COVID-19 has upended lots of things in our lives, including nonprofit fundraising. Learn how to manage your Spring fundraiser, whether you decide to postpone it, cancel it, change it, or fundraise full steam ahead!
You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. But nothing could have prepared the world for just how awry our plans would go in 2020. COVID-19 has cost thousands of people in the United States their lives, many states have shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders in effect, businesses have been forced to shut their doors, and millions of people have lost their jobs. So, that Spring fundraiser your nonprofit made all those beautiful plans for? COVID-19 has essentially ripped it to shreds, and you’ll have to make some tough decisions.
But don’t panic! There several ways forward. In this post, we’ll break down your options and discuss the steps involved in each.
“But is it okay to fundraise now?!”
We will dive more deeply into this issue in the future, but resoundingly, the answer is YES. Not only are people giving to charities, people are giving more than they were last year. On Mightycause, we are seeing a groundswell of events aimed to lift up nonprofit work during this turbulent time.
And that’s not a surprise, that’s a feature of nonprofit fundraising. While there have been very few situations that are directly comparable to COVID-19, we consistently see that there is an increase in charitable giving during or directly following a disaster. (And if this doesn’t qualify as a global disaster, we don’t know what does.) So, rest assured, people are still engaging in charitable giving! It’s definitely worth fundraising during this time, though what that looks like for each nonprofit will vary based on the type of work that’s being done, the capacity of the nonprofit, and how COVID-19 has affected operations.
“Do we cancel, postpone, or just move it online?”
This is probably the most difficult question for nonprofits right now. And it’s also the one they need to answer fast. There is no right answer, and it depends a lot on what you organization had planned, what you’re doing for COVID-19 relief, and what your organization can realistically achieve right now. Let’s walk through the options.
Cancelling your fundraiser or event
So, this might seem like the nuclear option, but there are plenty of good reasons why your nonprofit might want to fully cancel your Spring fundraiser. Maybe you’ve had to shut down operations because of COVID-19, or on the flip side, find yourselves so busy providing direct service to your community that you have no time for a full-throttle fundraising campaign. And if you had an in-person event, it may not be possible for you to simply transfer the event online.
Whatever the reason, you may need to cancel your planned fundraiser so you can focus your resources and energy elsewhere. Here’s how to cancel your fundraiser gracefully.
- Give as much notice as possible. Notify your board, any sponsors or partners for the fundraiser, your staff, your volunteers, and crucially, the people participating in your fundraiser as soon as you possibly can.
- Announce the cancellation. Send out emails, post on your website, post on social media, and let everyone know your Spring fundraiser is cancelled.
- Stop selling tickets, stop registration. The sooner you shut down any moving parts of your fundraiser, the better off you’ll be.
- Tie up loose ends. Do you need to deal with ticket sales? What about a venue if it was an in-person event? Can you get a refund on your venue deposit, or roll it into your next event with them? Think through any of the details you will need to shore up before you move on, especially any that may have costs associated with them.
Close a door to open a window
If you’re cancelling your Spring fundraiser, that’s the main point to get across, but don’t just leave it at that! How else can people support your nonprofit? People who support your work will still want to help out, whether there’s a formal fundraiser happening or not. So, after you’ve shared all the need-to-know details, leave room for people to still donate to your cause:
- Pivot to focusing on your COVID-19-related work in the community
- Link to your Mightycause page or website and invite them to make a donation
- Ask for recurring donations, especially in small, approachable amounts
- Need in-kind donations to support your work in the community? Put out a call for what you need, or link to a webpage where they can find out more information about what you need and how to safely donate those items
- If you have an Amazon wishlist or AmazonSmile account, add a link and encourage people to think of you when they’re shopping online
It’s also important to stay in touch and keep your supporters engaged, even if you have to cancel your Spring fundraiser. Send periodic updates about your nonprofit, how you’re faring during COVID-19, what you’re doing in the community. Get active on social media! And if you’re out in the community providing direct aid, now is the time to show everyone how vital your services are!
Postponing your event
If your organization has a lot of time, money, and effort invested in a Spring fundraising event, you may want to simply postpone it. Postponing may also be the right choice if you rely on your Spring fundraiser for a significant chunk of your revenue, or perhaps are in a state that has not been as hard-hit by COVID-19 and don’t want to be too hasty to cancel.
Postponing an event can prolong the uncertainty. It’s important to ensure you don’t leave your sponsors, staff, and volunteers in the lurch with a “wait and see” approach. Owning the situation and maintaining control of your messaging is key here.
