Ways to Move Forward: 5 Lessons from Previous National Crises

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What we’re facing these days with the COVD-19 pandemic hasn’t happened before. But our country has faced considerable crises that rocked people’s daily lives and security, the economy, and philanthropy. I looked back on previous national crises to bring together lessons and resources that might help schools and nonprofits gain some clarity, especially when thinking about the field of advancement:

1 – The initial impact coupled with early-stage uncertainty cut across organizations and industries  

I think we’re all feeling this right now—the combination of shock at what is happening coupled with the fear of uncertainty and a rapidly changing news cycle. If you’re struggling to make sense of this situation and decide which actions to take in your fundraising efforts, you are certainly not alone. You may be struggling because there aren’t yet clear answers for anyone. The initial impact on schools, nonprofits, and philanthropy is going to be stressful and almost impossible to control. As Rikki Abzug and Dennis Derryck explain in their article that looks back at the effects on nonprofits of the September 11th attacks, “Our research suggested that financial and personal resources currently available to nonprofits are no insurance against or insulation from catastrophic events. Indeed, initial impact seemed impervious to organizational age, budget size, staff size, type of organization, sources of funding or revenue—whether government contracts or fee-for-service were prevalent, for instance.” 

In the light of this uncertainty, being consistent, clear, specific, and frequent in your messaging to staff and constituents is essential. No one is sure of the right course of action, but decisions will still need to be made, and leadership should try to make those decisions with confidence.  

Have you heard? Under the C-19 PiP program, ALUMinate is offering special incentives, including complimentary (no charge) data analytics services to smaller colleges and universities. The program includes updated contact information and personal and professional data on donors, prospects, and other constituents.

Contact Lola at lola@aluminateus.com to learn more.

Despite the uncertainty of the initial impact, every previous national crisis brings to light this lesson that our country struggles to learn: it is essential that we (on the individual and collective levels) ensure that the people who historically get left behind don’t get left behind again. This brings me to the next lesson…

2 – Immediate and unrestricted aid is needed—are you in a position to communicate that message or organize the effort?

A number of institutions and organizations have halted their existing campaigns and traditional fundraising efforts, which seems appropriate and wise. In place of that, some have set up smaller emergency relief funds for populations most impacted by the virus. If your institution or nonprofit serves these vulnerable populations, such as students who had to leave their residence halls suddenly, healthcare workers on the frontlines, or freelancers and artists who’ve lost all of their income, this may be a useful way to spend staff time and direct donors’ inquiries about how to help, especially in the short term. Encourage unrestricted gifts. In their recent COVID-19 response post, Aspen Leadership Group advises: “Be ready to pivot away from multi-year gift discussions. Especially in times of economic uncertainty, donors are much more confident in what they have to give today than what they will have to give next year or in future years. Donors won’t want to make a promise they’re not sure they can keep; take the pressure off by focusing more on outright gifts. They and you can pick up the conversation about multi-year commitments when longer-term confidence is restored.”

▷The University of Cincinnati moved quickly to set up a way for donors to contribute to an emergency relief fund.  
▷If there are quick, efficient ways to collaborate with other institutions and organizations, pooling resources is recommended. Abzug and Derryck explain that a “key lesson then is that nonprofit organizations need to consider the benefits of affiliation, federation, or networking as well as active governing boards so they do not have to face crises alone.” Here is an example of what the Seattle Foundation is doing to centralize aid.

3 – Times may be hard, but we will gain clarity on our situation 

Our lives and work will be irrevocably changed by this situation; there isn’t much use in denying that fact. But, as we settle into that new reality and way of life, for example, practicing social distancing and working from home for potentially several more months, we will start to develop greater understanding and clarity about how to move forward. A recent article put out by McKinsey & Company projects the stages of the new world of work: “We see the crisis playing out broadly across three waves: Wave 1, ensuring stability and business continuity while containing the crisis; Wave 2, insti­tutionalizing new ways of working; and Wave 3, using learning from the crisis to prioritize tech transformation for resilience.”

We will test and share ways to best connect and be productive while self-isolating and discover new practices. Invite your donors and volunteers to be a part of this process and to share what is working for them and their loved ones. Share what is working with your peer schools or nonprofits. 

4 – People will seek meaningful communication, purpose, and routine; don’t be afraid to give it to them

I was honestly excited to research this blog topic, primarily because having something to do, especially something that others may find useful, immediately caused me to feel less anxiety. Aspen Leadership Group explains the implications of this emotional effect on donors and volunteers: “During uncertain times, people yearn for ways to feel some normalcy. If you start with asking how they are, don’t hold back on filling them in on activities, changes, and needs in your organization. They have already shown they care about you – that is why you are reaching out to check on them. You may not want to ask them for a gift or make other requests in that first check-in call (although some will want to know what you need), but you don’t need to hold back from your fundraising or volunteer requests in future conversations. Just follow their lead.” 

It may feel like an awkward time to reach out to your supporters, but just letting them know you’re there could have far-reaching effects. Maria Di Mento explains this impact in her recent article: “A crisis can be an inflection point in a donor’s relationship with a charity. Good, compassionate communication can strengthen a supporter’s bond with the organization, while failing to communicate can end the relationship.”

As an example, we really like the directness of these two options for how constituents can take action in an email from GiveMN.org: 

As an additional resources, we found this thought exercise that Jim Langley posted on LinkedIn helpful in regards to the tone of communication leaders can take: 

“Imagine yourself the pastor of a church (or the equivalent in another faith) composed largely of congregants who work for one company. That company has just been shut down because the working environment has been deemed toxic. Most of your congregants, therefore, fear for their livelihood and their health. What do you do? Below are your choices. Will you be ‘Pastoral’ or ‘Pleading’? Will you fall prey to the anxiety of the moment or ‘absorb chaos, project calm, and give hope.’ Will you plead for what you can get now or preserve the philanthropic spirit in your congregation by giving more of yourself than you ask of others?”

5 – There will be a period of reckoning and taking stock

As things start to settle and, hopefully, we develop a vaccine or effective treatment for the virus, governments and organizations will inevitably be asked tough questions. One idea is, individually or as a department, keep notes, a log, or a diary of what is happening within your organization, what challenges you are facing, and what decisions you are making and why. Later on, this information will be useful as you take stock. 

Your institution or organization should also be prepared to discuss and address the following questions as specifically as possible:
-What went wrong (within the scope of your school or organization)? 
-When did we know? Did we act in the most timely way across all areas?
-In what ways did we respond? What was the timeline?
-How exactly did our department communicate internally? What about externally? 
-Who or what did we prioritize in our response? Who or what suffered? 
-What worked? Why?
-What did not work? Why?
-Where could we have done more? Why didn’t we?
-If this happens again, what systems, policies, and protocols do we  need to put into place now? How exactly do we get them in place? Who is responsible for each step?
-What other categories of unprecedented crises could our institution or organization face? What are the triggers? How do we design and test response plans? 

As Abzug and Derryck point out, “Whose responsibility is it ultimately to get the organization back on the route to financial stability? That’s where the board comes in. Boards will likely have to consider the impact of the crisis on mission, programs, funding, and so on.” In short, this is when leadership needs to lead.

Stay tuned—soon we’ll share ideas for how institutions and organizations can effectively navigate philanthropy during a recession.

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