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Navigating a Fundraising Campaign During Challenging Times


Whether you’re beginning your campaign, ready for your public phase launch, or somewhere in between, your organization is grappling with tough questions right now. You’re likely wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic and a possible economic downturn will impact your fundraising campaign and what steps you should take to adapt.

While this is an unprecedented time, we can navigate the current environment by looking back at lessons from other challenging times and doubling down on campaign fundamentals. We shared three key recommendations below to help set up your campaign for continued success.

Talk with your board early and often.

If you haven’t already, address the situation with your board with a focus on developing a strategy to move the campaign forward. Your discussions with the board serve two purposes: to inform and to seek input.

Share how you are managing in this uncertain time, the questions you’re asking, the data you’re reviewing, and any other actions you’ve taken so far. This should build confidence that your staff is being thoughtful and diligent in their approach.

In terms of seeking input, ask board members what they are hearing, what they’re thinking and feeling, and what they’re comfortable doing and saying during this time. Be sure to also ask the board where they would like to be in six months in terms of donor relationships—and stress that you must continue to talk with donors to achieve these goals.

It’s often helpful for the board to use a “kitchen cabinet” approach, involving either the executive committee or an ad hoc group as thought partners and advocates as the board finds their way forward.

Keep an eye on the economy, but listen to your donors first and foremost.

When in a campaign, it’s not typically necessary to place great emphasis on the economy. This was not the case, however, during the Great Recession because so much accumulated net worth was lost in the market, and lead gifts are usually funded through appreciated assets.

As we move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be important to monitor the market’s recovery. We recommend constant monitoring with more robust check-in meetings with organizational leadership every 30 to 60 days.

Beyond market indicators, your monitoring should also be informed by what you are hearing from your closest donors. Are people pulling back? Or are they leaning in and saying, “let’s go”? Staying in regular contact with your donors and listening for these cues will help you develop an accurate campaign pipeline.

Consider adjusting your campaign timeline.

During the Great Recession, about 80% of Campbell & Company clients in campaigns extended their timelines (typically for about a year), and over 95% of the campaigns we worked on from 2008-2010 met or exceeded their goals.

Adjusting the timeline was seldom the first course of action. Organizations often made the decision to extend the campaign in the year or so before the campaign was originally projected to go public. We worked with organizations to adjust how they interacted with donors and volunteers before making any changes to the timeline.

In some cases, organizations connected with donors but didn’t ask. In other cases, they asked because the donor gave a signal to do so. The organizations documented responses in tracking reports, calculating if the gift-to-request ratio was larger than usual. Many donors made initial gifts to campaigns and then gave more later. All this activity ultimately led to extended campaigns for most clients.

As you make decisions, ask these questions:

  • Are donors ready to connect and entertain an invitation to give?
  • Are donors able (real or perceived) to make their “best gifts”? If they are not ready, would they consider an initial gift?
  • If a building is being funded by the campaign, how will extensions or delays affect capital project costs?

Setting benchmarks for dollars, donors, and pipeline development will feed into your decision. By connecting with donors and regularly reviewing your pipeline (including ask amounts, expected response, and timing), you will be able to determine if and how long of an extension you may need. 

Ultimately, it is important to weigh the risk-benefit ratio of any decision to adjust campaign timelines or put the campaign on hold. During the Great Recession, we found that the benefit of moving forward outweighed the risks in virtually all cases, so we looked for strategies to help our clients continue.

However, moving forward doesn’t mean continuing to solicit in a tone-deaf manner. You will need to refine messages, tailor your approaches, and consider how the crisis is impacting your campaign objective and your mission. This may take longer, but it can also lead to deeper relationships and larger gifts.

We hope these recommendations guide your organization as you navigate your campaign during this uniquely challenging time. For more support, please visit our COVID-19 resource page and don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.  

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Whether you’re beginning your campaign, ready for your public phase launch, or somewhere in between, your organization is grappling with tough questions right now. You’re likely wondering how the COVID-19...
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