How Covid-19 is Changing the Way Nonprofits Fundraise [Interview]

Published: May 29, 2020

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There is not an industry that has not been affected by COVID-19, but one topic that hasn't often been at the center of the discussion is the impact of the pandemic on the nonprofit sector.

One of those effects is the necessity to drastically rethink fundraising efforts. Spring has historically been peak season for galas and other events to raise funds for the innumerable social causes that nonprofits address. Due to social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place regulations, organizations across the country have been forced to cancel or postpone their events. Many nonprofits rely on the income generated by their fundraising efforts, and not hosting these events can have dire financial consequences.

As nonprofit leaders adapt to this seemingly ubiquitous "new normal" and strategize how to raise funds, Vault spoke with Vaness Wakeman, CEO and Chief Strategist of The Wakeman Agency, about the path forward for nonprofit organizations. Vanessa is a trusted advisor to nonprofits and has been working closely with organizations to assess how to navigate the crisis and identify opportunities to fundraise for a possible future event in this current environment.

Vault: Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work that the Wakeman Agency does in the nonprofit sector.

Vanessa Wakeman: I am a futurist and strategist in the world of social change. In 2003, I founded The Wakeman Agency, to help nonprofits and socially responsible companies navigate the ecosystem of change. This includes strategic advisory services, public relations, event fundraising, and crisis communications. We work with organizations around the globe.  I have served as chief strategist and masterminded engagements for U.C.L.A.’s Civil Rights Project, Alliance for Financial Inclusion, National Domestic Workers Alliance, New York Women’s Foundation, Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, Help for Children, and many others.  

Vault: How is the nonprofit sector, as a whole, responding to and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic? What sorts of unique challenges are nonprofit organizations facing during the economy?

VW: The greatest challenge they have is financial. As a result of the pandemic, demand for services has increased exponentially, and most organizations don't have the funding to handle the increase. Overall, the sector has responded quickly, understanding that they are often the only means of support for specific populations. Many have had to think swiftly and often learn as they go and shift how they deliver services and ensure that they are still able to provide the much-needed services that their communities rely on. 

Vault: Spring is traditionally the busiest season for nonprofits when many organizations hold the majority of their fundraising events to generate revenue for the year. How is spring 2020 playing out for these organizations? What are the next steps for nonprofits that have had to cancel or postpone events, and what sorts of impacts will this disruption have on the rest of their year?

VW: Organizations have had to reimagine their events. With the mandate around sheltering in place, it's not possible to convene large groups of people. We are working with several organizations to transition their events online. While it isn't what most expected or wanted, I think there are many opportunities in the virtual environment based on costs and reach. 

Some organizations are in denial and hoping that later this year, we will be able to resume traditional galas. I don't think that the public will be ready for that, as we will all be proceeding with caution in how we reintegrate back into society. Fundraising events are a critical revenue stream for nonprofits, so it's not something that can be ignored. I think those organizations that embrace this change will find themselves strengthening relationships with existing supporters and cultivating relationships with new prospects. 

Vault: Are you noticing any trends in the way organizations are thinking ahead to find new ways of raising funds? What other means of fundraising make sense during a time like this, and how do you see organizations innovating to pivot to these alternative methods?

VW: I see more organizations being open to public relations and communications in general. Often organizations are looking at PR as an expense and not understanding how important it can be in not only building awareness for your cause but catalyzing people into action. Developing and executing a communications plan so that the nonprofit is strategic in how it communicates to audiences can have tremendous value. From a PR perspective, depending on the organization's mission, there could potentially be tie-ins to the current crisis that deepen the understanding and appreciation for the work.

I also think that digital communications will become more of a priority. Having a digital strategy that is designed to support the donor's journey will become a must for organizations of all sizes. I think it also forces organizations to be more thoughtful about how they position themselves. 

Vault: So much of the conversation about the economic impact of COVID-19 centers on large corporations. In your professional opinion, how do you think the nonprofit sector will be impacted in the long term? What are some of the lasting implications you see the COVID-19 pandemic having on the way nonprofit organizations operate, serve their communities, and raise funds?

VW: Unfortunately, our country tends to place all of the focus on the needs of corporate entities during a crisis. I hope that this current crisis highlights the role that nonprofits play in our society. We see in real-time the heavy lifting that nonprofits do on a daily basis. The reliance on nonprofits has been undervalued for decades. I hope that as we transition toward recovery, the community-at-large doesn't forget the safety net they've provided.

Due to the way funding is usually distributed, organizations have sometimes had to play the role of supplicant rather than a leader. I think Covid-19 gives nonprofits an opportunity to hit the reset button and step into their power. They are closest to the issues. They don't need to be told how to fulfill the mission of the organization. They simply need resources. 

The other long term change we may see, one that I'm very excited about, is more innovation and disruption. I think nonprofits will emerge from this crisis, having learned a great deal about themselves and how agile they can be. Covid-19 will present new challenges within the U.S. related to education, economic stability, hunger, etc. Nonprofits will need to be innovative and disruptive to meet the shifting needs of the people that they serve and new audiences that will be in demand as a result of the crisis. 

Vault: Are there any sectors within the nonprofit space—health services, education, environmental advocacy, cultural organizations, etc.—that are more affected than others are? Are there any sectors that are faring particularly well?

VW: Health services are likely most affected, but everyone is feeling the pain.  

Vault: Do nonprofit organizations have any unique advantages that a larger corporation might not have when it comes to navigating and recovering from this crisis?

VW: While there are some real challenges in philanthropy and how funds are distributed, I think that no matter how bad the economy is, there will always be some form of charity happening. Whether that be giving circles, small donations from individual donors, or larger gifts from institutions. Also, I think that the ability to connect audiences to a particular issue that they care about allows them to connect and grow their support base more actively.  

Vault: What would you say to somebody reading this who might be hesitant to donate given their own financial uncertainty during this difficult time? What are some impactful ways people can help support the causes that matter to them?

VW: Give anyway. Your gift, no matter the amount, will be helpful. Most importantly, give boldly. Don't think about donating as an extra, but as a necessity. It's how we take care of one another. 

Vault: Do you have any parting advice to nonprofit employees and leaders as they continue to weather the COVID-19 pandemic?

VW: This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself and make self-care a priority. The nonprofit sector has long defined itself as the sector of sacrifice. That mindset will not serve nonprofits well. The road to recovery will be long and challenging. That won't be possible if people burn-out early.