videos full of gratitude. Use Zoom to chat and make an ask. Just remember to clean up the mess in the background of your bedroom.
  • Website: Create a landing page on your website which is constantly updated. Make sure people have one link to visit for coronavirus updates as opposed to multiple posts/pages. Communicate!
  • Pick up the phone: Remember those? A phone conversation is private, intimate, allows for one-to-one communication and makes people feel a little less socially isolated.

Physical distance should not stop you from communicating with donors and stakeholders.

DON’T Ask For Their $1,200 Checks

I knew this was coming but when I first saw the ask from a nonprofit in my inbox a few days ago, I still cringed.

It’s easy to assume that some of your donors don’t need the $1,200 checks from the U.S. stimulus package (or money being given to people in each country). Don’t look in other people’s wallets! You have no idea how much $1,200 means to each person.

So a specific ask from donors to donate their stimulus package check to your organization? Yeah, don’t do that.

DO Ask!

Donors WANT to help. They WANT to give. The needs of your service recipients have grown. Make the connection!

You want to reach out to everyone with an update. If you have to pick which donors to start with, specifically target donors you have a good relationship with, as well as recurring and consistent donors. Major gift donors? Get in touch with them immediately. They may need to postpone their promised donation until the situation stabilizes. That means adjusting your budget accordingly but communicate with donors ASAP.

As stated above, your fundraising communications needs to be sensitive. Adding “if you can give now” demonstrates your understanding of your donor’s current frame of financial mind.

Your nonprofit mission? Helping your beneficiaries. Now when they really need it, don’t cancel fundraising. Make the ask!

Bottom Line

When we come out of this- and we WILL come out of this- I have no idea what the ‘new normal’ will be. One thing I know for sure: The basic principles of fundraising and communications will not change.

You’re worried about your bottom line. Learn from what works to survive and thrive.

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Hi nonprofit pro! NOW’S the time to be engaging with your donors. Since you might not be able to in person, let’s give your digital communications and marketing a kickstart, so we can give a boost to your bottom line!