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Making Changes During COVID

For Nonprofit Organizations and Fundraising Events

Greetings from sunny North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina! My family has been visiting NMB since I was six years old. It’s the highlight of our summer and as we’ve all grown up and moved away, it’s the only time of the year I get to spend an entire week with my family.

This year is a little different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to move our vacation farther north to a more secluded area of North Myrtle Beach. Throughout the summer, COVID cases in SC soared, causing the Governor of Pennsylvania (where I live!) to add SC to the list of nineteen states encouraging Pennsylvanians to quarantine after visiting.

After some deliberation, we decided to come. But we needed a plan to feel safe. We decided that we would only cook at home or order take-out instead of going to any restaurants. We would steer clear of other families at the beach and pool. And of course, masks anytime we were in the elevator or found ourselves getting close to strangers while on a walk.

When we arrived we quickly discovered that others visiting the beach didn’t quite care about taking precautions as much as we did, and the beach got very crowded from about 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. We knew that we can’t be upset about the decisions of other people, so we tweaked our own plans to keep ourselves safe.

Every day, we visited the beach and pool around 9:00 and stayed until about 10:30. Then, we would spend the day napping and playing, and go back to the beach after dinner. We didn’t ride the elevator with anyone not wearing a mask. And only one family member went out to the grocery store or to pick up curbside food orders. It worked for us and our family’s needs. And it cut down on anxiety and stress because we had a plan going in and tweaked the plan for optimum results.

Likewise, your fundraising efforts need a plan. Going forward blindly into your fiscal year will just cause stress and anxiety. Going into fiscal year 2020-2021, I had a pretty solid plan for my organization. I knew my revenue streams and goals, and aligned each area to our strategic plan. I designed my action steps to achieve each goal. That planning method proved successful the year before as I was able to raise over $1 million for the first time in my organization’s 30-year history, and I was determined to do it again.

And then a global pandemic hit.

Talk about needing to tweak my plans! I’ll be honest...I freaked out a bit. My organization was financially stable so there wasn’t an immediate cause for concern. But I kept having dreams - you know the ones! - where the entire organization goes under and it’s all my fault. Totally rational. At first, it was like all my fears were coming true. Individual donations were low, member churches were sending $50 instead of $500, and we were getting emails from past sponsors saying we would not be receiving funding this year because they were putting all their money towards direct COVID relief.

I couldn’t be upset as I knew the funding was needed elsewhere and I respected that decision. I knew that for the sake of my organization and my own sanity, it was time to tweak my plan. I determined three main areas that needed my attention if I was to continue raising funds in the time of COVID:

1. Added a COVID focused appeal letter.

Asking for money during a global pandemic after the state had shut down and people had lost their jobs seemed like a bad idea. It felt dirty and a bad PR move. But during this time, one of my mentors published an article that recalled a time when an old boss told him that he “never hesitated to ask for money that would be well spent.”

That resonated with me. The work being done by so many organizations is important, life-saving work that needs funding to continue operating. Need doesn’t go away during a pandemic; in fact, it increases quickly and becomes more dire. So I decided to send out an additional appeal asking for donations during the COVID crisis. I explained what my organization was doing to support the families we served and the added costs of this support.

I also made sure that in my appeal I acknowledged that this was a bad time for so many people and if this was the case, please disregard my request. Breaking the fundraising rule that we should never say “no” for our donors felt appropriate to do in this situation. Within a month of sending the appeal, my organization had received 92 individual donations totaling nearly $20,000.

2. Recorded a video to send member churches to replace yearly visits.

One of the groups of long time supporters of my organization are the member churches. These churches helped to start the organization over 30 years ago and are an integral part of the established revenue streams.

Each year, I make it a priority to visit each member church to give an update on the work we have been doing throughout the year. This gives supporters in the church an update about the impact of their dollars, and it introduces the organization to new potential donors. With churches unable to meet due to the pandemic, my speaking calendar became nonexistent.

While we sent out an eblast with updates about how the organization is doing, nothing can beat the face to face time with donors. All of our member churches were still meeting virtually, so we decided to send out an update video with a greeting from the Executive Director and a short video detailing how we were faring during the pandemic and what the organization was accomplishing during the year despite all that was going on. It was wonderful having the opportunity to share our story with a positive update of our work, and assure our supporters that we were still here.

3. Transitioned yearly event from in-person to virtual.

Our Little Black Dress event is only in its fourth year, but is already well-known among the attendees and sponsors. I knew that I needed to do something that would make it stand out during a time when other events were starting to make similar transitions.

I decided to use the Facebook event page as the event headquarters. In the discussion tab, I scheduled daily posts to engage supporters for three weeks leading up to the event. I collected pictures of followers in their favorite little black dress and then gave people the opportunity to vote for their favorite picture by donating $1 per vote.

I also had a small online silent auction using a few donated baskets we received pre-COVID and additional baskets that committee members had put together. During the in-person event, the silent auction is a great source of income, but because I didn’t want anyone asking businesses for donations, it was very small and raised about a quarter of what it usually does. I also acknowledged our sponsors through individual posts leading up to the event and then again throughout the actual event time.

On the night of the event, I posted video testimonials from our committee members and volunteers talking about how and why they are involved with the organization. I also asked a program graduate to record herself telling her story and had a volunteer put together a Q&A style video of her talking about how her life was impacted by her time in transitional housing. I went live to welcome everyone at the beginning of the two hour event and again at the end to thank everyone for “attending.”

The part that made the event stand out was the hour during the event when local designer, Amma Jo, went live from her home to showcase her line of handbags, clothing, jewelry, and makeup. During her live feed, she interacted with viewers as they made comments on items and continuously reminded guests why she supports my organization. She also offered a discount on items sold and donated 30% of the total sales from the evening back to the organization. It was the highlight of the evening and guests were thrilled to interact with a local celebrity.

Because so many people were hurting during the shutdown, I didn’t feel right charging a fee to attend the event. Instead I asked guests if they were able, would they consider donating the amount of $35, or the price of the Early Bird ticket. Between sponsorships, the online auction, contests, and donations, the Virtual Little Black Dress event raised over $17,000, which is 24% more than had been raised the year before!

We all know that change can be scary, especially when it’s forced upon us because of a global pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I’m discovering how well I can handle change (after an initial freak out, of course!) and that change can be exciting.

As fundraisers, how many times have we thought about changing things up but just don’t have the time to put into thinking through new plans? I’m choosing to use this time to embrace some of the changes and expand my fundraising repertoire in the process.


If you need some assistance navigating some of these changes, reach out to me to schedule a FREE 15-minute consultation to start the conversation about your needs and if I might be able to help.


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Nonprofit Fundraising Consultant Jessica
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