COVID-19 is changing everything - or is it?

Our world has been turned on its head. In an instant, the pandemic has transformed every aspect of how we work, play, and live our daily lives.

The full impact on our work won't be known for months … perhaps years. Our messages, timing, and tactical approaches needed to change overnight. Carefully constructed plans were put aside for quick improvisation. We’ve never seen anything like this crisis before.

So where do we go from here? Where can we turn?

The good news is that we can still draw on our past experience and knowledge. Many of the same core principles that have driven our digital and direct mail fundraising success in the past are powerful guideposts for how we move ahead. Don’t lose sight of what you already know — and what can help you navigate this dark and difficult moment.

  • Make your Case. If you’re on the front lines of the pandemic response — providing emergency medical help, delivering meals to elderly homebound, conducting urgent scientific research — the script pretty much writes itself.

    If you’re not on the front lines, it’s a little more complicated. But keep in mind that your organization’s work and mission are just as important as they were a month or two ago. People living with diabetes, cancer, or HIV still need expert medical care and research breakthroughs … Supreme Court battles being fought right now will still have powerful ramifications for generations to come … puppies in animal rescue shelters still need food and basic care.

    Strong messaging around urgent needs still resonates. And for many nonprofits, the crisis creates new strains and challenges that can bolster your case. Talk honestly about how the crisis is affecting your charity. But be authentic — nothing rings more hollow than an appeal that seems to be jumping on the bandwagon and exploiting the crisis. And be sensitive. It’s a fine line between underscoring your own charity’s need and seeming tone death to the life-and-death struggles unfolding around us all.

    Something like, “Even as our nation is coping with an unprecedented crisis of unfathomable proportions, we must not forget that … [fill in your need here]”

    Your donors may be distracted by the crisis and constant stream of bad news. But they very likely still care — deeply — about who you are and what you do. And so many of them are at home, sitting in front of their computers and happy to learn how to help.

  • Talk about the impact — carefully. A month into this crisis, it’s becoming frighteningly clear how much and how broadly our sector is being affected. There’s the human cost to our colleagues — the anxiety, the separation, the illnesses, and even the loss. There’s the programmatic costs — as doors close, programs can’t continue, performances are cancelled, services cannot be delivered in person. There’s the steep financial costs — as galas can’t take place, endowments plunge, and funders begin to retrench.

    All of this can powerfully bolster your case for support. But again, be authentic — and sensitive. Life and death struggles are playing out around all of us. To the degree that you can talk about the impact on your organization in deeply personal and human terms, do so. And don’t shy away from emphasizing the drop in other funding sources and the sharp increase in need for individual donations.

    But as always, be careful not to inadvertently hurt your case by talking in terms that are too big or discouraging. For example, approaching your $25 donors with a headline about a $25 million cut in government funding will likely make them feel small and hopeless.

  • Be donor centric. If there were ever a time to focus on who your donors are, where they are, and what they are feeling, it’s now. Many, if not most, are homebound. They are likely frightened or bored — or both. The internet may be their lifeline, and they may be reading more of their emails — and reading them more closely. Barring new signs that mail carries risk of contagion, they may look forward to the daily mail delivery too.

    It’s possible that this is an unprecedented opportunity to reach them, capture their attention, and move them to donate. But every single communication needs to acknowledge, in personal terms, that they are living through an historic crisis.

    Say something like, “I hope that you and your loved ones are staying safe in this time of crisis.” Otherwise, you might seem totally disconnected from reality.

  • Stretch your resources. Chances are your fundraising staff is working from home. Many are distracted by family members and child care needs. Your web team and graphic designers may be laboring without the computer power they’re used to and may be having to communicate via stretched internet bandwidth. Your printers and lettershops may be working on a skeleton crew.

    If there were ever a time to think creatively about how you can stretch your resources, it’s now. Can you repackage content and creative, and deploy across channels to lessen the burden? Can you work across departments — with direct marketing and major gifts staff all sharing and carefully coordinating? Can you resend emails with “lift notes”? Can you focus on short mail pieces that reuse old templates?

    It may be that you’ve tried such efficiency measures before, with little success. It’s surprising what new possibilities this pandemic has given us.

  • Have a Plan B. And C. And D. Have we ever been more uncertain about what the future holds?

    Will the campaign you postponed this spring be destined for a successful launch a few months down the road? Will the mid-level giving program you’d planned to launch this fall meet with even greater success than expected — not only helped by a roaring stock market but the new tax incentives carved out by the CARES Act?

    Or will we have a plunging stock market and the deepest recession of our lives give us the most challenging fundraising environment we’ve ever known?

It’s a brave new world. None of us know what the future holds. But the guideposts and principles that guided us for so many years are still there to help show us the way forward. Follow them!

And most importantly, stay healthy and safe!

Harry Lynch


Harry Lynch