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How companies and causes are responding to the coronavirus

By Maureen Carlson
April 1, 2020

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented responses. This is true throughout our society right now, including in the nonprofit sector. In the days since the coronavirus (COVID-19) hit the U.S. and our worlds turned to social distancing and working remotely, the effects on fundraising have been mixed. Although fundraising is down for many causes as physical peer-to-peer events have been postponed and nonprofits decided it was prudent to halt or transform general fundraising campaigns, some front-line causes are being inundated with fundraising support to fuel programs to quickly fight the impact of the virus in their communities.

To help nonprofit professionals create new strategies appropriate for their causes, I asked corporate social impact professionals and nonprofit corporate partnership professionals to share with me what they are doing now, and what they think they will be doing in the short- and long-term around fundraising and the support of causes. The trends revealed in their responses are below.

What companies said

  • Companies are giving. In the short term, however, they are committing resources to causes directly affected by or on the front lines of the coronavirus. Their current commitments fall into three distinct categories:
    • Direct donations to front-line nonprofits fighting the impact of the virus.
    • Donations to COVID-19 local, national, or federal funds.
    • Employee assistance programs.
  • Most sectors appreciate and are open to outreach and communication from long-term nonprofit partners. If their business sector is being hit hard right now, they appreciate a note of support. But please do not expect them to have answers about the future. Although some are looking at their longer-term CSR (corporate social responsibility) plans, some have no idea yet if their budgets will be cut, if strategies around nonprofit support will change, etc.
  • If companies have committed to sponsorship of an event that was supposed to be happening during social distancing, the sponsor expects the nonprofit to contact them with defined, revised plans for the event and detailed changes in their sponsorship package/value and employee engagement opportunities.
  • Respondents had a mixed reaction on new business development. Some (about 40 percent) stated they were interested in nonprofits continuing to define needs for in-kind, volunteer, and funding opportunities so they are ready when things return to “normal.” Others (about 60 percent) stated that reaching out now is in poor taste. If, however, you are a front-line cause, now more than ever companies want to do things that provide local tools in support of coronavirus efforts. Local is key so that the communities in which they do business feel the company was there for them in a moment of crisis. If you have a relevant local opportunity, many companies are willing to listen.
  • Many organizations would like to still give their employees a way to feel connected through volunteerism. If you have a digital volunteer opportunity, most are open to hearing about it.

Takeaways

  1. Obviously, many companies are looking to combat the issues the pandemic is causing. If your organization is on the front lines of assisting those affected by the virus, your corporate partners want to hear how they can help you keep your constituents safe and healthy. They will, however, most likely want their donations to go to efforts around the virus, so consider rethinking your use of funds around unrestricted donations and your rules around restricted giving. How can and should they adjust in the short term? When a long-term and valued partner or sponsor calls and asks you if you need any help right now because of the virus, make sure you have a plan and response.
  1. Communications is key right now to keep partnerships strong. Customer intimacy is more important than ever before. Customer intimacy goes beyond talking to customers. It’s about a two-way connection and alignment. Your partners are open and willing to hear from you now, but that conversation has to be authentic and real. Check in to show your support. Talk to them openly and honestly about your current situation and theirs. Discuss the best tactics for the relationship in the short term and the long term. Ultimately you want to create a plan together that makes the most sense for everyone.
  1. Now is an excellent time to ensure your organization has uniform protocols and messaging at the national and local chapter level. It is very important for the public to hear a consistent message in both the local market and through your national assets, such as your social media platforms and your organization’s website. Work together with your organization’s executive leadership, local market leadership, and your marketing and communications team to define the key talking points around this current crisis and your organization’s future. Then take the time to educate the entire organization about how those key talking points are nuanced for your different fundraising audiences, including partners.

What nonprofits said

  • Almost all nonprofits are doing outreach communication to partners and sponsors. About half of nonprofit professionals are doing a softer message of hope and support as the initial contact to sponsors and partners. About half are doing BOLD fundraising communications out of the gate. All respondents said they are not seeing sponsors ask for refunds on sponsorship commitments or decide not to participate in the annual campaign.
  • Most organizations have put any changes for events or campaigns in Q3 and Q4 on hold. Even if your organization has not yet decided to cancel or postpone events later in the year, be sure to communicate frequently with your corporate contacts, event participants, and sponsors.
  • Almost every nonprofit that had a P2P (peer-to-peer) or other event scheduled during the time of social distancing is moving the programs to a digital platform and providing resources and key plans to help others in the field to do so. All are defining new packages of value for their sponsors to recognize and create ROI (return on investment) through a digital event.
  • About 45 percent of the nonprofits say they are receiving proactive outreach from their long-standing corporate partners (and some new companies as well) asking what they can do to help the cause and the organization at this time. This is especially true for nonprofits viewed as front-line responders.
  • Some small nonprofits are seeing funds rapidly dwindle, so bold moves that take expensive resources to launch are not possible. Instead, they are aggressively turning to sponsors and corporate partners for outright grants to survive the pandemic.
  • Many organizations foresee a slowdown in revenue until things return to “normal,” so they are creating transformational innovation teams. The goal of these teams is to think about bold fundraising ideas 1) for right now, 2) to make up any fundraising gaps in Q3/Q4 2020, and 3) to create new opportunities in 2021.

Takeaways

  1. Many recent articles in the nonprofit media have been about the financial effects of the pandemic on smaller nonprofits that have fewer reserves and the precarious nature of budgets for some organizations. It is important to review your organization’s budget and make any necessary short-term adjustments to remain a healthy organization in 2020. It is also important to look at organizational reserves and endowments to ensure your organization has the resources to withstand the short-term effects of COVID-19 on fundraising and to ensure long-term impact is minimized until fundraising can resume and prosper, or investments can recoup their value.
  1. It is no surprise that many of your partners’ or sponsors’ employees are now working from home. They are disconnected, stressed, and looking for a distraction to help them feel like they are doing something to help their communities during this crisis. This may be a good time to reach out to your partners/sponsors about engaging their employees in digital volunteer opportunities. If your organization has not thought about digital volunteer opportunities yet or solidified a way to engage large groups of constituents through digital or remote volunteerism, now is the time to form a team and design some opportunities.
  1. Our current situation is unprecedented, and it’s hard to predict the effect on fundraising and programmatic resources in the short and long term. But here is one thing that we do know for sure: no one knows your organization better than you and your staff. Gather your teams and create plans for every scenario. Make sure you are addressing communication and necessary adaptation in the short term, you are ready when fundraising campaigns and events resume, and you are thinking of ideas for later in the year or 2021 to make up any fundraising gaps. Now is the time to be nimble in your short-term thinking and bold about the long term. Be smart, strategic, and unified in the short term. Think big, go way outside the box, and get creative for the long term. It may mean rearranging resources, re-designing processes, rethinking old strategies, and re-prioritizing actions.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Strategy; Fundraising