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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy

Fundraising might seem impossible right now but donors need to hear from you on good days and bad, writes Michelle Wright.

Your most loyal donors may also be those most at risk


Covid-19 has impacted on the international community at a speed and scale that very few people could have foreseen. Whilst well run arts organisations will all have appropriate risk and contingency plans in place, a global pandemic was not something that would have been part of most risk registers.

For fundraisers and the arts community, the impact has been immediate, shocking and devastating. Overnight, as the UK Government enforced social distancing, theatres, museums, venues and events stopped immediately, with many thousands of artists, employees and freelancers facing uncertain futures, with no assurance at all of when the lights might go back on.

Unlike other health crises or natural disasters that have hit globally in recent years, the coronavirus is unusual because it has the potential to affect everyone. 

Of course, fundraisers want to mobilise, they want to maximise what income they can and quickly. But what is front of mind with this particular pandemic is that our often-loyal audiences and donors, those with means and time, often in retirement – are also exactly those most at risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract the virus. This means that our donors are not only facing the same systemic shock as the rest of us but also unprecedented uncertainty and fear.

When this crisis passes, donors will remember which organisations were helpful, useful and positive

Fundraising right now needs to grapple with two things. Firstly, that attention is rightly focussed on overcoming the virus. And secondly, that our most loyal supporters are experiencing high levels of uncertainty and anxiety and, whilst they might love what our organisation does, their hearts and minds will inevitably be focussed on their own families and communities.

So what do we need to be mindful of in our fundraising communications right now?

Is it appropriate to communicate with donors at all?

All fundraising is relational so it is even more important that you continue contact with donors and let them know how you are changing your operating models and fundraising strategies at this time. Your donors need to hear from you on bad days, as well as good. Short video statements can also be very helpful.

Many donors will be glad to hear from a friendly face right now. It may be that your organisation has issued a company statement about its actions in relation to coronavirus and you can forward this on to them. Your communications should focus on being useful and informative. Remember that your donors have been immersed, whether they wanted it or not, in disaster coverage so you don’t need to add to the noise or anxiety.

Of course making sure you thank them and continue to be grateful for their support is vital.

For very loyal donors it could be that you informally ask for their advice on how you think your campaigns and fundraising should take shape. Some donors might be happy to be media spokespeople, or to help the organisation brainstorm new strategies.

It can be tempting in times of crisis to let donor communications drop but it is important to resist that temptation. When this crisis passes, donors will remember which organisations were helpful, useful and positive and you will need them to be part of your solutions going forward.

Empathy is all

Communications with donors need to be appropriate and empathetic. We need to be hyper-vigilant – i t's is hard to imagine that anyone isn’t feeling anxious and overwhelmed right now.

So whilst we may be panicking as our short-term fundraising potential falls off a cliff, giving is unlikely to be a top priority for donors right now. Aggressive appeals that ask for their help to solve your problems are not going to cut it. At the same time, giving donors passive updates that completely ignore the current situation are also likely to grate. Sending donors regular, relevant communications that draw on the current context are the best approach to keep relationships going.

It is also important to consider the donor's individual. Many will be at home for long periods of time and some will be isolated. Is  there is anything that your organisation does that could be useful to the?. For example, could your education team send resources for people that are educating their kids at home or similar? Or do you have digital archives that will be interesting for donors finding themselves in front of the TV more than ever before?

Some donors may be motivated by a spur to action. In this context it is likely donors will respond as they do with other disaster appeals, supporting their own towns and cities where giving can have a direct impact on the community. Organisations should also be wary of trying to link coronavirus to their missio.Unless there is a genuine connection it will feel inauthentic and false.

Most likely it won’t be appropriate to ask for money at all but keeping donor relationships going is still important. For example, if donors had purchased tickets to now-cancelled shows, it is fine to ask them to consider turning these gifts into a donation, subject to relevant tax and data protection rules. However the ask needs to be careful and appropriate and recognise that not everyone will want to, or can, give at this time. Ticket buyers must be offered refunds and should not feel pressured into making a donation.

Of course some donors will want to suspend gift conversations and it’s vital that this is respected. But organisations shouldn’t be vague about when they want to make contact again. One of the key concerns about coronavirus is that we have no idea how long periods of social distancing will last. Fundraisers should feel empowered to make concrete plans and to ask donors when they might be in touch again. 

Which appeals can work?

If you do decide to launch an appeal, make sure you follow good practice. Often donors need easy ways to help so make your organisation’s response simple and distinctive.

Campaign messages should make clear why your organisation is well-equipped to help, or for what exact purpose you are raising money. Be as specific as possible. Some organisations may want to launch an artists’ support fund. Sharing a specific project will reassure donors and may encourage some first-time contributors to give generously for urgent and immediate needs.

Communicate with clarity and visually (if possible) how donations will be managed, where they are going and what your organisation’s fundraising effort will achieve.

Fundraisers should also understand the likely time lag of any philanthropy. It is too early to say how financial markets will be affected overall by this global pandemic. But if we follow other trends in philanthropy, it’s safe to assume many donors will honour their commitments in the year of a downturn but not the following year. If you’re just starting a three-year campaign, have confidence. You may need to lower your fundraising target for now but could far exceed it when things recover, especially if you manage your relationships well.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

All businesses are having to think creatively. Can you run events virtually or set up conversations with donors via Zoom or Skype? Could you run an event via Skype where donors can talk to your CEO or artists? We all need to find useful and positive ways to help people weather the storm.

Consider what your donors want to hear at this time: who will they want to hear from and with what sort of message?

This is also a great time for collaboration. Eeach out to other organisations for ideas and tips about how to manage crisis communications and see if you can share resources.

Continue to invest in fundraising

It might feel impossible to hold our nerve now but the only way to prevent incoming money from slowing down following a crisis is to further strengthen donor engagement, cultivation and solicitation. If looked after properly donors will emerge with you on the other side of the crisis, perhaps even stronger supporters than before.

Your current fundraising strategy may still be perfectly viable and can be re-established post the crisis. It’s the organisations with the clearest vision, that implement their strategies clearly and take real care of their relationships that will be best placed to reconnect with fundraising activity when the world starts to recover.

Michelle Wright is CEO of Cause4 and Programme Director of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme.

This article is part of a series on the theme Fundraising for the Future, contributed by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy.

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