In short:

  • Turbulent times require a renewed focus on key stakeholders, an understanding of crisis communications best practices — and outreach, outreach, outreach.
  • Stabilizing income is always a primary concern, but asking for support when donors are anxious takes a deft touch.
  • Here are five best practices and tips from experts to keep your donor community active and engaged during difficult times.

While major events, such as a hurricane or pandemic, spur spikes in donations, the economic uncertainty that often follows can devour gains. Those peaks and dips can be stomach-churning for nonprofits.

After a record-breaking year of charitable giving in 2017, for example, donations dropped almost 2% a year later, according to Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018 — even as the U.S. economy saw a 5.2% uptick in GDP. Experts blame shifts in tax policy and stock market swings.

Market volatility in 2020 is dramatically worse than in 2018, and most financial experts agree that no matter what steps Congress or the Federal Reserve take, the U.S. economy is likely to enter a recession. As donors choose which causes to support when money is tight, they favor organizations where their contributions make a tangible and demonstrated impact. Linking dollars to outcomes or mission is part of showing that effectiveness, but to manage through this crisis, leaders must also get their story out in a way that not only breaks through the noise but truly connects.

“We’ve all been the recipient of the obligatory boilerplate email with some form of the messages ‘we care about you’ and ‘we remain committed to our mission,’” says Valerie Martin, founder of critical messaging and PR consultancy Alpha Agency. “But too many places have since gone dark while they focus on business continuity, availing their organization of COVID-19 support funds and trying to keep the lights on.”

Here are five tactics to improve crisis communications with donors; next week we’ll look at how to strengthen connections with board members.

Don’t Hunker Down

Challenging times can overwhelm or intimidate nonprofit leaders, who may give up on fundraising and staying in touch with their donors, thinking money just isn’t available. Don’t — inaction now can result in donors straying from your cause permanently.

“Too often, nonprofits make the decision for their donor by assuming they do not want to be asked during such uncertain times,” said Sarah Fonder-Kristy, Chief Development Officer for Atlanta Community Food Bank.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank distributes over 60 million pounds of donated grocery products a year to more than 600 nonprofit partner agencies — including food pantries, community kitchens, childcare centers, night shelters and senior centers — that collectively feed more than 755,000 people in 29 counties across metro Atlanta and north Georgia.

“Stay connected, celebrate your accomplishments and keep up a steady cadence of opportunities to support your important work,” said Fonder-Kristy. Make sure you understand all of the reasons that donors support your cause and how they want to deliver that support. Some may prefer sponsoring events or funding a specific program. Understanding the catalyst for their giving and providing a menu of ways to pitch in are key.

Crisis Best Practice: Reach out to other nonprofits and brainstorm ways you can collaborate to move quickly to serve unmet needs in your community. Once the team is mobilized, share the combined story through all your channels. —Valerie Martin

“Some people may be able to give by way of sharing their treasure or wealth, while others may be more inclined to volunteer or support donation drives,” said Tyler Butler, founder and CEO of 11Eleven Consulting, which advises corporations on socially responsible business practices. “It takes a village of support to run a successful nonprofit, so there is ample space for a variety of means to give that can be included in your giving catalog.”

Avoid requesting money in every communication. Hard asks need to be interspersed with soft asks that emphasize accomplishments as their main message.

A steady and predictable cadence pays off.

“It is impossible to time your outreach so that you are in front of donors exactly when they are feeling generous,” said Paige Arnof-Fenn, who serves on nonprofit boards and is founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a global marketing consulting firm that works with several nonprofits. “I just try to stay in regular communication with them, so that when they have a question or concern I can help them with, they will think of me first.”

Follow Crisis Communications Best Practices

Martin says crisis messaging for nonprofits should include:

How the crisis is impacting the people you serve, rather than just your organization, and what you are doing to address their needs. Remind stakeholders that nonprofits serve essential roles in building up community resilience and are especially critical in times of great uncertainty and job loss.

Ways your organization differentiates itself and any third-party recognition of your capacity and performance. These indicate resilience.

“The current crisis may change the landscape of nonprofits dramatically, pruning some organizations entirely and consolidating others,” says Martin. “While this shift is underway, funders will want to back nonprofits that are focused, disciplined and well-managed. They are looking for assurance you will be around in six months. They want to know their donation is not just a stopgap but an investment in a healthier community. Highlight that in your core messaging.”

Program Value

Updates and feedback requests make donors feel like part of the mission. Martin says gold-star funders should get regular phone or video calls from leadership. In addition to checking in on top givers personally and professionally, update them on what you’re doing. Ask for their thoughts about who in your community needs help. Talk about ways you can make an impact together.

Sell Your Value Proposition

Objection handling, like the LAER method, is a tenet of salesmanship that nonprofit leaders can use right now. When a potential donor voices an objection to giving, can you respond in a way that builds rapport, recognizes a challenging reality and alleviates concerns rather than making them dig in?

“When donors are on the fence about giving, we encourage them to speak up and let us know their hesitations,” said Atlanta’s Fonder-Kristy. “We always show how our organization is making a difference in the lives of our friends and neighbors. Including impact stories of real people always helps connect dots between supporters’ contributions and the lasting impact they are helping to create.”

