How Do You Raise Money During a Global Pandemic?

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on April 7th, 2020.

The reality of our, and I do mean our, situation in a global pandemic is hitting hard. It is hitting so hard, on so many fronts, that if you are anything like me, you’re oscillating between moments of wanting to retreat and hide in the crevices of deep trenches, and moments of wanting to throw yourself out onto the battlefield, weapons in hand. It should not be a surprise to regular readers that images of Wonder Woman striding across No Man’s Land often come to mind (see my multiple articles on Wonder Woman).

So what battle are we fighting? And what are the weapons being used? I usually don’t like any kind of war analogies, but it feels appropriate at a time when millions of people have lost their jobs, have had to close their businesses, are being told to stay home and shelter in place, wash their hands, and practice social-distancing. The war is against a virus, COVID-19, and its weapons are isolation, economic devastation (on so many levels), disconnection, and of course, actual sickness and death. That is our reality right now, and it feels right that with every conversation, email, and point of connection, we have to acknowledge that this is our shared reality. We must humbly come together with great acknowledgment of these circumstances, and… life must go on. Work must go on. Creating must go on. Art must go on. Innovation must go on. Taking care of people in need must go on. And for all of that to GO ON, we must continue to ask for and provide financial resources; giving, spending, and investing.

So how on earth do we do that? How do we talk about money in times like these? And for the primary purpose of this article, how do we continue to ask for charitable financial support for organizations that are providing direct and meaningful solutions to the most pressing needs surrounding COVID-19, as well as for those that are not? And we must note that for a financial transaction to occur, we need two sides. Money must move from somewhere to somewhere. So yes, this article is about asking, but it is also about how we might act on the receiving side of that ask. 

One again, I am turning to my go-to person when it comes to talking about fundraising, Kathy LeMay. Kathy has been a resource champion for social change work for over two decades. I interviewed her in 2016 for a piece titled, “If You Know How to Ask for Money You Will Have a Job for Life“, and again in 2019 for a piece titled, “How Not to Run Out of Money.” I recommend reading them both, especially the how to not run of money piece, which is so relevant for so many non-profits, and for profits companies, right now. Kathy has been an advisor and friend to me for decades, and she is who I turn to with questions like these. 

JZ: Where to start? This seems to be the question that precedes every question right now. So where do we start? No matter what the conversation is ultimately about right now, where do we start?

KLM: I think we start each conversation with radical listening. In this pandemic world, when we ask one another, “How are you holding up?”, the very best thing we can do is listen, really listen, with the aim of understanding that person’s experience. While we’re all going through the same reality, we are experiencing it differently. Listen and learn not to respond. Don’t interrupt. Don’t share a similar story. Don’t try to fix or tell the person it will be all right. Simply listen. If we’re quiet for long enough, we will hear things we didn’t expect, and that can shift our thinking and perspective. 

JZ: You have been a fundraiser in times of tragedy, and in some ways, isn’t that the constant for many development professionals? To raise money to save lives? So what is different now? 

KLM: This is such a great and important question. In most cases, fundraisers themselves aren’t experiencing the mission they’re raising money for, such as Syrian refugees or children who have been trafficked. You immerse yourself in the work. You learn from your colleagues. You might even make a site visit to see the work first-hand. You feel deeply connected to the issue. You take it to heart. You take it home with you. But in most cases, you yourself are not experiencing the tragedy.

COVID-19 is impacting every corner of the globe and seemingly people from all walks of life. You may be tasked with raising money for a hospital or a food bank, and at the same time wondering if you are infected or have a family member who has tested positive. You’re thinking about the health and future of the people you serve, and about you and your family’s health and future. Some fundraisers have had this experience, for example people with AIDS raising money to help find a cure, and cancer survivors providing care to those just diagnosed. But never before have we seen so many people affected by one shared experience.

Fundraising leaders are thinking about the people they serve, their own lives, and their family, and they are asking if their organization will be able to keep its doors open for the short-term and the long-haul. This is a unique convergence that is happening at a significant scale. 