Determine your go-no-go date
A little bit of “wait and see” is warranted in many cases, since we don’t really know what things will look like in a month or two. COVID-19 is in control here, not the calendar. So if you decide to postpone your Spring fundraiser, you’ll need a date where you make a final decision about whether to proceed, cancel, or adjust course.
Choosing a date in May (or even at the end of April) where you decide the final fate of your fundraiser will mean you and your supporters aren’t stuck in limbo. Give yourself a little bit of time to assess the situation with your team when choosing your go-no-go date, and take a look at not only at what the situation is like in your city or state, but whether your fundraiser is viable given the circumstances. Are things somewhat back to normal where your nonprofit operates? Are people not only allowed to gather in groups, but comfortable doing so? (Even after the virus is more controlled, people may still want to observe some degree of social distancing.) Does your fundraiser really require an in-person element? Think through the possibilities leading to your chosen date, and plan to issue a final announcement to all relevant parties.
Develop (and share) plans of action
When you’ve made the decision to postpone your fundraiser and chosen a date to make a final decision, it’s helpful to outline the different possibilities. Plan A might be to hold your fundraiser as planned on a new date, and Plan B might be moving your fundraiser to a digital-only campaign. (More on that in a minute!)
This not only helps your organization outline and prepare for the potential outcomes, it reassures those involved (your stakeholders, sponsors, staff, etc.) that you’ve got a handle on the situation and helps them prepare for these potential outcomes.
Moving your Spring fundraiser online
The good news is that modern nonprofit fundraising is usually already online! This makes adapting to the circumstances during COVID-19 by shifting your fundraiser to a digital-only event smooth and easy. Donors are, on the whole, very much online and used to giving digitally. Each year, the number donors who give online gets larger and larger.
So, what’s the process for moving your fundraiser online?
How to do it
- Edit. Take a look at your fundraiser’s structure. What can work digitally, and what needs to go? Obviously, any in-person activities need to be cancelled… but can you find a way to make them happen while observing social distancing? Start by editing out any aspects of your campaign that don’t make sense in the current situation so you can simplify and streamline your event to what makes sense for an online campaign.
- Tie up loose ends. If you had an in-person component to your Spring fundraiser, you’ll need to follow the same steps for canceling them outlined above. Stop selling tickets, shut down registration for any in-person events (even if you open it back up as a digital-only event), contact a venue if you had one, and tie up all the loose ends.
- Make a plan with your team. So, when moving an event online, you might need to adjust certain elements of that event. For instance, you can easily make a charity walk digital — people just complete the distance at home, on their own schedule, instead of in a big group! (Same goes for doggy dashes, fun runs, etc.) But your organization may need to make some adjustments to how your event is structured to allow for that. For instance, you will want to push for peer-to-peer fundraising rather than relying on ticket sales. And you may need to develop some materials to help people who already signed up to participate adjust to the new structure. So, schedule a video conference with your fundraising team and work out the details you’ll need to tweak to make it work online.
- Come up with a plan for sponsors. If you have sponsors signed on for your fundraiser, talk through possible solutions with your team and reach out to your sponsors individually. You want to ensure your sponsors get the exposure, positive PR, and activity they were looking for before your event had to move online. Pledges to continue promoting their brand on social media posts, in emails, or rolling their sponsorship into your next in-person event may be helpful in maintaining good relationships with your sponsors.
- Make an announcement. When you have everything in place, let people know! If you’re hosting a Team or Event on Mightycause, you can utilize the Participants tool to email everyone who has signed up. (If you have the human resources, doing some personal outreach to people participating to let them know about the change is definitely worth doing!) Once your participants, staff, and volunteers helping with the event know, update your website, your Mightycause page, anywhere you talk about the event. You may also want to do a press release or “official” announcement on your blog. Then, coordinate an blast email to your list, post on social media, and reinforce it with follow-up posts.
Digital event tips
- Emphasize community. Okay, so you can’t have a big in-person gathering, but that doesn’t mean your Spring fundraiser can’t provide a sense of community! Think of creative ways to get people involved, like using a hashtag they can use to connect on social media, holding a photo or video contest, or asking people to participate in a digital happy hour to keep people connected to each other… and your nonprofit.
- Lean on peer-to-peer fundraising. In general, people are going to be less likely to spend their money on things like tickets to digital events, so you’ll need to lean on other sources of revenue. Peer-to-peer fundraising is an excellent way to make up lost ground with a digital-only fundraiser. Instead of emphasizing attendance at an event, registration and ticket purchases, make peer-to-peer fundraising the main event! Need to more information on what peer-to-peer fundraising is and how it works? Get a breakdown here.
