Soliciting Gifts, Gracefully, As the World Falls Apart

[Note: A version of this post was published in Harvard Business Review on April 15, 2020.]

This is a time of dislocation, fear, and trauma. In the course of about four weeks, we’ve seen the world as we know it turned on its head. We live with deep anxiety and uncertainty – about COVID-19, about our families and friends, about soaring unemployment and plummeting stock markets, about our jobs, our communities, and how long “this” will last.

As I wrote last week, and as all of you know, nonprofits are struggling mightily. For many organizations, the pandemic and economic collapse constitute an existential threat. And this is not simply a crisis for our institutions, but for the people involved, particularly those who benefit from our work and the staff members who carry it out. Right now, there’s no guarantee that the public will receive our services now or in the future, or that staff members (the face and heart of every organization) will retain their jobs. Everything is uncertain. Everyone is on edge.

Nonprofits need a major infusion of money to keep staff on the payroll, to pay rent and utilities, to provide a semblance of services during this period of social isolation, and, simply, to survive. Many organizations will be helped by the recently passed CARES Act, and many nonprofits are already benefiting from foundations that are accelerating the distribution of grant commitments, removing restrictions, and easing reporting requirements. That’s providing a bit of oxygen, but none of us knows what will happen to the nonprofit sector, or which organizations will survive. When I ask nonprofit CEOs how they’re doing, virtually every one leads with the word, “stressed.”

Amid the debris, nonprofits are quietly hoping their donors will ride to the rescue. But here’s the challenge: Yes, every charitable organization wants to receive contributions right now. But very few have the temerity to ask their donors for a gift. They know that people are fragile. They know that people are worried. They know it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Nonprofit leaders don’t want to come across as selfish jerks, asking for money from people who may be fighting illness or losing their jobs or worrying about their kids or mourning a family member or simply freaking out, hunkering down, and waiting for the next bit of dire news. Nonprofits are reading the room, and what they’re sensing is: Don’t ask for money now. Just don’t.

Of course, old habits die hard.

There’s an apocryphal story already circulating among fundraisers: that an unnamed university forgot to cancel its scheduled late-March planned giving mailing to alumni. As a result, a letter went out in the midst of the pandemic, declaring “There’s no better time than now to revisit your estate planning!”

Yikes. People are indeed freshly aware of their mortality, and there are indications that many individuals are reviewing their wills, and that some are adding bequests to charity. A worldwide fatal contagion will do that to you. But we can agree that a charitable organization making the suggestion in the midst of a pandemic that people review their estate plans (and to remember alma mater in the process) is painfully tone-deaf.

So we know what not to do – but what should we do?

As I’ve spoken with clients, compared notes with other consultants, and reacted to a handful of solicitations from causes I support, I’ve struggled to come up with a clear set of guidelines for how charitable organizations can and should raise the subject of contributions in the midst of a crisis. And then I received a strikingly effective email from my local YMCA. I think they got the balance just right.

First, the Y CEO explained that, as per our governor’s orders, the facility would be closed into May. No surprise there.

Second, he referenced this extremely uncertain time and said the Y wanted to make our lives a little bit easier and retain us as members. “So, to recognize your loyalty and to take a little bit of the financial pressure off your shoulders, we have decided to waive all membership fees for the month of April and put your membership on hold,” he wrote, noting that the Y is in this relationship for the long term.

Third, he talked about the on-line resources and virtual classes that would be available to members in the weeks ahead.

Finally, he sadly noted that the Y has been forced to furlough most of its employees, but that the organization is committed to covering the staff members’ full health insurance premiums during the pandemic. He went on to suggest that for those members who are in a position to make a charitable gift, their contributions would be directed to offset the cost of the staff’s medical benefits.

I found this a thoughtful and elegant approach at a chaotic time. The Y assumes that we members have been staggered by the pandemic, and the organization offered both sympathy and a financial balm in the form of a month’s free membership. The organization was transparent about the pain that the staff – people we know and like – are going through, as well as the commitment the Y is making to mitigate the staff’s challenges. And the CEO then asked us to self-select if we are able to make a gift to help the Y and those staff members.