JZ: Indeed Kathy. I am calling it a “what about me, and a what about we?” time. There is such a convergence of the personal and the professional. It is not business as usual. Nor should it be.

JZ: Given this convergence of their own their lives, their organizations, and the people they serve, what’s a roadmap they could follow? 

KLM: I think now is a moment for fundraising leadership to revisit its primary purpose: Building relationships to advance shared values and missions. For right now, leave this question behind: How are we going to make budget? It’s not the right question. The right question is this: How can I make meaningful connections?

None of us can predict the future. We don’t know when this pandemic will end. We don’t know the full impact on the US and global economies. What we do know is that many of us are feeling fearful, anxious, unsettled, and worried. For your organization’s donors, this is where your leadership is needed. You can’t control this pandemic, but you can reach out to your supporters and make meaningful connections.

Write to five long-term supporters today. Let them know you and the organization are thinking of them and their families. Thank them for having been there for your organization when you needed them. Let them know you are here for them now. 

Send a video message from your organization’s Executive Director. Invite the Director to be open, heartfelt, and caring. I can’t tell you the number of emails and videos I’ve gotten in the month since this pandemic became real for the United States. The messages that have stayed with me are the ones that are steady, measured, caring, and very clearly about making a meaningful connection.

You likely got into fundraising because you are relationship-driven. You don’t thrive off of transactional relationships. You are at your best personally and professionally when you can create meaningful, values-driven connections. This is a moment to return to this.

JZ: Is there a point in your fundraising history that you can liken to this moment?

KLM: I would say the HIV/AIDS crisis in United States in the early 1990s and the war in Bosnia in early to mid-1990s. At that time, HIV/AIDS wasn’t yet a global epidemic, and the war in Bosnia was isolated to the Balkans. In this way, neither is similar in scope to this pandemic. But there are striking similarities.

The women I worked with in Bosnia had to figure out how to keep their families and communities going when thousands were dying every day. They had no idea when the siege would end. They needed financial support to keep going, but weren’t sure where it would come from. They were scared for their neighbors, for children who had been left without parents, and they were scared for their own lives and their families’ lives. They were exhausted and traumatized. They wanted to go back to life as they knew it, and yet would say that they knew nothing would ever be the same again.

And I suppose you could say something very similar about the people who had been diagnosed with AIDS. Trying to figure out how to keep going knowing you didn’t have much time left. Those in high-risk communities wondered if they would be the next person to test positive. Wondering if the spread of the disease would end. Wondering if you were infected or if you had unknowingly infected someone else. Hoping and working for a vaccine and a cure. Being isolated from society. The people I knew with AIDS were courageous and terrified. They talked about life before AIDS, and they knew nothing would ever be the same again.

I was very graciously and lovingly let into those worlds. I had no idea what I could offer, or even what I should be offering. So I listened. I spent days, weeks, and months listening. It’s when and where I learned the power of radical listening. I couldn’t save anyone’s life. I met and worked with women in Bosnia I would never see again. I buried friends who died of AIDS. I couldn’t end the war or the AIDS epidemic. But what I could do was listen. And then with permission, share those stories with caring, compassionate donors who wanted to make a difference. And I would listen to how donors felt about wars and disease, their own experience, their grandparents’ experiences. What I experienced most was the power of empathy to transform lives. Donors empathized and then they gave generously. And that giving mattered. It made a difference. And it will make a difference with COVID-19. 

JZ: I recently heard from a professional fundraiser that he thinks 10 – 20% of non-profits will close this year, including institutions of higher education. If you do the math, that seems possible. Meaning, if charitable giving is pretty much a constant percentage of GDP, and GDP contracts by that amount, then it will be the inevitable outcome. What do you think?

KLM: There was a piece by David Streitfield in the March 27, 2020 issue of the New York Times, where it was shared that non-profits that are thinly capitalized, or don’t have a diverse source of revenue streams, may struggle to be able to keep their doors open. As the article rightly summarized, this is the cruel reality of this pandemic, in that revenue may be less available for some non-profits while demand is skyrocketing.