- Add an incentive. If you’re moving your Spring fundraiser online and hoping to get more people starting peer-to-peer fundraisers for you, it’s the perfect time to talk to your board or sponsors about providing a matching grant.
- Spin the change to your Spring fundraiser for the current situation. Is there a way to change up your marketing of your Spring fundraiser that plays on social distancing protocol? Ties into current events? Don’t be afraid to get cute! Memes and humor are keeping people going. For instance, changing your “doggy dash” to focus on your supporters walking with their rescue pets and sharing pictures online with a hashtag (like #VirtualDoggyDash) could even enhance your event.
- Use it to see what you can accomplish online. A lot of nonprofits have time-consuming, costly annual events that are simply a matter of tradition. Moving your Spring fundraiser online out of necessity this year is an opportunity to measure your success and explore whether that big event your fundraising calendar is built around really serves your organization… or whether it’s an albatross you didn’t even realize your organization had around its neck.
Reimagining your event
If your nonprofit’s situation has changed significantly since COVID-19 hit, you could find that your planned Spring fundraiser no longer makes sense for your organization. Especially for nonprofits working overtime to serve their communities, you may have to go back to the drawing board. And some nonprofits may find themselves in a situation where they’re unsure if fundraising for their cause at all right now is appropriate. Some organizations have been forced to halt or limit their operations, while others address a cause that seems far removed from the current situation.
So, what do you do?
Pivoting to focus on COVID-19 relief
It goes without saying that if your organization is working hard in your community to provide COVID-19 relief (for instance, food banks, diaper banks, organizations caring for the most vulnerable populations, focused on housing or healthcare…) then your Spring fundraiser should be about the important work you’re doing.
Our friends at #GivingTuesday are organizing an event on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 to mobilize the globe on behalf of COVID-19 relief. Mightycause will be joining in and encourages nonprofits on our platform to raise funds for their cause. We’ll continue to share resources that help nonprofits navigate this unprecedented time.
And if you’re struggling to figure out how you’ll do everything you’re doing and manage a fundraiser… well, it’s the perfect time to loop in volunteers! There are lots of people with extra time on their hands who would be happy to help you fundraise. Put a call out for fundraising volunteers with an email, social media, or your volunteer management program of choice!
What if you’re not providing COVID-19 relief?
Lots of causes just aren’t going to be on the frontlines here! If your nonprofit is all about mission trips, your organization can’t do what you aim to do. Arts & culture organizations, like those that focus on live theater and performance, might have a hard time finding their place in this pandemic. But even if your cause is not as visible as others in your community right now, it’s still important. And you can still fundraise.
Here are some ideas:
- A relief fund for staff. If you’ve had to shut own operations for awhile, you may want to turn your fundraiser into focusing on providing relief for your staff so you can keep them paid while they self-isolate. (As a bonus, you can use the opportunity to address the taboo topic of “overhead” and discuss your nonprofit’s commitment to providing a living wage and job security to your staff at a moment where many conversations are playing out about the value of labor.)
- A relief fund for others in the community. Some of the earliest and most successful relief crowdfunding came in the form of funds for artists, restaurant workers, and others whose ability to make a living were affected by COVID-19. Churches and faith organizations that rely on congregants gathering are also hard-hit. Get creative in how you can help during this time!
- Coalitions. Now is an excellent time for coalition-building. See how you can partner up with other nonprofits in your community to address an issue and mobilize your community to help. For instance, organizations focused on youth and education could work together to ensure students stay fed now that schools are shut down and kids no longer have access to a school lunch. Working with other organizations in your community on issue relevant to your work and COVID-19 helps keep your nonprofit visible… and can help build long-lasting, powerful partnerships.
- Scale down. If you’re not at full operations right now, running a smaller campaign through email and social media asking for donations to help keep your organization afloat so you can serve your community when things get back to normal can help bring in some revenue and keep your supporters engaged without the pressure and visibility of a large Spring fundraiser.
- Focus on recurring giving. Asking your supporters to make a smaller monthly commitment to help fund your work can feel more approachable to donors, and help them to invest long-term in your nonprofit’s work.
- Focus on the future. The here and now is a little rough for most of us. And you may not be at full capacity at your organization. But what are your plans for the rest of the year? For the next few years? Is there a goal you’re working toward, a new program you want to start? Your nonprofit can fundraise based on what you intend to do and how you will help when you’re able to resume normal operations.
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Thank you for writing about this important topic at this time of crisis. Thanks for sharing your experience and tips!