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Grant Professionals of Lower Hudson

4 Helpful Tips for Fundraising During a Recession

February 06, 2020 6:22 PM | Barbara Cervoni (Administrator)

Many thanks to the Heller Fundraising Group for giving us permission to repost this article from their website, written by Betsy Steward. You can read the original article here on the Heller Fundraising Group’s website, which also has some free fundraising tools you may want to check out.

4 Helpful Tips for Fundraising During a Recession

By Betsy Steward, Heller Fundraising Group

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and hearing a lot of discussions that predict a recession in the near future. I’m also aware that many experts talk and write about the current strength of our economy. No one knows for sure what will happen this year. I sincerely hope we don’t experience a repeat of 2008-2009. Not only was my fundraising job extremely stressful, but my husband got laid off in October 2008 as well. So, yeah, I’m not excited about doing THAT again.

That said, I thought this might be a good time to share my experience of raising funds during that awful time known as “The Great Recession.” I certainly don’t claim to have a magic formula, but the small nonprofit where I worked, unlike many other organizations nearby, experienced a steady increase in donated funds instead of a decrease during that time. I’ve been thinking about how that happened.

The Background: Before my current job as a fundraising consultant, I had been hired in 2007 as the nonprofit’s Development Officer. I worked there for ten years, eventually becoming the Director of Development. Early on in my tenure, I made a couple of changes to the existing fundraising strategy. All of my changes had to do with building and strengthening relationships with our donors. The changes paid off, and the results started showing almost immediately.

Tip #1: First, I set a policy of never, ever sending another letter that starts, “Dear Friend.” It is not a good way to build a relationship, and there’s really no excuse for it in the 21st century. All databases are capable of personalizing a salutation field, even if you’re using Excel as your database and Word as your letter-generator. If you don’t know how to make your system produce a letter that starts, “Dear Joan,” or “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” then find someone to help you figure it out. It’s not that hard, and it will be worth your time.

Tip #2: Second, I set an ambitious policy for acknowledging donations. Upon receipt of a donation, we would call or send a handwritten note to the donor within three days, and our official acknowledgement letter on our letterhead with official tax language would be sent within two weeks. This policy applied to every single donation, regardless of the size. I wrote notes to EVERYONE, even people who sent us $10. I must admit that we didn’t always manage to keep up with my 3-day deadline, but we came close enough that donors felt they were thanked immediately, which is critically important. A note sent when a donor can’t even remember writing the check is almost as bad as no note at all—maybe worse, since it makes your nonprofit look so careless and disorganized.

Tip #3: Another action I took wasn’t a change to the fundraising strategy, but rather a continuation of it. Following the rule of “rain or shine, keep your friends close,” I continued to reach out to our major donors. Some development professionals take the approach of “OMG, it’s a recession, I better not bother my donors!” That’s a mistake that comes from thinking about your donors as your financiers instead of your partners. Your donors believe in your mission, and it matters to them if you’re successful or not in making the changes to the world that they want to see. If you leave them out of the conversation during hard times—especially when they are well aware you’re facing a major challenge beyond your control—how does that build the relationship? If anything, a recession offers an excuse to engage donors even further, especially when you remember that they’re donating because they, too, believe passionately in your mission and want you to succeed.

Tip #4: I did something else that I think is worth mentioning: I ignored the recession. That’s right, I ignored it. Instead of wringing my hands and worrying about what if, what if, WHAT IF…., I kept my mind on my job and made sure I did everything I was supposed to do as a development professional. Many of my colleagues (including, and maybe especially, my board members) were quite nervous about fundraising in such a bleak economy, spending a lot of their time and energy talking about how awful it was for fundraising. I made every effort to avoid doing that. If someone started complaining about the economy, I would change the subject or find some reason to leave the discussion without being rude. When it was just too distracting, I pushed myself to refocus on the task at hand—sometimes more successfully than others.

Of course I wasn’t oblivious to it—believe me, it was challenging for my whole family when my husband lost his job, and I can’t claim that I didn’t worry at all about raising funds in such an environment. But I worked at being disciplined about keeping my attention on my job. As a result, I was able to keep up with my rigorous acknowledgement policy and all the other tasks that one-person-development-office professionals have before them.

I mean, that’s all you can do, isn’t it? Keeping your nose to the grindstone usually pays off. Worrying and complaining about things beyond your control just makes you miserable, and you STILL have to do your job.

Here’s a glimpse of my organization’s donations from individuals during that time:

So if we are indeed headed for a recession—or even if we’re not!—try some of these things. Maybe your organization is well beyond sending “Dear Friend” letters, but I still receive them, so somebody out there hasn’t upped their game yet! And what is your acknowledgement policy? Could it be better? I recommend you take a look at all of your processes to make sure you’re doing everything you can to build successful relationships with your donors.

Recessions come and go, but relationships are what we fundraisers and our nonprofits depend on. That doesn’t change, whether the economy is thriving or diving.

Betsy Steward is Senior Consultant at the Heller Fundraising Group and advises clients on capital campaigns as well as major donor cultivation, solicitation and stewardship. betsy@hellerfundraisinggroup.com

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