[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.