I.G. Insights
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I.G. Insights

Fundraising Trends and Challenges During COVID-19: Insights from I.G.’s Virtual Major Gifts Surgery

As COVID-19 is forcing individuals and organisations alike to ‘reinvent’ themselves, here at I.G. we are also doing our best to adapt to our new work lives and remain positive during these challenging weeks.

As our Major Gifts Surgery (initially planned for the Skoll World Forum) was cancelled, last week we decided to organise a virtual event instead. This ‘new’ format gave a lot of fundraisers and non-profits from all over the world the opportunity to join us to share their experiences and ask their most pressing questions. It was clear that charities globally are facing remarkably similar fundraising challenges, no matter where they are based.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining: holding an unexpected global online event instead of a live one in Oxford turned out to be greatly beneficial for all those fundraisers who were able to dial in. And if you missed it, here is a summary of what the I.G. team discussed during the session:

Donor Responses to COVID-19

In the past few weeks, all types of donors have had to react to the crisis and take both individual and collective action, depending on their unique circumstances. My colleague Lauren Gross talked about the :

· Individual donors in ‘panic mode’: Many individuals have seen significant dips in their personal investments, and are having to freeze their current projects and contributions, as well as change their personal giving strategies.

· Loosening restrictions on grants: Some larger foundations are providing more flexibility in their funding and reporting requirements.

· Immediate response support: Several emergency response funds are being created around the globe.

· Cross-sector collaboration: Money is being pooled to achieve larger impact, and individuals are contributing to funds at every giving level.

· Business as usual: Some funders are carrying on with their long-term strategies.

Change Management

90% of our attendees revealed that their work is somehow affected by the current crisis. We believe this is the case for the majority of fundraisers, who are having to respond to multiple challenges, especially when it comes to communicating changes in the programmatic work and organisational strategy of their non-profit. In particular, Rachel Stephenson Sheff talked about best practice in these two scenarios:

· Unrestricted funding: When donors do not ring-fence their funding to a specific programme and are invested in your mission in a core, flexible way, they should be informed about your changes in strategy after an internal decision is made.

· Restricted funding: When your donors are supporting a specific programme or project, they should be consulted about any changes in strategy before implementing them. Whilst you don’t need to apologise, donors should be invited to these strategic discussions, after you’ve assessed the needs and risks.

Funding Resilience: A New Opportunity

As we know, donors are often hesitant to fund unrestricted operating costs. However, fundraising for core costs is what will keep your staff on the payroll when resources are limited. At I.G., we believe this crisis is a great opportunity for charities to start fundraising for organisational sustainability in a new and more efficient way. Whilst many organisations are prone to framing impact in the context of their programmes, this is an excellent opportunity to communicate the importance of reserves and healthy operating finances to donors. This ‘new’ way of fundraising may forever change the way you develop partnerships, even outside the COVID-19 crisis.

Managing Donor Relationships

As Gabriela Cervera pointed out, even though all our interactions are now virtual, the fundamentals of donor-relationship management still apply. More than ever before, this is the time to be transparent about your challenges, and adapt your strategy to engage and communicate with donors in new and creative ways (especially with the help of technology). Amy Whight and I selected some great examples of charities that are doing this well:

· Appeals and Video Updates: The Cathedral Archer Project has been of its CEO highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on the organisation and its end users, and Practical Action has been between its UK staff and staff members ‘on the field’ to bring to life the impact of the crisis on the ground.

· Shout outs to express gratitude: The Red Hen Project to thank a business supporter who donated food for vulnerable families in the area.

· Video calls to discuss strategy: Some non-profits are organising BYOB dinners on Zoom with their Board of Trustees and donors, to replicate the regular dinner experience they would have during non-COVID times.

· Legacy ask: In the last month, there has been a significant increase in the amount of traffic to the legacy sections of charity websites and the number of people writing wills with a gift to charity. Several non-profits are taking this as an opportunity to share information on leaving a gift in a Will on their website.