I do think we’ll see non-profits that will have to close their doors. I expect there will be a merging of organizations with similar missions, and organizations coming together under one roof to share space, leadership, and resources. I think you’ll see non-profits get more creative than ever before. I don’t think that the sector will stand by and let people fall through the cracks. The sector is too values-driven to let that happen on a large scale. I anticipate we’ll see innovation in our sector, and a new level of creativity to respond to a rapidly changing landscape.

JZ: What advice are you giving professional fundraisers right now? What should they be paying attention to?  

KLM: First and foremost, I’d say something that I wouldn’t have said prior to 2019: Take unbelievably good care of yourself. I didn’t. After 25 years in social change fundraising, I, for a host of reasons, lost my way. I’d lost my sense of who I was. I didn’t know how to wave a white flag and ask for help. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t at the top of my game. Instead of slowing down, I sped up. I tried to do more. I failed. In that failing, I let people down. I’ll spend the next few years of my life trying to right those mistakes.

You are one person in a very big world with a whole host of challenges. Be as good to yourself as I know you are to the people in your world; to your clients, to your donors. Go gently. Go slowly. Don’t speed up like I did. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Spoiler alert, you’ll end up being not very much to anyone.

So be gentle with yourself. Reconnect with your values. Talk to your colleagues. Share what you’re experiencing. Ask for help. When the world says, “We’re in this together”, they mean you too.

JZ: I want to flip the conversation, or perhaps broaden it. We all have time, talents, and treasure to give. In your book, The Generosity Plan, you talk about creating a plan for our generosity. How should all of us be doing that right now? 

KLM: My advice is actually not very different than what I shared in the Generosity PlanMake generosity a daily part of your life, and make it your own. You don’t have to do what others are doing to make a difference. You only have to do what you feel called to do. Do the thing that makes you wonder, “Am I up for this?” Chances are the answer is yes. Try something new. Pick up the phone and call a non-profit to ask if they need volunteers. If they say no, try another organization.

I don’t think that generosity is a one time event or a certain sized check. I think true generosity is giving until you feel a deeper connection to the world than you did before. When you feel that feeling, you’ll know you’re living your definition of a generosity plan.

JZ: In my work, I talk about our financial resources being used to spend (buying the products and services we need, such as housing, food, education, and health care, and those we want (all the extras)), to give (to charitable organizations, friends, family, and others) and to invest (savings, capital markets products, and companies as a direct investor). Of course, we all have varying degrees of resources to do any of these. But I also think we all have assumptions and there are social norms around how and why we use our money around those three buckets. Now, during this crisis, I am seeing people using their money differently. For example, people are buying gift certificates in record amounts for their local restaurants and shops, even though they are closed, to help those businesses stay afloat. It also seems, anecdotally, that people are giving more money to organizations that provide basic services such as food right now. Talk about how you think we should think about these buckets? 

KLM: I would say this is a time to contribute to the collective good AND to support what is calling to you. Giving to funds for nurses, hospitals, soup kitchens, and/or all front line workers, is in my opinion essential. Give what you can. If you can’t give money, that’s ok. Send emails to the local hospitals thanking them for their extraordinary service. Have your children record videos thanking front line workers and share them far and wide. In short, give locally.

At the same time, give where you are called. Give to the arts because our souls need to be fed. Give to your local restaurants because they are people’s livelihoods and they keep our community connected. Give a gift to your postal carriers. Don’t fall prey to “giving shame”, where the dominant narrative tells you where to give and what to give. Now is the time to listen to what calls to you. We need all sectors of society to be resilient and healthy. Each place you give matters. Each place makes a difference.

Jacki’s note: I will be writing a lot more about this question I just asked Kathy above and will be using it as a frame to interview others. Stay tuned. 

It is hard to find a way to end the questions, as there is so much to talk about, so let’s not end it! Post your comments and questions. Kathy and I will review them and respond via a second article, or better yet, a podcast! Stay tuned…

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Find Kathy on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Find me on LinkedIn here, and on my website jackizehner.com. Once published I cross-post all articles on my blog.

This pretty darn adorable photo, if I do say so myself, is from the fall of 2019 at the Sundance Resort.