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Fundraising in Crisis: Philanthropy and COVID-19

Jenny Love
Published:  03/20/2020
lifesaver in water

Philanthropy professionals across North America are wondering how to keep their activities going in this time of unprecedented global uncertainty. At AHP, we have been getting a steady stream of questions from you about everything from messaging to donors and supporting hospital staff to working remotely.

Yesterday, Alice Ayres, President and CEO of AHP, sat down with Jeanne Jachim, president of Virginia Mason Foundation in Seattle, WA, and Ingrid Perry, who was the president and CEO of the North York General Hospital Foundation in Toronto during the SARS crisis of 2003, to answer some of your questions about navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

Alice Ayres: To me, this is a moment when I would think that donors would want to step in and help hospitals, since healthcare organizations are facing a lot of need right now. Do you agree and, if so, what's the right way to talk to donors in a moment like this?

Jeanne Jachim: I think it's about being real, remembering that our work is relationship work, and honoring that relationship in the conversations that we're having. Most donors are sitting at home and happy to answer their phones, which is a big shift for us. That opens the door for us to have conversations with them that three weeks ago that would have been more challenging. My organization has crafted some messages that we are willing to share publicly. Our team is using those messages, but then it’s more just, “How are you doing?” I talked to a gift officer today who talked to someone whose children have the virus, and their feelings about that became a very important conversation.

Ingrid Perry: One of the lessons we learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003 was that our donors wanted to hear from reliable sources like us. And they also wanted to know how they could be of service.

I absolutely think that this is the right time to be talking to the community about health, and what we're doing to serve our communities. Collectively as an industry, we have a role to play in sharing with donors that this is the time to invest in our health care system, because our health care system is investing in us.

People are frightened, but our hospitals and caregivers are experts who are trusted by our community. You need to listen to each donor and understand whether they want reassurance or want to know how they can help. If they're opening that door for you, definitely step through it.

Alice: Another area that people have asked us a lot about is events. We surveyed AHP members last week and found that 50 percent of our U.S. members and 40 percent of Canadians have already canceled events. If we did this again today, those numbers would likely be even higher. Have you been canceling events? And what does that look like for you?

Jeanne: Yes, we have canceled two events: our large gala, which has nearly 1,000 people at it, and a cultivation event of 100 people. By the date of the gala, the city was in a bit of a quarantine situation, so it turned out to be the right decision.

We did a direct mail contact and a follow-up call to everyone that was signed up to either event and posted information on our website. We wanted to be sure no one showed up for the events, but we also used the postponement as an opportunity to have a touch point and to connect with people.

We reminded gala attendees that the benefit of the gala, which will happen in the fall, is telehealth, and we tied the importance of telehealth to what's happening right now in the pandemic. We used it as an opportunity to continue to educate our audiences about the value of the support they give our organization. We don't need to shy away from talking about impact even when we're canceling and postponing; the opportunity for those messages is there.

One of our concerns before we postponed was what would happen on the expense side of the event. We ended up being very pleased, because people were willing to either give us credit or to hold off charging us until we have our event later this fall. This is a national pandemic, and people get it. If people can absorb it, they will.

Ingrid: We’ve been considering whether to postpone or cancel a number of events. Our vendor partners have been very supportive of us, particularly those that have worked with us for a long time. It didn't surprise me, because we saw this with SARS as well and other crises.

Event donors, if you have the appropriate conversation with them, tend to leave the funds that they've already given you or take them up, depending on their circumstance. But it is really quite important to get a clear message out to them. Have that personal phone call about why you're doing it, what it means, and the impact their continued support has. Use the word postpone, not cancel, because people aren't necessarily ready for that word, even if at some later date you do choose to cancel an event.

Alice: How can philanthropy provide support for hospital staff as they navigate this crisis?

Jeanne: Our organization started getting calls from all kinds of places from people wanting to donate masks, PPE, food for the providers, and other things. We as a foundation have stepped in and created a sort process, as well as a process to stay current with supply chain needs. Using guidelines from supply chain, we are now accepting, logging and recognizing these requests.

It sounds somewhat insignificant, but the volume is quite high, and the offers of assistance vary widely.

Alice: What have you been doing to help support your colleagues through this difficult transition?

Jeanne: I think all of us are now in a place where we're being urged to work remotely. And I don't think anybody would disagree with me to say that inherently philanthropy is not cut out for working from home. It requires a shift in thinking and also in planning. Our leadership team took quite a bit of time to figure out how to answer our team members’ work questions, but also how to support them when they feel isolated or anxious.

We went with a really simple model of asking each staff person to make a work plan for the day and scheduling time to talk by phone with their supervisor, primarily for the contact, just touching base, and then secondarily, to resolve issues they’re running into. So, if you're making donor calls, what are the donors saying? How can we troubleshoot issues for you? That simple structure has gone a long way to give people the confidence to work remotely and the sense of accomplishment that we all need in our work.

Because we see that working effectively for us, we're now addressing the social part of our work life, because you lose a lot of that when people are sitting at home. For example, we now have a virtual team lunch on Skype. We’re trying to infuse in a very deliberate way a sense of connectedness and belonging, because this is critical for all of us. I kind of wilt when I spend a whole day by myself, and I think that others do, too. In philanthropy, we're people-people.

Ingrid: During the SARS epidemic, one of my managers set up a journal club where everybody read the same article and phoned in and participated in it.

We also had our team create a work plan and do phone calls with their manager. We had team meetings, and the agenda for the team meetings usually allowed for at least 10 minutes of socialization. What are you doing? What's your cat doing? What picture did your kids draw today? It didn't really matter. It was just to allow people to have that opportunity.

There were also hundreds of our colleagues that were posting tips and webinars and information, and we encouraged our staff to participate. Once people had been on a couple of these webinars, they were quite willing to spearhead a conversation at our journal club.

Alice: Shifting to financial market instability, what's your perspective on how donors are feeling right now about the financial markets? And how do you think financial instability will impact giving?

Jeanne: It’s common knowledge that when the market drops, there is a corollary drop in philanthropy. However, I want all of us to really bear in mind that philanthropy is something that comes from the heart. And we are definitely seeing an enormous amount of heart here in Seattle with people wanting to support our organizations. Now, does that mean that we're going to retain the level of giving that we had? I think it's too soon for us to know that. But really, as professionals, I feel very strongly that it is our role to provide the opportunity to our donors to continue their support, particularly when the needs are growing very rapidly with this pandemic.

Alice: One of the questions that's come up a lot is whether or not people ought to think about goal setting. Should people be reevaluating their goals?

Ingrid: I think it's time to sensitize your core hospital leadership and your board. It’s premature to see where we're going to be in the next number of months, so you can't say yes or no, but I anticipate that we will have some form of correction.

I also think donors are going to be more directive. They want to support X or Y. And if your current campaign doesn't allow for that, have that conversation with your hospital leadership about how to address their needs as the needs of the organization change. I wouldn't be out there saying to my board right now that we're not going to make goal, but the circumstances have changed. We all need to work together and address them.

Alice: Thank you both enormously for your time and for your wisdom. This is an ever-changing moment for all of us. What you're doing right nowwhat all philanthropy professionals are doing nowto help keep our communities safe and healthy is really remarkable work.

View an on-demand version of the full interview here.


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Jenny Love

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