Managing Your Annual Fund During a Crisis

Posted on 02/03/2019

There are many things that annual giving programs can control. The timing and segmentation of appeals, the words used in scripts and letters, and the volunteers and staff recruited to lead fundraising efforts are all important components that can have a significant impact on outcomes. Putting these things together into a comprehensive strategy is often what separates an average annual giving program from an exceptional one.

But there will likely be things that occur from time to time that annual giving programs can’t control. Turbulent stock markets, natural disasters, and institutional scandals can all be significant events for an annual fund. How you respond and the decisions you make during these times can have a big impact on your efforts.  

Should you hold off sending solicitations? If so, for how long? When you resume sending appeals, what should you say? Should you reference the issue? Who are the right messengers? How should you communicate with your most important donors and volunteers? While there may not always be simple and straightforward answers to these questions, it is essential to be coordinated and thoughtful in your response. To that end, here are 5 tips to help manage your annual fund during a crisis:

  1. Contact your institution’s advancement communications or public relations team. They’re the experts and they are likely to have experience or training when it comes to handling challenging situations. Ask for their help and guidance in developing talking points and crafting your communications. Proactive and coordinated communication can ensure consistent messaging across the organization.
  2. Talk with advancement leadership. Don’t let your annual fund operate in a vacuum. Make sure you understand how your chief advancement officer (and their team) is addressing the issue, and ensure you factor this into the annual fund response. Draft a plan for how you’d like to proceed with your communications and solicitations, and get leadership buy-in and feedback before implementing.
  3. Equip staff to reply to questions and concerns. Annual fund directors aren’t the only team members who should be ready to handle concerned alumni, parents, and friends. Employees on the front lines—such as phonathon callers, development officers, and the administrative support staff members who field phone calls and email inquiries—should all be prepared to speak with members of the public. Developing email response templates, sharing talking points, and troubleshooting as a team can empower each staff member to respond in alignment with your institution’s message.
  4. Isolate affected audiences. The impacted group will vary significantly based on the type of crisis. For instance, a hurricane may have devastated a specific group of counties; an athletics scandal might affect a broad audience. Consider which groups might merit an altered solicitation schedule or strategy as a result. As is the case with natural disasters, you may need to continuously revisit the parameters of the affected group in the coming weeks and months.
  5. Test the waters before fully resuming any solicitations. Consider low-risk (and low-cost) ways to see if your audience is ready to be asked again. Send a stewardship email and monitor replies, check comments on social media posts, or produce a low-cost piece (e.g., email) before deploying a major project if you’re not sure if it’s time to resume solicitations.

A decline in donors and revenue may be inevitable if you are unable to solicit your audience for an extended period of time due to a crisis. Recognize this, develop a clear and coordinated response, and be thoughtful about your donors’ needs as you bring your program back up to speed. While the wounds from natural disasters or scandals will take time to heal, your annual giving program—and your entire institution—can and will recover.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Overcoming Obstacles in Fundraising.