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Ten Steps to Planning a Post-COVID Future

Stewardship & Marketing: Donor Relations/Stewardship
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In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic—as lockdowns across the country came one after the other—leadership and staff of charities scrambled to deal with their new reality, immediate plans, budgets and communications.

Six months later, we’ve settled into a cautious routine. But what happens next?

We’ve asked AFP in Canada leaders what your organization can do to prepare for the future.

Step 1— Go Back to Basics

It's time to ask the most basic questions of your organization, says Jane Potentier, CFRE, chair-elect for AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada.

“The first question is, what are we here for? Maybe there are things that were a priority six months ago that are no longer at the top of this list. So, how do you position your mission as being relevant to what’s happening in the world now, and respond to what you need to do as an organization for the recovery efforts?”

“Right now, every organization is at its own inflection point for next steps,” says Paula Attfield, chair of AFP Canada. “The answers will be as wide and far-ranging as there are charities out there. But underlying it all is one compelling common denominator—sustainability. How can we sustain our cause in the immediate and coming months, and then make a plan for it? If we don’t answer that question, our organizations may face extinction.”

Step 2—Make a Strategic Plan

Whether you are an organization directly impacted by COVID-19 relief efforts or not, strategic planning will play a vital role in the success of organizations coming out from the other end of the pandemic.

“Not planning is not an option,” says Susan Storey, CFRE, current chair of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada. “Regardless of the extent to which your organization has been affected by the pandemic, your teams will have to retool, rethink, and rescale plans for the future, and involve your volunteer leadership and donors.”

“Engaging your stakeholders in this conversation is very important,” says Potentier. “Staff, boards, donors, businesses, and your community are great sources of information to understand how the pandemic is affecting people, and how to adjust your priorities accordingly. Listen and learn from what they’re experiencing.”

Step 3—Keep Asking for Money

“If there’s anything our organizations need to let people know, it’s that we need funds now more than ever,” says Ken Mayhew, chair-elect for AFP Canada. “In times like this, when there’s so much uncertainty, what we do know is that government spending is likely going to pull back for a sustained period of time, and because of that we need our donors to step forward, now more than ever.”

Ensuring diversity in your fundraising programs is so important for sustainability. One of the lessons from the 2008 financial crisis is that charities with diverse revenue streams do better.

“Keep growing your monthly and active major donor groups,” says Storey. “These are the kinds of supporters who tend to stay on with you, even in tough times.”

Organizations typically reliant on corporate support will need to address the concept of essential service as they compete for those corporate dollars. Digital capacity will continue to be a priority. The entire digital landscape—websites, social media platforms and emails—will play an increasing role in fundraising since they are often the entry point for many donors.

Some organizations in campaign mode have paused their campaigns. Others are doubling down. “No matter what stage your campaign is in, take a step back and do a fulsome review and assessment,” says Storey. “Perhaps position your messaging around the concept of essential need. The term ‘essential’ is a new focus for the world, and so the ability to define what essential is for your organization is key.”

Step 4—View the Crisis as an Opportunity

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for organizations to try new things and seek alternate solutions for long-term change,” says Potentier. “In the past, for example, we’ve seen that working together with community partners has been effective. It’s an exciting opportunity to collaborate in ways we may have thought of before, but haven’t acted on.”

In response to the new reality, there also seems to be an opening to make a stronger case for operating expenses. “Major donors, who are traditionally heavily focused on restricted giving, are still exhibiting great willingness to engage,” says Storey.

“There is opportunity amidst the challenge,” says Mayhew. “We’re seeing many people who haven’t historically been engaged in philanthropy or in their community. We have to figure out how to leverage this pandemic to instill into our community of supporters a stronger and deeper fabric of giving and philanthropy moving forward.”

Step 5—Continue Regular Supporter Communications

“Ongoing contact with your donors, especially those in your individual giving or annual giving program, is critical,” says Attfield. “Don’t shy away from this. Remember, these people are used to getting information from your organization. It’s important to keep communicating with them in an authentic way.

