Engaging and asking during the pandemic: drinking from a glass half-full

by Simon Pennington - 10 July 2020


More Partner, Simon Pennington, shares some positivity to keep your fundraising thriving in the uncertain months ahead.

No-one expected our new decade to start like this. Alongside the desperate experience of seeing so many of our fellow citizens suffer from COVID-19, we have also seen budget freezes and a looming recession create a bunker mentality among many charities, universities, cultural organisations and schools.

But there have been some positive experiences, and I’ve seen many organisations develop creative ways to engage their communities. I’ve also hosted workshops and training sessions with fundraisers from the international development, education and cultural sectors on engaging and asking in an online world. Determined to spread a little positivity at this tough time, I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve learned.

Creating a rich and authentic dialogue
For small and intimate institutions, such as schools and colleges, this time has presented an opportunity to enter into a rich and meaningful dialogue with supporters. Latymer Upper School and Emmanuel College Cambridge, for instance, have thoughtfully identified those in keyworker roles on their databases, and communicated to them their pride in having these frontline workers as alumni.

In turn, they’ve received positive feedback and moving personal stories which can feature in future communications to all alumni. One reason these messages of thanks have resonated is that they are authentic expressions of gratitude and have asked for nothing in return. And perhaps not coincidentally, Latymer and Emmanuel have both received large new gifts from committed donors during this period.

Harnessing the informality of Zoom
Much has already been written about the opportunity to find creative ways to generate smaller gifts and to use this time to engage with and steward existing donors. Fundraisers have also had to rapidly develop a new skill – that of engaging and asking remotely by Zoom, Teams or other videocalling facility. When I spent time with the team at Mercy Ships, the feeling was this might make the process of engaging and asking a little bit easier. Now, from a series of calls, 10 live major gift leads have emerged.

A donor visit typically happens on the donor’s turf, in a huge office building or imposing house. It is hard for a fundraiser not to feel a little intimidated and psychologically ‘a supplicant’. Online calls, by contrast, show a little of both participants’ homes, and the lockdown has introduced elements of informality and personality. Anyone can be subject to intrusion from children or pets; almost everyone has something in their backdrop that can act as an ice-breaker.

My ‘glass half-full’ tips for positive philanthropy
Using these experiences and others I wanted to share some positive, practical tips on how you can ensure your philanthropy programme thrives during this period:

  • Rework your story to reflect the impact that COVID-19 has had on every organisation. The chances are the need for your services is higher and income will be at risk. British Heart Foundation reported a seven-fold increase in calls to its helpline early in the pandemic, from those who have heart problems and were shielding. Yet income for many organisations will vanish from events and community activity for half the year. Make this story clear and compelling and those who have supported you loyally will help you get through the tough times.

  • While events in person have dried up, it’s a great time to venture into online events. Try to give the event a bit of glitz or buzz – through a surprise guest, using polls or by asking guests to interact somehow. Many donors will have been on Zoom all day, and the thought of passive listening stretching into their evening may not appeal. Alzheimer’s Research UK reported a great turnout and positive feedback to a presentation on progress in the early detection of dementia. Pariticipants could just log on, rather than traipsing into London and feeling the need to stay afterwards. And the charity has found it easy to set up follow-up meetings with those who attended.

  • It’s also a good moment to reinvigorate lapsed donors and volunteer boards. Several clients, including LSE, University of East Anglia, Unicef and International Committee of the Red Cross, have reported positive experiences of securing meetings with major donors, including some who have been silent for a long period. Trinity College Dublin has also found new energy and momentum in its volunteer group – once again, by removing travel time and the pressure to socialise, engaging donors has become much more straightforward.

At a time when many people have been feeling anxious or stressed, we should take a moment to celebrate donors who have continued to give and the fundraisers who have kept asking. Together with others involved in the giving process, they have worked intensively and creatively to ensure that important charitable causes keep going and continue to serve our communities.

To find out more about how we could help your organisation engage with donors and ask in an online world, you can get in touch with Simon, or give us a call on 01382 224730.