The COVID Factor: How Major Donor Giving is Changing

On March 11, 2020 the world changed.

We were transfixed by COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease of 2019).

On Tuesday we went to our offices, met with partners, the 401 was backed up – just like normal. Costco had plenty of toilet paper and the bright yellow packages of Robin Hood flour stood at attention on the shelf at the grocery story. Who knew people would stockpile toilet paper and Robin Hood would run out of bright yellow packaging?

On that day, the US had recorded 29 deaths and the stock market, while nervous, had not yet plummeted. 

Today, just over 4 months later, 145,000 Americans have died. Over 4 million have tested positive. And the medical community believes that thousands of others have not surfaced. Globally, 655,000 people have died and countries who thought they had isolated the virus and beat the threat are stepping back, closing businesses and regrouping. Canada reports almost 9,000 deaths. 

Charities are feeling the brunt of the crisis, especially those dependent on events. 

Canadian Cancer Society reimagined Relay for Life, an annual peer-to-peer event, as a virtual experience. They lost 75% of their expected support. The Sickle Cell association of Ontario’s donations dropped from $2000 a month to $400. (CBC, July 16,2020)

Donors are as uncertain as the charities. Many have lost their jobs, forced to scramble for things they took for granted: housing, food and childcare. Those who continue to work struggle to manage their work, their families and the precautions required to prevent COVID. 

When this all started, we all put decision-making on hold, saying: “We’re not going to make any big decisions until the future is more certain.” 

Now, more than four months later, the future is not any more certain. 

But we have moved to the next stage: figuring out what the next 18 months will look like. My clients (like many other non-profits and businesses) have come to grips with the reality that COVID-19 will dominate our daily lives for another 18 – 24 months. While we are hoping for a magic vaccine, we will buckle down and make changes in our budgets, our working environments and our business practises. We will massage our digital experiences to make sure we are online and look forward to rare patio encounters with real people. 

Every organization is experiencing a different reality. Those who have cultivated a strong and loyal audience of mass donors (sometimes called annual donors) are, by and large, holding their own. One client is actually experiencing an 11% increase. Food, shelter and service-first charities serving those affected by COVID have an opportunity to engage their local community. National and international charities struggle a bit more, but some are doing quite well. 

In conversation with several colleagues (thanks Dean for leading this), we noticed some interesting patterns.

1.  Organizational culture influences donations.

What does that mean? In some organizations, especially those who provide direct services, the cultural tendency for strong, focused fundraising is to hesitate. Donors are treated with white gloves and given many escape opportunities. Donor support letters, phone calls, visits and other encounters are heavy with sharing the good of the organization and short on asking for funds to help them accomplish their goals. 

COVID has freed some organizations to boldly ask because the need is so great. Instead of hesitating, the team is direct and focused. These organizations are seeing their supporters rise to the need. 

Other organizations have taken a deep step back, maintaining the culture and adverse to fundraising. These organizations are seeing steep drops in donations. 

2. We’re resistant to change: it’s human nature.

200+ people partied at a Brampton home recently. The homeowner even provided valet services in anticipation of a large crowd. Beaches were crowded and playgrounds filled with kids. COVID cases went up and provinces where no COVID cases had been detected suddenly saw an upsurge. 

This is a very difficult period of adjustment as people saw a glimmer of hope (and freedom) in the future and they could hardly wait to escape the confines of the bubble. 

Responsible companies and organizations are changing the way they work. They are implementing protocols to protect their employees. But it’s not an even playing field. 

Our supporters are living through these trials. They are watching and waiting for leaders to emerge. They want to go back to normal, but wise leaders will recognize and lead towards change. 

This is a time for all of us to consider new opportunities. 

3.  Words like “stewardship” and “cultivation” should be popping up in all our major donor conversations. 

Cultivating loyal donors has always been the raison d’être at Barefoot Creative. I know that many organizations SAY they support donor stewardship or cultivation—it’s nonsense not to say that. Planting seeds requires sun, water, fertilizer. A farmer, talking about cultivation but never going out to the field to plant seeds, will have a devastating year end. A prerequisite for a healthy crop is planting good, strong seeds. 

Growing donors takes time. The farmer adjusts his methods to the type of seeds. In fundraising we call that segmentation and personalization. In major gift fundraising, this means we treat our supporters as partners, not ATM’s.

I have friends who have significant disposable incomes. They do not want to hear from you. It’s not that they don’t want to use their funds for change, transformation, impact (whatever word you use), but they are tired of being asked in ways that don’t respect them. 

Major Donors want to be a part of the solution, not a bucket of money. They want you to care about them – not superficially, but honestly. In some circles, major gift fundraising is called “relationship” fundraising. But in many organizations the relationship has been taken out. 

When the farmer experiences a flood, drought, hail, or a bad year overall, they do not quit farming. They study the causes, analyze the reasons and next spring, they are back in the field. Major Donor fundraisers will experience highs and lows, but when relationships are at the centre, they will continue to cultivate the relationship with the donor. They will be excited when the donor supports another organization and is eagerly interested in hearing why they made that choice. They will treat their friend as a friend.

We know that major donors have ups and downs in their businesses, investments and families. We also know that they tend to support several causes, investing their support as they see fit. Respect that. But don’t walk away. Know that when the time is right, they will invest in the project that’s right for them with your organization. 

Discontinuing a relationship with a supporter should be initiated by the supporter, not by you. Cultivating the donor, sowing good seed, watering that seed, giving the seed adequate sunlight and fertilizer, is what yields a healthy crop. 

Today, in the height of the COVID crisis, major donors are hesitant. Their incomes are precarious. The stock markets are nervous – in North America we are highly affected by the US economy and they are just a few months before an election that seems impossible to predict. We need to respect the caution of our supporters – BUT we need to be honest and share our need with them, tell them our story and show them how we are working through the crisis. 

4. People are generous, strong and live with courage

Perhaps we haven’t looked back far enough. This is the first global crisis I have come face-to-face with. Yes, we have had economic dips and struggles. We have watched wars, conflicts, famines and floods – on TV. We walked through the crisis of 9/11 and adjusted our flight travel schedules (for a while) and flight procedures (the 1 litre bag is here to stay). 9/11 was terrifying because it was so close to home, but we saw the courage of first responders, families and governments to walk through it. 

People supporting causes that are so needed in our world will not go away. Like you, I have heard it over and over again: people don’t give like they used to. I think they do. I don’t think that generosity is easing away, I do think the stats are changing and I do think fewer people report their generosity to the government, lowering the tax receipt data. But I believe that people – ordinary people – when challenged with a goal they can see themselves accomplish stand up to the challenge. 

Now is not the time to stop communication to major (or mass) donors. 

Now is the time to plant seeds, watering, fertilizing and letting the sun shine. Now is the time to  encourage your supporters, asking them what they need from you, understanding their situation, building a strong relationship. 


Recent Tweets