The morning of September 11, 2001, I was working for the national office of United Way, preparing for an upcoming board meeting. Right before 9:00 a.m., my boss ran into my office with news that changed history: a plane had crashed into the North Tower of World Trade Center in New York. A few minutes later, we watched a second plane pummel the South Tower live on TV.

From that moment, life did not feel normal for a long time as we faced a great deal of uncertainty, attempted to inspire those who counted on our leadership, and mobilized the greatest disaster response since World War II. Much of the details from that time remains a blur to me, from the Tribute to Heroes telethon to the September 11 Fund to Senator Grassley and the U.S. Senate Finance Committee’s inquiry into donations United Way received. As I reflect on the lessons I learned at that time, I find that there are five that are particularly useful during the pandemic:

  1. Be grateful.

Things may be happening so fast that you do not have time to think or look at your to-do list. But the second you have a chance to stop and breathe, pick up the phone and thank people who have made generous contributions. Don’t wait until you have the chance to write them a polished letter: there’s nothing that matters to them more than hearing from you in the trenches. A call from you at 9:00 p.m. at night, when you are in the heat of response, makes them feel like they are right there with you. Without your support, you would not have the privilege of being of service to others.

  1. Keep sterling records.

Hopefully, you will never have to prepare your boss to testify in front of a U.S. Senate Committee or government agency. But if you do, it will help if you could be as specific with them as possible about how much money you have raised (to the minute), how many people you are helping, and how you are spending donations. If the World Health Organization can tell us precisely how many people have COVID-19 around the world and how many people are dying each day, you can certainly provide simple statistics about your organization’s efforts. Furthermore, there will be a day when the crisis is behind us. Your memory from this time may be very blurry as mine was in the days and weeks after September 11. Put as much detail into your CRM system so that you can access it later for donor stewardship and reporting.

  1. Value all gifts.

In the days and weeks following September 11, we received A TON of gifts – and they weren’t all financial. Amateur musicians made recordings that they wanted to sell to raise money for our efforts, school children from all around the world sent pictures, and letters of support flowed. Some of the things we received may have seemed hokey to us at the time – but they reflected people’s desire to want to get involved and connect. That hope, that engagement, is vital for a society needing to heal.

  1. Don’t turn down any offers of help – but redirect if you need to.

One of the first phone calls we received after the first plane hit the North Tower was from our board chair who pledged $1M. In just moments, the floodgates flung open with all kinds of offers to help and raise money, from signed footballs and jerseys to celebrity endorsements. Over the course of 10 days, those efforts were channeled into a unified telethon that was organized by George Clooney and broadcast on all the major networks: in total, over $200M was raised through that effort. When people offer to do something specific, it’s because they want to help in some way – they are usually flexible and willing to change their focus if you share with them a specific plan for how they can help.   

  1. Be generous with transparency and apologies.

If you are on the front lines of disaster response, you are overworked, anxious and stressed. You do not have the luxury of time to eat or go to the bathroom. You will make mistakes. When you do, come clean and figure out what you can do to limit them in the future. People appreciate an earnest apology more than they are forgiving of a seeming cover up.

By learning from the lessons we learned during September 11, you will be better able to help people who desperately need your and your organization’s attention during these precarious times.