Association Fundraisers Must Become Wayfinders in Pandemic Era

Fundraising May 29, 2020 By: Natalie Zundel

There are no roadmaps that explain how to navigate the fundraising landscape during a worldwide pandemic. That means today’s fundraisers must shift from following a plan to using wayfinding principles to plot the best course in these unprecedented times.

I was 11 years old when I first road-tripped to the nation’s capital with my family in our strawberry red station wagon. I had the important role of navigator and plotted our course with my Dad using road atlases and advice from friends. We made it 545 miles when disaster struck just after sunset. We realized we had missed our hotel. There was no comforting “recalculating” chirp from a GPS to adjust our course. Instead, I transitioned from a navigator to a wayfinder.

We are all wayfinders now. There are no handy roadmaps, instructions, or how-tos for handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Association fundraisers will have to break new ground to prove successful.

This does not mean wayfinders are wandering blindly. There are a few principles of wayfinding that can help guide us through this storm.

Get a Crew

Some of the world’s best wayfinders—Polynesians and Vikings—did not journey alone. Neither should you.

First, look internally to your program colleagues. Collect stories from them about the pandemic’s impact on your programs and participants. Even if your association is not directly involved in pandemic response, it is important to illustrate to supporters the impact quarantines and social-distancing guidelines are having on your operations and to put a dollar amount on revenue losses from other sources. Because, yes, you still need to ask donors for gifts this year. COVID-19 has not cancelled your mission. However, you need to make sure you place those asks within the context of our current environment

Secondly, seek guidance from fellow fundraisers. Now is the time to collaborate, learn from each other, and share creative ideas. Start with ASAE’s online community, Collaborate [member login required]. Also, check out free webinars hosted by Association Foundation Group, MarketSmart, and Network for Good. And the blogs at CCS Fundraising and Charity Navigator are timely, data-laden, and actionable.

Orient to Landmarks

Which direction did the sun rise? Where in the night sky does the North Star blink? Wayfinders use geographical and celestial touchpoints to guide them. Fundraisers have touchpoints to guides us, as well.

While the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented for modern fundraisers, we can use past recessions to orient our strategy. If you have data from the 2008 recession, comb through the numbers. Did your number of gifts take a hit, or were you able to retain donors with smaller asks? Which appeals, at which times, performed better? Try to apply that knowledge to today’s environment.

There is some evidence that philanthropy is booming right now. Donors are reacting much as they do when giving after natural disasters. Now might be the time to ask—if you’ve collected those stories about the pandemic’s impact. As with any natural disaster giving, this rush to help will begin to fade.

So, what then? Again, orient to the last recession. Giving dropped 3.7 percent in 2008 and 8.3 percent in 2009. But the impact was short-lived, and giving surged by 2014. We may be in for the same pattern now, with more noticeable impacts on giving next year and beyond. You need to orient your organization to weather today’s storm and stay afloat in rougher waters ahead.

We are all wayfinders now. There are no handy roadmaps, instructions, or how-tos for handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Association fundraisers will have to break new ground to prove successful.

Chart a Direction

Orienting your association by tracking current giving trends and understanding giving behavior in past recessions should allow you to chart a direction: one hyper-focused on communicating with current donors. Whether those donors are members, industry contacts, or foundation officers, you should share with them the impact COVID-19 has had on your organization, your planned response, and your future needs.

Choose the channel that works best for each constituent. Some ideas:

  • Invite major supporters to a one-on-one video chat over coffee.
  • Pick up the phone and call your industry supporters, and be ready with a script.
  • Convene a webinar roundtable open to all supporters—hosted by your board—to answer questions.
  • Create a direct mail piece. This might gain more attention than an email lost in a crowded inbox right now.

Survey the Landscape and Adapt

Wayfinding requires active assessment on an almost constant basis. Traditional wayfinders are attentive to changes in the tide, shifts in the wind signaling storms, or birds aloft indicating landfall is near. The life of an association fundraiser, at least for the next few months, will require similar fortitude.

We will need to assess the current news climate and listen carefully to our supporters, adjusting our plans accordingly. This may mean slight delays in planned appeals or complete pivots away from a certain message. You need to be ready to adjust your strategy at any moment, as each day will bring new changes. If you are attuned to the climate, you should not be afraid to ask. And if you are actively listening, you will get value from the exchange, whether the answer is yes or no.

When I began speaking to my fellow fundraisers about the pandemic, I heard lots of great advice. One bit of wisdom from Luke Driscoll, managing partner at CCS Fundraising, stood out: “Be bold, be confident, be empathetic, be a good listener, but never forget that our job is to ask, and it is the donor’s job to answer. Sometimes fundraising is just that simple, but we complicate it with our own thought processes.”

It reminded me of how my family and I eventually found our way back to the hotel on that dark and stormy night. I forced my reticent father to stop and ask for directions—and then listened.

Natalie Zundel

Natalie Zundel, CFRE, is owner and founder of Raise Well LLC in Ashburn, Va.