Stewarding Donors Through Crisis
Crisis will happen.
Nonprofits put in place leadership structures, accountability measures, and dedicated teams to prevent them as much as possible. And yet even the most well-prepared, best practice-driven, and finest mission-oriented nonprofits are not immune. News of misconduct at community foundations, cover-ups of abuse within religious denominations, and accusations of misuse of donor funds at service organizations has risen to the surface in the past several years alone.
Though it can be difficult to plan for every possible scenario, strategic and thoughtful crisis response planning during an organization’s best day can bring structure and clarity on its worst. And responsible response planning requires the consideration of who is around the table during those moments as much as what is discussed.
When one does occur, a crisis inevitability demands the attention and involvement of leadership, as well as of legal and public relations counsel. Often overlooked is the role of development leaders in every phase of crisis planning and response, including in the initial hours and days of triage.
Tailored and targeted donor communications are integral to a crisis response and management strategy. Proper stewardship demands as much. Your donors need to hear from you on your worst day. It is likely one of their worst, too. Waiting to speak with them is not an option.
Below are a few tips to keep in mind when developing – or implementing – crisis response, communications, and management strategies for your top donors.
Communicate, communicate, and communicate.
Share messages and individual updates regularly and often. In the first hours and days following a crisis, acknowledge the issue to donors and share what the organization is doing to develop a response. You do not need to have your organization’s full response to speak with your largest donors. Granting a glimpse of the work being done behind the scenes is a positive first step.
Tackle the issue head on.
Consider what you and other leaders would want to hear if you were in your donors’ shoes. Do not skirt around the issue or communicate with overly formal or legal language. Speak to the hearts of your donors, and they will respond with theirs.
Postponing an ask conveys that you do not believe your organization is worthy of philanthropy. If you believe that it is, continue with planned asks with the appropriate messaging. Smaller appeals should continue as well. Any pause or delay in routine appeals can convey to thousands in your donor base that the organization is not worthy of their support.
Invite your community to the table.
When communicating with donors following a crisis, offer ways that key constituencies can help. Can alumni make donations ending in their class year? Can Board members lend their names to bylines of editorial pieces? Your biggest supporters will likely want to help. Harness this energy in ways that are most strategic for your crisis response plan.
Build avenues of collaboration.
Larger organizations may have an in-house public relations and crisis communications function. Collaboration between these functions and development is vital at all times, especially before a crisis happens. A weak relationship between vital branches of your organization pre-crisis means a non-existent one during a crisis. Grease the wheels between offices regularly so that when the stakes are at their highest, clear roles, consensus, and communication channels are already in place.
Continue to invest in fundraising.
The only way to prevent incoming dollars from slowing down following a crisis is to further strengthen donor communications, engagement, and cultivation and solicitation. Cutting the budgets of fundraisers may prevent short-term cuts to programs but will only lead to more cuts across the board.
Stewarding donors through crisis means building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships, both internally and externally. A crisis does not necessarily mean the end of a partnership. If stewarded properly, donors will emerge with you on the other side of the crisis, perhaps even stronger supporters than before.
Elizabeth Zeigler is President and CEO of Graham-Pelton, a fundraising and management consulting firm for leading nonprofit organizations worldwide.