“Whether or not your organization is on the ground doing COVID-related work, ensure your messaging is sensitive to the current crisis,” continued Attfield. “Tell the stories that you and those you serve are living and breathing. Be honest about the ongoing impact the pandemic is having on your organization’s finances and program delivery. Your supporters will want to help if they can.”

“Invite your donors to give their perspective on how your organization can build resilience coming out of this situation and moving forward,” says Storey. “Great stewardship will continue to be vital and could be the difference between keeping or losing both new and loyal supporters.”

Step 6—Engage Leadership Volunteers

“One piece that stays true through all fundraising is the central role of volunteers,” says Storey. “A lot of organizations are finding that their boards are more engaged. We’re seeing a transition in terms of the ownership that boards are feeling over safeguarding their causes and their charities.”

“The current crisis has opened the door to sharpen focus and clarify the consequences of what happens if we don’t do ‘x’,” says Mayhew. “As we do this reimagining, it’s vital to have our volunteers be part of that process. Volunteers bring life to the work we do, especially in the context of activities like major gift campaigns, third party events, or signature events. People are called to help in times of crisis, and this is an opportunity to do something with an urgency and consequence that many have never experienced before.

Step 7—Develop Your Teams

“In the early days of the pandemic, it was as if everyone was thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to just find a way to keep your head above water,” says Potentier. “We had to adapt to new ways of working very quickly, including working from home and dealing with a huge shift to digital operations. But now we need to stop treading water and make sure our organizations have the right tools and teams to move forward, and that our teams have the training and support they need to be successful in the current environment and beyond.”

“The COVID-19 situation has changed the way in which many teams have traditionally relied on each other, forcing them to take on different kinds of activities,” says Storey. “For example, we’re seeing some fundraising teams get more involved in frontline service delivery because of demands related to the pandemic. And in many shops, there’s been increased crossover and intersections between different teams and functions in this environment.”

Storey adds that it will be important for charities to foster a culture where everyone has a role to play in service delivery or the charitable mission, as well as in fundraising or the philanthropic mission. “Organizations that will be able to nurture the collaborative viewpoints of these two aspects of their overall mission will see growth,” she says.

Step 8—Promote Staff Well-being and Engagement

“In these difficult times, it’s important that executive leadership takes special measures to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their staff,” says Attfield. “If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program, reach out to them for advice on what you can do. There are also free tools and resources available online.”

“Nurturing staff engagement is essential,” adds Storey. “Staff have to be empowered, especially if they’re working in a home environment. As the fundraising team and the rest of the organization become more aware of each other’s roles, connecting the points between them will lead to stronger internal relationships.”

Step 9—Take on Change Management

“As we continue to adjust to the new abnormal, one of the big considerations for organizations is how to make the change stick, says Mayhew. “How that looks will be unique to your own circumstances and organization; there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach.”

One of the determinants of which organizations can pivot and survive is the extent to which volunteers, board members, champions, and staff buy into a new vision for the future.

“If we want to continue to be viable, if we want to operate, this is something we must do,” says Mayhew. “That sounds so obvious and self-evident, but when change starts getting hard, complicated or ambiguous, and the future is uncertain, we retreat to old habits. We go back to what we know and is comfortable. It’s not that we don’t rationally know what we need to do, it’s just that habits and the fear of change override logic sometimes.”

Step 10—Keep Learning

“I believe that fundraisers should be leaders in our organizations,” says Potentier. “You don’t have to necessarily be in a leadership position to show leadership. You can demonstrate it by having a learning mindset. Don’t be shy. Be curious! Step up and be the person who is being proactive, bringing ideas forward, and sharing information that will move conversations and actions forward. Test new ideas. AFP has a wealth of curated resources and excellent research to help you. Keep being present and thoughtful about where your organization is going.”

 “We have a real opportunity now to up our game as fundraisers and as leaders. AFP can really assist on this front, from top notch education offerings for our own individual professional development, to the advocacy and government relations work we’re doing for our sector that will benefit our organizations and society as a whole,” says Mayhew.

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