How to stand out and maintain support during the COVID-19 pandemic

by Sara Lundenberger, director of nonprofit consulting | May 20, 2020 |

Consulting, Fundraising |


In the last few months, the way we raise money and connect with our donors has changed dramatically. Some changes might be for the best and become permanent, while others are simply a way to get the job done with limited staff, resources and funding right now. We may not know what will happen in the upcoming months, but it’s obvious we have to change how we approach normal giving vehicles like meetings with major donors, corporations and foundations, hosting fundraising events, sending appeals for individual gifts and planning mass mailings for sponsorships and auction items.

COVID-19, the stay-at-home order and social distancing have definitely changed how we work, but what hasn’t changed is what your donors want out of their relationship with your nonprofit. The basis of all fundraising is building a relationship with a person, communicating with them about what you do and why it’s important and then asking for their support. I don’t believe that will ever change, regardless of a global pandemic or murder hornets on the horizon. So, here is some of my advice for handling some fundraising questions you may be asking right now.

Should I still send an annual appeal?

Yes, and be honest. If you were already planning on a spring or mid-year appeal, I bet you didn’t include anything about COVID-19 when you wrote it a few months ago. Reframe your ask to communicate what you have been doing, how the pandemic has affected you and those you serve and why it’s more important than ever to make a gift, or even better, make a monthly gift. If you had to shut your doors for now, be transparent about your needs moving forward. Your donors don’t necessarily need to know how the sausage is made, but they want to know if you are going to continue to make it in the future. (Unless you actually make sausage. Then, I guess they do want to know how it’s made.)

What about our events?

This is such a tough question. Your annual fundraiser probably brings in a large percentage of your operating budget and losing it could be catastrophic to your organization. I know a lot of nonprofits have pushed those events to the fall and we are all crossing our fingers that we can return to normal activities by then. I know a lot of people are going to be very busy going to all these events!

If you can’t hold yours, be creative! I’ve seen so many cool ideas like virtual 5Ks around your own neighborhoods, at-home events like the one the Women’s Endowment Fund just held where I received my delicious meal on my doorstep and followed along online, or holding online auctions and raffles. Right now, you can afford to think outside the box.

How do I keep in touch with my older donors without seeming callous?

You definitely want to be respectful of your donor’s time and personal choices. Read the room. If a donor seems uncomfortable talking through email, call them. If they aren’t picking up their phone or seem disinterested, send them a letter. You want to make sure your donors are comfortable with what you are currently doing and what you plan to do in the near future. I’d be hesitant to ask for new gifts, unless the donor specifically brings it up. But you might need to discuss moving a gift from a capital campaign to general operating support, if the donor is open to that. This might also be a good time to talk about the long-term goals of the organization and even some planned giving options that might be available to the donor.

We are currently closed and have nothing to do with people affected by COVID-19. How do we ask for funding?

There are a lot of nonprofits that are in the same boat. Keeping your donors engaged in what you are doing is the first step. Even if you aren’t on the front lines of this, I think you can still ask for donations. Your mission and who you serve is important and you still need funding to operate. As an organization, you may decide not to do any additional fundraising during this time, and that’s OK. If you are going to ask, maintain regular communication with your supporters. Do not let the first communication your donors have received you from you since March be a solicitation. If you haven’t been regularly communicating with your donors through calls, emails, newsletters, letters or owl post, you have catching up to do before you can ask anyone for money. If there is one thing you do this week, make a communications plan that includes calls to your largest funders (individuals, companies and foundations), emails or e-newsletters, social media posts or a written communication to your donors to let them know you still exist, still need their support, what you have been doing or what you are going to do in the next few months.

This is a tough time, no matter what industry you are in. Unemployment rates are sky-high, we are all sick of staying home and we have no idea how long this is going to last. So, what’s the good news? People are still thinking of others. There are stories every day of people going out of their way to help others. If you haven’t watched John Krasinki’s Some Good News videos, go watch them now. I’ll wait. The overarching theme of each of his videos is that there are good things happening every day in our own communities and neighborhoods. While it may seem bleak for your nonprofit right now, get out there and tell people what you are doing, and you might be surprised by the generosity of others.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our weekly blog and it will be delivered directly to your inbox!