There are plenty of reasons to put in the extra effort. Chief among them is the simple fact that retaining donors is more cost-effective for a nonprofit than continually filling the pipeline. High retention rates protect nonprofits from economic downturns, get them through crises and correlate to higher long-term funding. The CDC Foundation is a perfect example — its Rolodex of donors allows it to raise millions of dollars quickly, as shown recently when it sprang into action to fund efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus and protect healthcare workers.

“Focusing on retention makes sense, especially during times of uncertainty, a recession or downturn when budgets may be limited,” said Arnof-Fenn. “If you have only so much time and money for outreach, focus on being more important to donors you already know and target.”

Crisis Best Practice: Reach out to local government and elected officials. Leverage connections to schedule calls — do not settle for email. Brief policy leaders on your action plan, community partnerships, innovations and how you’re serving the community. Ask what immediate needs they are seeing in your service area. Getting on their radar screen while everyone else is scrambling can yield enormous benefits down the road. Officials may start carrying your message to their constituents and other decision-makers, positioning you as an essential community partner and smoothing the way for backing you may need to mobilize quickly. —Valerie Martin

Also note that national nonprofits including the United Way and the YMCA asked Congress for $60 billion in emergency funding, access to federal small business loans and maybe most important, new tax breaks and incentives to encourage giving, and that lobbying paid off.

“The CARES Act was passed, and there are a number of important incentives for nonprofits,” says NetSuite nonprofits industry principal Cheryl Gipson. “These reaffirm the value of the nonprofit community and include emergency loans and new tax breaks for donors. Communicating these will be critical.”

Take Advantage of Helpers

Staying proactive in donor outreach is easier with the right tools. 11Eleven’s Butler says a personal touch is easier to maintain when you automate as much as possible, freeing up leaders to craft effective messaging.

“Having a system and method of tracking donors, why they give and how they like to give, can help you to avoid donor burn out,” he said. “It is also crucial in thanking your donors appropriately as they continue to aid your cause.”

Help is available for nonprofits that don’t know where to start with technology. NetHope, a consortium of almost 60 of the world’s largest humanitarian, development and conservation organizations, connects nonprofits with top technology companies and funding partners. The Center for Nonprofit Resources provides links, information and sources of assistance.

Tailor Donor Messaging

“There are five living generations of Americans, and each generation has unique core values about giving,” said Chuck Underwood who trains nonprofits in generational fundraising strategies. “This means each generation has unique ‘hot buttons’ that skilled fundraising professionals must accurately and precisely push in order to close the deal.”

Underwood’s client list includes several household names in nonprofits, including United Way Worldwide, North American YMCA Development Organization, Jewish Community Centers of North America and the Barnabas Foundation. He is also an author and host of a PBS television series, America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood.

Crisis Best Practice: Open and refresh communications with your media contacts. As with local government officials, focus on the crisis’ impact on the people you serve and what you are doing to address it. Humanize the need and your mission. The press likes to share human interest and good news stories during tough times. —Valerie Martin

“The key is in understanding generational differences and dynamics and then using that knowledge in executing each step of the fundraising and donor-relations process,” he says.

Underwood shared some hot-button topics for the five age groups:

G.I.s and Silents, 75 and older: Core values are patriotism, compassion, religion and faith.

Boomers, 56 to 74: Core values are we, us, team and group. Strong compassion for “the little guy,” meaning the less fortunate among us. Boomers want to pay it forward.

Gen X, 39 to 55: Here’s where philanthropy and giving make a sharp diversion. Gen X grew up with uncertainty, and many have experienced job and income insecurity, so Xers are less likely to feel they are able to give money to others. Their hot buttons are individualism, self-reliance, survival of the fittest.

Millennials, 24 to 38: For philanthropy, Millennials represent great hope. They grew up nurtured and protected, with soaring optimism. They love mom and dad, grandma and grandpa. And yet, they are also the 9/11 and first school-shootings generation; many fought in the wars in the Middle East. Their hot buttons are nation, patriotism and “we’re all in this together.”

Gen Z, 15 – 23: This generation is the first to have the Internet, smartphones and other advanced technologies since birth. Gen Z’s values and attitudes will be shaped by that intuitive familiarity with technology, the global effects of climate change, frequent mass shootings and of course, a global pandemic. While their hot buttons are still forming, according to a Pew Research report, Gen Z is diverse and on track to be the most well-educated yet. They’re moving toward adulthood with a liberal set of attitudes and an openness to emerging social trends.

These insights can help craft effective messaging that resonates on an emotional level and makes donors feel connected.

“It is through interpersonal relationships that charitable causes withstand economic or societal uncertainties,” said 11Eleven’s Butler. “When people feel obligated and committed to a cause, they will plan their support in advance.”

A prolific writer and analyst, Pam Baker’s published work appears in many leading print and online publications including Security Boulevard, PCMag, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO, TechTarget, and InformationWeek, as well as many others. Her latest book is “Data Divination: Big Data Strategies.” She’s also a popular speaker at technology conferences as well as specialty conferences such as the Excellence in Journalism events and a medical research and healthcare event at the NY Academy of Sciences.