To say that a lot has changed since last weekend is an understatement. While the causes and effects of COVID-19 on the philanthropic landscape will likely be much different from the Great Recession of 2008, there are striking similarities when it comes to fundraising.  

I experienced 2008 first-hand through the eyes of the schools, universities, churches, and nonprofit organizations that the Winkler Group had the honor of serving.  The biggest lesson I learned from the Great Recession is this: the organizations that strategically increased their fundraising efforts in 2008 and 2009 not only weathered the storm but came out of it stronger and more financially sustainable.  The organizations that stopped fundraising and cultivating donors teetered on the edge of existence, while some ceased to exist altogether.

As I reflect on the Great Recession and its aftermath, I’d like to share the lessons I learned—good and bad.  In doing so, I hope you can avoid repeating the mistakes I saw and position your organization to not only survive but come out of this stronger and healthier.

Lessons Learned from 2008:

1. Do not stop raising money.  I know this seems obvious, but I was shocked at how many organizations stopped raising money in 2008. They circled the wagons to ride out the storm. They told themselves:  1) the climate was not good for fundraising, 2) people were concerned about more important things, 3) it would be insensitive to ask for money during a time like this, 4) they just needed to focus on their core mission, and 5) they were facing a daunting reality of layoffs, salary reductions, and closing operations.  

In the long run, their mistaken inaction put them on the brink of financial insolvency.

I’m not suggesting you ignore the realities of the time.  However, your constituency needs you now MORE THAN EVER.  Now is the time to ramp up your fundraising.  Now is the time to ask the questions: What strategies are you developing, or have in place for donor retention, LYBNT and SYBNT reporting, and funding opportunities to meet new demands your organization is facing?

2. Strategic planning.  This is not the five- to ten-year strategic plan put together by your board.  This is an immediate and intentional plan to address fundraising during this pandemic. 

In 2008, many organizations put out desperate pleas for help with little messaging other than “we need your money!”.  This unorganized approach had the opposite effect on their potential donors.  People don’t want to throw money at a sinking ship.  They want to see a thoughtful plan of action that describes how you are dealing with immediate realities and how will you get back on track afterwards. 

3. Overcommunicate.  Even in good times most organizations struggle with communication.  In situations like the ones we are facing, developing a strategic, purposeful fundraising communication strategy is critical. For your upper level donors, this means picking up the phone or giving them your personal cell number and telling them to call you anytime.   Give them updates from your organization and how you are addressing the need.  Enlist the help of your board members to make calls. 

For mid-level donors, send personalized emails.  Help them feel “in the know” and connected to your organization.  For all your constituents, increase your presence on social media and keep them updated.  Look for all opportunities to connect on a personal and meaningful level.   If you don’t, your donors will take their philanthropic dollars elsewhere.

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This chart proves that now is the time to focus on, and communicate with, your individual donors.  Even after 2008, individuals powered philanthropy. The bulk of your money will come from your most loyal donors.
Source: Giving USA 2009

4. Creative, flexible, innovative, and agile.  You should not be ashamed to want to make sure your organization remains viable and healthy. Now is when your communities need you the most.  Scholarships are still needed for students to pay their tuition and graduate; the homeless still need to be housed; individuals need medical care.

Perhaps your biggest event—the one that brings in six figures—has now been cancelled.  What are you going to do to make up for this loss of revenue?  Simply scrapping it and saying we will try again next year is not an option. 

The need is real and urgent.  It’s how we go about meeting the need in this climate that makes all the difference.  Being creative and demonstrating that you are adaptable and agile will significantly impact how much money you can raise.  As in 2008, the organizations that are able to adapt to a new reality are the ones that will prosper again in 2020 and beyond.

5. Investors, not donors.  When facing situations like 2008, and now 2020, your organization needs to approach your stakeholders as investors.  What do I mean by this? An investor wants to know the unfiltered insider version of what is happening with your organization.  They want to know your critical needs and your plan for addressing them.  They want the ability to speak into the situation and offer counsel.  Be honest and be vulnerable.  Be proactive in sharing the emergency strategic plan you have put in place and let them know you welcome their feedback.   

6. This will pass.  In the deepest throes of the last recession I can remember wondering when, if ever, it was going to end.  I promise you—this will end.  While the immediate negative impacts of COVID-19 may be more challenging, the overall length and duration of what we are experiencing today will be much shorter than post-2008. 

As fundraisers, this not the time for inaction.  Looking back on 2008, the organizations that just tried to ride things out, or focus on other core areas while neglecting fundraising, suffered dramatically.  The organizations that recognized the utter importance of continued, focused fundraising not only fared significantly better but were financially stronger and more sustainable as a result.

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In the aftermath of the Great Recession, philanthropy in the United States reached record levels.  We will get through this and be stronger from the experience. 

What next? We will get through this.  I’ve listed our leadership team’s email addresses and LinkedIn handles below.   Please reach out to me or to anyone on our team with questions or for a bit of individual advice.  We’re here to help you—so you can continue to serve the people who need you the most.

Tim Winkler, Principal and CEO: twinkler@winklergroup.com, LinkedIn

Jim Bush, Principal and President: jbush@winklergroup.com, LinkedIn

Jessica Browning, Principal and Executive Vice President: jbrowning@winklergroup.com, LinkedIn

The generous will prosper: those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.
(Proverbs 11:25)

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