As we have been practicing social distancing over the past few weeks, many people have yearned for things going back to “normal.” On webinars, in Zoom chats, in phone conversations, colleagues have been trying to solve problems like scheduling fundraising events by using the framework of the past to drive decision-making. This approach is wrong and will lead to bad results.
Researchers say that it takes an average of 66 days for an action to become a habit. The Centers for Disease Control recommended no gatherings of 50 or more people in the United States on March 15. With New York being shut down through at least May 15 as of this writing (a total of at least 60 days), the actions that we have taken over the course of our working from home, schooling from home, and doing everything from home, will become like indelible marks on our psyche. Long forgotten will be the thousand-person gala, the door-to-door Girl Scout cookie sales, the national marathons for a cure. Over these past few weeks, we have had better access to our donors who, like us, have been stuck at home in front of their computers. Volunteers have created Facebook pages to mobilize people to help others most impacted by the pandemic. And we haven’t had to send donors expensive, printed collateral to get our compelling messages across.
To be clear, I will mourn the days of yore when I could put on a ball gown for a cause, buy Thin Mints from those adorable Girl Scouts in front of my local grocery store, and to cross finish lines with the emotional momentum of running with thousands of other people. But I think that the future of our philanthropic practices will look very different, given what we have learned over the course of our experience with coronavirus. Here are a few things I see happening:
Less events, more individual relationship building.
Even prior to the current global health crisis, revenue generated via the traditional charity gala has been on the decline. They cost a lot to host, yield low return compared to the effort that’s involved, and generally do not generate loyal donors who contribute year after year. People who attend nonprofit events generally do not become committed supporters after the party is over – they just pay the price of admission. What we’re learning through the pandemic experience is that people can build more meaningful relationships with donors via individual phone calls and video-conferences that provide donors with real-time updates on how the crisis is impacting them. Donors want to feel like insiders – and you can’t get more inside than from the living rooms or kitchen tables of your most generous supporters.
Less throwing of people at a problem.
In the past, the primary tool that nonprofits had to solve their problems was to deploy human capital. It’s generally assumed in the nonprofit sector that if you have a major event or a grant application due, you were going to “volunteer” whatever extra hours would be required to pull off that magical event or submit that sterling proposal. Furthermore, if there was a disaster (either macro one or a micro one), a charity could put out a call for volunteers and do-gooders would just show up. Social distancing has put the kibosh on all that. Even if you could volunteer solo from the comfort of your yoga pants and sofa, you likely have other responsibilities such as educating your children while their schools are closed that you do not have the time to work nonstop. Nonprofits are going to have to find other tools to solve their problems.
More intentional business strategy.
During times of economic hardship, philanthropic giving falls an average of 7%. We can expect that to happen this year as well – and perhaps drop even further. This precipitous decline in resources will compel leaders to make decisions about where to invest their organization’s assets. Any good steward will look at data objectively to determine if its organizational resources are deployed in the most effective fashion and will cut those things that are not delivering value for their donors. If leaders fail to do this, the market will compel them to do so – no more holding a gala just because we have done so for the past 60 years. The need to articulate impact has never been greater.
These shifts in how nonprofits will do business in the future will lead to a more efficient and effective use of donor dollars. And that’s a good thing.