· Virtual Events: Upaya Social Venture and managed to raise almost $100k over their target through a fun online fundraising campaign and auction, using the online platform GreaterGiving.

· Online Site Visits: worldwide in an effort to increase access to the arts. The platform allows users to browse featured museum collections, or use Google’s interior to wander gallery halls.

Finally, Emily Collins-Ellis led our Q&A session, where attendees were able to share their experience and ask for advice. Here are three questions that the I.G. team answered during the webinar.

What advice would you give about approaching new funders in this climate, especially while they are reshuffling their priorities and focusing on supporting existing grantees?

If new business is part of your plan and your adaptation strategy, there is no reason why you should not try to expand your support network. If you have a new programme specifically created to cope with the crisis, this is a great opportunity to reach out to new donors, though always being mindful of the changes in the general climate.

There’s a real distinction between long-term versus short-term thinking during this initial phase: whilst we are hoping that it won’t be long before we can all go back to normality, we need to always remember that, even if it will take long, this immediate ‘short-term crisis feeling’ will eventually fade away, and we will start to get used to the ‘new normal’. At that point, ‘sensitive’ conversations with donors can become much easier.

Do you have any advice about how to make compelling unrestricted COVID-19 asks, without having any compelling stories and pictures yet, and while the specifics of our response are still being ironed out?

Our general recommendation is you should always try to pitch your mission, vision and team from a high-level perspective, rather than promoting an individual programme that can easily lend itself to an ‘artificially’ restricted approach. If your message to donors does not revolve around ‘who you are and what you do’, it will be harder to revert things down the line and move away from restricted funding.

When it comes to pitching a specific programme in response to COVID-19, of course donors won’t expect you to have a fully fleshed-out programme with a three-year strategic plan and clear impact measurement metrics. This would simply be unreasonable. Instead, they are buying into your organisation’s expertise and unique approach to the problem. So now more than ever, your relationship management and communications should be slick and timely, and reflective of this expertise and ability to make the difference. If you’re thinking about a robust unrestricted ask from a major donor, it is advisable to approach those with whom you already have a strong relationship, as a ‘cold ask’ may not be the most appropriate strategy in this specific context.

What are your suggestions for a small charity that struggles to attract quality fundraising staff, and lacks the funds to do so due to the effects of COVID-19?

We recognise that this is a difficult position to be in, as team capacity issues can often exacerbate external complications such as global crises. But here’s a few key things that we would recommend doing to address this issue:

· Ask additional funding from current, loyal donors: Firstly, you should have a frank and honest conversation about your team capacity and needs with loyal donors who already believe in your organisation’s mission. Make sure you are prepared to demonstrate a return on investment from an impact perspective before you ask for an additional gift to support your organisational resilience. For instance, if you need to hire a fundraising staff, you should highlight how much more income you will be able to generate as a result of the additional capacity in your team, and what impact that will eventually translate into.

· Offer benefit packages and part-time roles: If you cannot afford to have full-time staff or pay a competitive salary, you should think about other kinds of benefits to make your offer more attractive and competitive (e.g. flexible working hours, additional paid leave, etc.). Alternatively, you could offer a part-time role, or delegate specific fundraising-related tasks to an external consultant or intern in a cost-effective way. This will hopefully give you the head space you need to stay inspired and do your job well.

· Prioritise your current staff’s time: If you are not in the position to mobilise additional resources to recruit a new staff member, then we recommend prioritising your time and increasing efficiency across your existing team to focus more on fundraising activities. For instance, you could block off an hour or two each day to reach out to prospective donors, and use digital tools to systematise processes and responses.

If you want to attend our next Major Gifts Surgery or discuss your organisation’s major gift strategy, please ! And if you haven’t done it yet, subscribe to our podcast for great fundraising advice straight from the donor’s mouth.



News and views from I.G. Advisors, a London-based strategy consultancy focused on social impact.

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