Fundraising During Uncertainties: A Not-for-profit Organization Forum Recap

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young creative designer woman using pen tablets and laptop in front of bookshelf.From actively engaging on social media to hosting online galas, we spoke virtually with local not-for-profit leaders to discuss best practices for fundraising during times of uncertainties. Our conversation was forum style, with an open invitation to contribute feedback freely. Here’s what we learned.

When the pandemic first hit, not-for-profit organizations (NFP), including theaters, museums, private schools, social service organizations and more had to cancel their programs, fundraisers and events without a reschedule date in mind. Tickets were sold and venues had been booked—all of this and more had to be quickly and effectively adjusted. While there was no immediate clear answer what the financial impact of this crisis would be, many not-for-profit organizations had to consider unique options, like dipping into their reserve funds or applying for a government-funded loan.

Now that we are a few months into the continued (while somewhat lessened) stay-at-home orders and economic turbulence, our local NFP leaders had interesting insight to provide on how to keep donors and board members engaged, transition events to online platforms and more.

Learn to First Adapt, Then to Thrive

Many NFP organizations quickly learned that certain fundraisers and other events would have to move to a virtual environment. Auctions, speaking engagements and roundtables were turned to Zoom calls, Teams meetings and more. Not-for-profit leaders got creative, striving to provide that same personal and intimate experience they delivered at in-person functions.

At the end of the day, NFPs had to prioritize their missions, whether that’s fighting poverty in their community or driving awareness to a national issue. And to continue doing so, they needed donors who were still committed to the mission and willing to financially support the mission. Canceling fundraising activities wasn’t an option for many NFPs if they wanted to continue serving their missions.

However, no one anticipated the overwhelming success these virtual events created. Many of the NFP leaders we spoke with saw higher attendance at events, larger donations and a wider geographic reach. Because their galas were video calls and their farmer’s markets were curbside, people were able to engage with the fundraising efforts from the comfort of their homes and cars during times of uncertainty and social distancing. Online meetings and gatherings had far more attendees, as participants didn’t have to travel to join; and people were willing to donate more without the added costs of transportation and formalwear required for live fundraisers.

With new challenges come new opportunities, and many organizations found success in trying new ideas.

It’s All in the Timing

Significantly, many of the leaders we spoke with noted the importance of precise timing with virtual events. Participants didn’t really want to wake up early on a Saturday for a virtual fundraiser, and they often lost interest after an hour to an hour-and-a-half of keynote speakers. When experimenting with timing, we suggest conducting a post-event survey to gauge the thoughts of your participants on the length and timing of your fundraisers.

Put in the Prep Work

Once you’ve established what events you can move to a virtual platform and have decided on a time and length, the next step is to make sure your online meeting goes as smoothly as possible. The NFP leaders we spoke with advised that planning a successful virtual event takes time, work and practice. Be sure to implement the same best practices you’d take if this were an in-person event, such as designating an event planning committee, fundraising goals and event timeline. Assign the roles of producer, emcee or host, so that you have people in charge of scripting, logistics and coordination.

Make sure you’ve put some thought into what online platform your organization will use, even going as far as to research the pros and cons of a few options. Some organizations may also consider pre-recording messaging and keynote speakers to move things along in an efficient manner. NFP leaders or event organizers that feel comfortable with a platform can further explore its unique components, such as Zoom’s break-out conference rooms.

Most importantly, avoid technology issues by rehearsing with your leadership team prior to the event and hosting a technology tutorial for guests with uncertainties about the digital component. You can also include a call-in number for participants without video capable desktops or who would prefer to join via phone. All in all, you will also want to adjust your event budget accordingly to cover the costs of hosting and producing a virtual event.

Drive Your Mission Through Messaging

As an NFP organization, your response to societal occurrences is crucial in demonstrating that you value your mission, your community and the missions of other like-minded organizations. Silence will be heard by your donors, sponsors and members of the public. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, not-for-profit groups voiced their support for driving relief efforts and chimed in ready to help.

No one could have planned a strategy for that scenario in advanced, so no amount of preparation could have helped. Still, NFPs responded to the crisis, and that’s what counted to the community.

Further, in the world of remote work and communication, leaders are writing handwritten thank you notes to volunteers, employees and donors. They are communicating to their staff via phone calls, video chats and email to make sure everyone stays connected. They are actively revisiting their messaging as the pandemic and world events evolve and change. NFP leaders must be nimble in the face of uncertainty.

Social Media is a Must

Additionally, organizations are finding success in reaching a wider audience through their social media channels. LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms should be vastly utilized by NFPs as they work to drive awareness to their organizations and causes in a world where most people are staying home. Easily reach your current audience and new listeners by regularly posting valuable content, engaging images and insightful data. You can also use these as resources when communicating upcoming virtual events or to broadcast what donations you are currently accepting (for example, a food bank may still collect canned goods during the pandemic).

Moving Forward

The not-for-profit leaders we spoke with offered valuable insight we found to be helpful as the country moves in the direction of recovery. We hope the information provided above assists your organization, as well.

For more information on upcoming NFP Forums, please contact us.

About our authors

Pam Wright

Pam Wright

Pam Wright, CPA, is a partner in the firm’s assurance services group and has over 30 years of experience in audit, tax and consulting services. She has extensive experience servicing clients in the not-for-profit (NFP) industry and is the NFP practice leader in the Northeast Ohio office. She serves a wide variety of NFP clients including community and private foundations, social service agencies, historical museums, zoos, independent schools, mental and health care organizations and associations.

Margaret Jordan

Margaret Jordan

Margaret Jordan, JD, MS, is the business development director for Northeast Ohio at Sikich. Margaret has more than 15 years of experience in business development strategy, lead generation, project management and growth development for businesses. She works with partners and other key firm leaders to develop successful revenue generation campaigns, while supervising local employees in their business development efforts.

This publication contains general information only and Sikich is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or any other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should you use it as a basis for any decision, action or omission that may affect you or your business. Before making any decision, taking any action or omitting an action that may affect you or your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. You acknowledge that Sikich shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by you or any person who relies on this publication.

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