Meaningful connections: navigating long-distance relationships in the pandemic

by Joanna Storrar - 13 October 2020


As the health crisis hits both travel and philanthropy, transatlantic jetsetter and More Partner Joanna Storrar speaks to two US fundraisers for European cultural institutions about how to keep inspiring overseas support.

Over the past 30 years, I have spent a lot of time shuttling over the Atlantic, connecting institutions outside the US with their donors and alumni inside the US. Travel in both directions, either to bring people into the life of the institution back home, or to bring the institution to its American donors, has been essential. The arrival of Covid-19 has utterly changed that landscape. For one thing, travel on that scale has not been possible. For another, the pandemic has had a profound impact on all the parties in these relationships – home institutions, donors, and US Friends groups. So what do we do now? I spoke with Sue Devine, Executive Director of American Friends of the Louvre, and Michael Diaz-Griffith, Executive Director of the Sir John Soane's Museum Foundation in New York, who have found creative ways to adapt to this new environment.

Joanna Storrar: The pandemic has had an enormous impact on the ability of your organisations to fulfil their missions. What have the repercussions been for you?

Sue Devine: American Friends of the Louvre (AFL)’s fundraising activities, in particular our membership programs, have been built around being able to offer exclusive access to the Louvre and other leading museums through travel. The pandemic has brought these activities completely to a halt, and we do not know when we will be able to start up again. While we are offering virtual lectures and also organizing a virtual gala, I worry about losing connections with donors I have come to know well. Their links and communications with each other are also being affected. While we are fortunate to have a loyal base of donors, fundraising will undoubtedly be challenging until the health crisis passes.

Michael Diaz-Griffith: At the Sir John Soane's Museum Foundation, we have adapted our programming to the virtual world. We normally hold lectures in New York about Soane, his world, architecture and design, and collecting; we have moved these online. Like many organizations, we are developing a bank of recorded programmes that will become “evergreen” content for our followers as well as for new audiences outside New York. In the coming season we will also debut an interview series on Instagram Live. Fundraising has been hit hard by the need to cancel our annual gala. In the meantime, we are focusing our efforts on other fundraising methods.

Joanna: Any silver linings?

Michael: I joined the Foundation just a week or two before everyone’s life changed in response to the pandemic. I expected to spend the spring getting to know colleagues and planning our fundraising gala. Instead, we had to figure out how to compensate for the likely loss of an important source of income. As a first step, we ended up simply phoning “friends and family” of the Foundation and asking them to give. A timely matching grant helped motivate support. We met our annual fundraising target early and were able to provide support to the Museum at the same level as previous years. In the end, going back to basics worked. People love parties, but if you provide a meaningful connection to the institution your donors love and support, they will “show up” for it – with or without the champagne.

Sue: The pause in our normal activities gave us time to launch a new advisory committee on board development. The committee’s work has already had some unexpected benefits. One donor read through the briefing materials we provided and saw the gift required of board members. She promptly sent in a gift at that level. The chairman was thrilled and approached her about joining the board, and she was elected at our June meeting.

Joanna: What things have you tried or learned in the past months that will stay with you?

Sue: The uncertainty about the future definitely causes anxiety for fundraisers and requires us to continue operating in new ways. Some good things, however, have developed during the pandemic. The work of our advisory committee on board development is resulting in important recommendations, including putting guidelines in place for cultural and geographic diversity. I also anticipate that the committee will continue in some form in the future, to help the organization achieve its mission on behalf of the Louvre.

Michael: There is a great deal of talk about Zoom fatigue, but I have also identified a degree of Zoom anxiety among colleagues in the non-profit world. Some of them have responded to the accelerating “attention economy” by pushing out an enormous amount of content. We have always been more focused on “quality over quantity” and on providing special experiences. I am finding that it is more important than ever to constantly return to your mission, not what others are doing, when assessing the best thing to do online. That may sound very general, but the outcome it leads to is very specific: an online presence that is just as meaningful and compelling as the in-person elements that may have defined your identity pre-pandemic.

It’s so encouraging to hear stories like these. One of the most inspiring lessons I take from what Sue and Michael shared with me is that their supporters care deeply about these museums and the treasures and ideas they hold in trust for the world. And while donors may miss being able to travel, attend glamorous events, and spend time in the museums, ultimately their loyalty goes deeper, and the connections are truly meaningful.

I’d love to hear what your experience has been. We have much to learn from each other about navigating these uncharted waters.

If you would like to find out more about engaging overseas donors to support your organisation, get in touch with Joanna at jstorrar@morepartnership.com