Had they led with a request for donations, I wouldn’t have bothered reading the second paragraph. But first, they asked about me, and they offered a gesture of support. Throughout the letter, they were transparent and direct. The letter felt respectful and sensitive: they were there to help me, and, only if I were in a position to return the help, they asked me to send them a few dollars during this tough patch. The letter emphasized our relationship and our mutual commitment. I’m only one donor, but this approach resonated with me, and I have consequently moved the Y higher up on the list of organizations I’m inclined to support through this stressful and constrained period.

These are unprecedented times. We’re all learning as we go along. I learned something from this letter: that there is indeed a way for nonprofits to offer support and to seek it at the same time. In the coming days and weeks, all of us will learn more, including how to deal with ever-greater personal loss and stress. I think all of us will need help, and all of us will need to do our best to provide help to others.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2020. All rights reserved.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • Abbie J von Schlegell
    April 3, 2020 8:23 pm

    An excellent article, Alan! I can see why you are getting a lot of positive comments! Stay safe, warm and healthy!


  • Jocelyn Bowie
    April 4, 2020 12:02 am

    Hah. My experience has been different – especially the local arts organizations. We live in a smallish county that is home to more than 900 NFPs. The requests from arts organizations for extra pandemic-time donations flowed in thick and fast as soon as the shelter-in-place order went into effect. The thoughtfulness you describe from your Y has not been much in evidence. Interestingly, the organizations we *didn’t* hear from were those which were all-hands-on-deck out there helping people who suddenly had no income – the food banks and shelters and so forth. Two entities – the United Way and the Community Foundation – stepped in immediately and began coordinating aid – the UW to what you’d think of as the first responders, and the CF addressing those who are a skosh farther down the list on Maslow’s hierarchy. My husband and I decided right away that we would direct our giving to help those on the front lines. We picked one organization we know and trust to effectively leverage the amount of our donation many times over in the community (which BTW was not the UW, but that’s a whole other story), and we wrote them a good-sized check. We’re not exactly turning a deaf ear to arts organizations, but anecdotally we’ve found them disappointingly resistant to the idea of examining what in the CARES act could help them. Other than that, we are paying our cleaner her full weekly fee for the duration, even though she isn’t coming to our house. And when we order take out from local restaurants, we are tipping like Sinatra in Vegas. So one big charitable donation, and all the rest is basically just giving money directly to people who need it. I only wish the other requests had been as graceful as the one you received.

  • Alan
    You are a beacon of sensibility and goodwill in our troubled world. Sadly I keep asking for money for my capitalist ventures and do not use the wisdom of your Y in my efforts. However I am tipping like Sinatra in Vegas like another of your readers when I grab takeout or get deliveries.

  • Judi Moskowitz
    April 6, 2020 12:24 am

    I always enjoy reading your thoughts and ideas. I find myself looking forward to see what you wrote and you explain everything so clearly.

  • Christopher Johnston
    April 7, 2020 9:33 pm

    As you note in your article, Alan, all NPO’s and, in fact, all organizations in America and around the globe will benefit from your extremely well thought out, structured, and written article. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful ideas and strategies with all of us during this challenging time!

  • Abbie Jane von Schlegell
    April 9, 2020 2:27 am

    I am giving a webinar for MA Nonprofit Network next week – might I quote you?

  • Laurie Herrick
    April 10, 2020 8:22 pm

    I agree with others that this is a great article. I like the steps involved in taking care of others first, and of course, letting people self-select. A good practice always, but especially now. Thanks for this. I will share it widely.

  • Catherine Heywood
    April 16, 2020 11:04 pm

    Thanks, Alan. Very timely for us. As an NPO/leadership development organization, we want our NPOs that are delivering services to our community at the head of the line for getting financial support. Hoping we can tactfully make an appeal as many EDs and board members for these NPOs are alumni of our program!


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