To ask or not, that is the question


As we all progress through COVID-19 times, and out the other end (of lockdown, at least), one issue that keeps cropping up is if we should be fundraising or not. Whether I’m talking to fundraisers themselves, senior leaders, or donors big and small, we seem unsure as to if it’s appropriate to be asking for money for our cause at this time.

It’s true that Canada isn’t in ‘situation normal’ (whatever that is) right now, and so your organizational plan, made during normal times for normal times, doesn’t fit. The operating environment has changed, a donor’s ability to give has potentially changed, and the relevance of your cause against others has certainly changed. So it’s likely time to do the ‘pandemic pivot’, surely the key phrase of 2020 for fundraisers, and take a look at what the revised plan is.

This Version 2 plan will be different, but it should still include fundraising. The critical element to consider is how much fundraising it will include. You should not continue as ‘normal’. You should not assume your cause still has the pull and relevance it had previously. And you should not assume your donors don’t want to be asked. You should ensure your stewardship program is robust, reviewed and relevant for the questions, queries and updates your current donors will need and appreciate.

Here’s our guidance on things to consider when working out what your fundraising and stewardship mix should look like:

  • Work out the relevance of your cause right now – if your cause has immediate relevance to the COVID-19 situation then it’s appropriate to put out an emergency appeal. By definition this is likely to be restricted to what you ask for, so consider carefully what this is, and how far your ask will go (i.e., audience reach). For example you may be hospital foundation, or a homeless shelter, or a domestic violence charity. If demand for your services will increase due to the pandemic, then say this clearly, say what you need and how much it will cost, and ask for help. The basis of your ask is your cause.

  • If your cause isn’t 'urgent', but your organizational survival is at risk due to the economic shut-down, then ask. Your supporters and donors believe in what you do, and do not want to see you disappear. Your cause was relevant before it got overtaken by bigger things, and it will continue to be relevant after. Care is needed on this ask, as you can really only ‘go big’ once on a threat to survival appeal, but you must do it. Set out clearly what the loss of your services or voice means for the cause you represent, to ensure donors understand the importance call for action. The basis of your ask is your survival.

  • Acquisition investment – many organizations have paused their acquisition campaigns, either due to budget cuts or due to the activity concerned being suspended, e.g., face-to-face recruitment. Whether this is the right decision depends on your cause, your organizational appetite for risk, your recruitment channels and the reality of the budget. You may decide to significantly reduce this rather than stop (channel dependant), or switch channels – such as a push on online advertising, social media or SEO review. Think about options, short and medium term, and also look at costs of advertising at the moment, as there are bargains to be had due to traditional advertisers pulling out. Even a small budget could go a long way for brand presence. The current environment is ripe for testing, which should be music to any individual giving fundraiser’s ears.

  • Stewardship focus – stewardship should be viewed as an important foundation for donor retention at any time, and is more important than ever now. You need to keep the donors you have, ensure they are updated about what is happening for you and the cause you champion. Let them know how you are doing. Ask how they are doing, and say you hope they, and their families, are safe and well at this time. Call out for help if you need. it. Thank them for the help they have given so far. And tell them you’ll still be there once we come through this. A stewardship communication can include an ask as a secondary consideration; you need to assess if this is appropriate, and how to craft the communication.

  • Be mindful whilst times are certainly not normal for all of us, they will be hard for many of us due to business shut-downs, lay-offs, the reality of home schooling, the worry about older loved ones, and more. When you are reviewing your fundraising communications program overall, and also when you are writing the communications, be mindful of what the person on the receiving end may be going through. How they might feel. What their priorities may be. You can’t know this (remember, Rule 101 of Fundraising – you are not your donor), but you can be empathetic in the approach. If you’re asking for help, state it’s ok if their circumstances means they can’t give right now. Signpost them to the online donation form, so that when they can give they know where to go. Perhaps say that if they can give, you would like them to be a monthly donor, as a sustaining donor is super important right now. If they are already a monthly donor, consider offering a ‘payment holiday’ so that if they have to cancel due to job loss now, they can easily come back once they are on a more stable footing. Whatever you say, thank them for being there. Thank them for their support to date and what it has meant for your charity, and tell them you can’t do this without them. That you’re in this together.

Whilst this isn’t a comprehensive list of if it’s right to ask or not; if you should ask now or later; if it’s an emergency appeal or a update stewardship piece, etc. etc., the above list should help spark the considerations to inform your action.

Whatever you do, you can’t be silent. You can’t say nothing. Your donors need to hear from you to keep the relationship alive. Work out what that means for your cause, plan and execute. And together we’ll get through it.


Dawn Varley is THINK Canada's Client Development Consultant.
Click here to meet Dawn.