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Navigating The Perfect Storm

publication date: Jul 26, 2020
author/source: Michael Meadows

Today's fundraisers face the most hazardous economic climate imaginable — indeed, it is the proverbial "perfect storm.” Foundation and personal portfolios are at record lows, gains of the last 5 years have been wiped out, corporations are consolidating their giving, becoming more strategic, special event supporters question whether they can afford to remain sponsors and the number of individual donors has declined for the second consecutive year (and five of the last 6 years). Add to this an economy in the tank, potential job losses and increased demand for social services— the storm metaphor is clear. But agencies that plan and don't give up can stay afloat. In fact, determined agencies can flourish in tough times. All it takes is some chutzpah and common sense.

Unfortunately, not all nonprofits will choose to stay the course — they have or will abandon ship rather than face the storm. Nonprofits have generally fallen into three categories regarding their reactions to the climate:

1) Visionary: These nonprofits know the storm will end. They've tightened ship, plugged leaks and lowered the sails. They make aggressive, smart decisions — they're in it for the long haul.

2) Short-sighted: These organizations are still trying to beat the storm. They're spending recklessly and firing all the guns — uncritical of the small leaks that have formed. In the meantime, the storm closes in and the clouds get darker.

3) Adrift: They see the storm, but refuse to see around it. These nonprofits will abandon ship and swim for shore. They’ll be the first to say, "Woe is me. Our boat is bruised and battered — there is no hope now." They are leaking donors left and right — if they have any left.

For organizations which captain their ships as visionaries here are "10 Ways to weather the "perfect storm”.

Ways to weather the "perfect storm”

1. Turn into the wind: Times are tough, and what used to work isn't guaranteed any longer. Try something that makes no sense, perhaps an approach to fundraising you've never tried before. Convince your leadership that smart risks could be your lifeboat.

2. Batten down the hatches: Trying new things is great, but also continue doing what you already know works. Concentrate on strengths. Shore it up and make those areas even stronger. Take care of your first-class passengers. Be thankful for what you have.

3. Put someone in the crow's nest: Scan the horizon, access research. It's important to have resources who can see beyond the horizon. If someone had been there earlier, you might have seen the storm coming and been better prepared.

4. Give thanks for your strong boat: Our fundraising operation is very much like a bank account - we need to make sure we have saved for that "rainy day." Use the current situation as a learning experience. Evaluate the leaks in your boat, and take steps to strengthen it.

5. Stick with the crew that got you here: Sometimes when things aren't going well, we have a tendency to shield the captain and crew from bad news. Now is not the time to hide. Make sure your staff knows what's going on — you will depend on these people. Listen to everyone as they may have good ideas about what to do.

6. Change fishing holes: Fishermen return to spots that have been good to them. But they stop fishing there if the hole dries up. As fundraisers, unfortunately, we often forget to move on. Instead, we stay with something that has worked in the past because it always worked. Fight habits and search for new donor pools.

7. Stop drinking beer and having parties: Special events are the least efficient and often least effective ways to raise money. That golf tournament that "netted" you $25,000? If you were to do a ruthless cost-benefit analysis, you'd see that it may have cost you $30,000! Don't forget to include actual time you and your leadership spent on the event. Spend your time more efficiently soliciting donations, managing your major relationships or preparing that big proposal. If you persist, make sure to capture names and contact information from all party-goers and follow-up at an appropriate time. Don’t cut them loose, or leave them drifting. Someone else will pick them up.

8. Fix the radio: In other words, fine-tune the message. Spend money on marketing. Teach your affiliates, staff and board what your "unique service proposition" is. Like a good company, make sure the "customer" knows who you are and that you have an excellent "product" for them. Now more than ever you can stand out above the crowd.

9. Make sure you have foul weather gear: If you expect development staff and management to help you find a way out of this thing, make sure they have the tools they need. Include training and other professional development opportunities.

10. Stop whining: Stop the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how bad things are. Get out there and find new donors who will give you new sources of income. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the current situation. But you can do something about how you handle it! Keep doing what you do well; let your community know that you’re still open for business and throw in some new approaches.

This "perfect storm” analogy may not apply fully to your organization since the fundraising climate may be different where you live. But even so, the steps described can help you weather a storm, prepare for the next, and — hopefully — get in some good fishing.

 Mike Meadows is the retired Senior Manager of Corporate Citizenship for Imagine Canada.

This article was adapted from K. Aschermann 2003 (Copyright) and originally published by Imagine Canada.

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