We are often asked about the state of major gift fundraising during difficult economic times. Fundraisers often wonder, will people give less? Should they budget less? Or move into stewardship mode with donors, versus asking them for gifts?

How should fundraisers respond when the economy slows?

The surprising thing about major gift fundraising during difficult economic times is that, if managed properly, the dollar value of a caseload of donors can actually go up. The key words in this statement are “if managed properly.”

The big point of managing a caseload properly is not only WHO is on the caseload (taking inclination and capacity factors into account) but WHAT you are doing with your donors on the caseload. And here I am addressing something beyond classic moves management – something that makes up my list of steps to take during difficult times.

For frontline fundraisers:

  1. Make sure you are relating to qualified donors.

    Jeff and I talk about this constantly because it is a major reason major gift programs fail – frontline fundraisers keep trying to talk to donors who do not want to relate to them.

  1. Make sure there is a match between the donor’s passions and interests and what you are asking them to give to.

    Again, this is a major area of failure for frontline fundraisers. They do not work hard enough to properly serve the donor’s interests and passions.

  1. Make sure you are talking about the problem versus your organization and its achievements.

    I addressed this in a blog post last week about the reasons why so many fundraisers avoid talking about the problem.

  1. Make (or renew) a serious commitment to asking.

    Revenue is down. The future looks bleak. You don’t know how things will turn out. So, you start to ask half as much, right? Wrong. Now is the time you should increase your asks and the energy surrounding them! You can’t afford to add more weakness to an already weak economy.

  2. Step up and innovate.

    Take risks. It’s counterintuitive, but tough times require the polar opposite of your natural inclination to hunker down and defend. Your emotional side will tell you to be careful, avoid risk, be conservative. Instead, be proactive. Test new ideas; push the envelope, and find new ways to relate to your donors. One frontline fundraiser for a client of ours, having failed to gain entrance to her high net worth donor, engaged the donor’s dog in the conversation! Yes, her dog. The frontline fundraiser would write and email the dog and the dog would write back. Hmmm, yeah, we know – it was the donor writing. But a really solid relationship developed, and the outcome was increased relationship and giving. Who would have thought?

  1. Focus.

    Are you focused on the right donors on your caseload, the right strategies, and the right tactics? Take a quick inventory. You may discover that you suffer from a lack of proper focus and that this lack of focus is contributing to weakened relationships and performance.

For managers:

  1. Make sure you have the right people doing the right things.

    Too many managers confuse loyalty to people with the care and courage it takes to match poorly performing employees with work that better matches their skill sets. Do you have the right people in the right jobs? Are you honest with your employees about their abilities and your job needs? Are you as a frontline fundraiser doing something other than focusing on your caseload? Are you as a frontline fundraiser manager allowing the frontline fundraiser to be engaged in something other than the caseload? If so, there’s trouble ahead.

  1. Listen to donors – they know the way.

    Donors are hurt by tough economic times, too. During these times, they become more and more discriminating about where they allocate their charitable dollars. And that’s when you must listen even more carefully to them. They will tell you what motivates them about your work and what doesn’t. Tough times are times for partnership with donors. I am still hearing, way too many times, from frontline fundraisers that all the donors on their caseload are the same. Don’t believe it!

  2. Flood your circle of influence with vision and courage.

    Nothing steals your energy and passion like down times. Remind yourself and others around you why you are doing what you do. Take another look at the core purposes of your organization. Proclaim your vision and mission courageously and boldly. This is about taking care of yourself and making sure YOU are properly grounded and encouraged.

  3. Be aware of shifts in donor attitudes and preferences.

    Like never before, donors want to express themselves and be involved. They want choice and control. They want to know they are respected and valued. They want to know you understand them and are trying to meet their needs. If you’re not giving donors the opportunity to be heard, if you are not paying attention to meeting their needs, the most likely outcome will be high donor attrition.

When times get tough, there are a group of donors who cannot give as they did before. This is to be expected. And you should make those donors feel honored and respected for what they’re able to give. You should let them know you understand, and you appreciate and care for them just as much as when they were giving at a higher level.

But there are also donors who can give more. Look for them and ask them to do it.

Lastly, when times are tough, donors get more picky and discriminating. I actually like it because it demands excellence of all of us in the non-profit world. But, let me warn you, if you are not listening for their questions, concerns, and worries you will not hear them. And if you don’t hear them, you will lose them.

Tough times require a far greater amount of vigilance and discipline on your part and on the part of your organization and leadership. It’s time to step it up a notch!!