COVID-19: Four lessons learned in crisis management

By Mary Kaufman-Cranney, CFRE, Vice President

As seasoned fundraising consultants at The Alford Group, we can say there’s never been anything like COVID-19. However, we have helped our clients through many crises over our 40-year history and the lessons we’ve learned can be applied to today’s challenges.

Since the outbreak hit, my colleagues and I have been working around the clock with clients who are scrambling to transition to this new virtual reality, all while trying to maintain fundraising momentum. This crisis is affecting organizations in a wide variety of ways. Some organizations are experiencing a survival crisis, others are working to raise the additional funds needed to match the increase in demand for their services, and others are pulling out all the stops to not skip a beat as they move forward with their campaigns.

The experience of being through past crises – plus strategy and a little creativity – is what we at The Alford Group are drawing from to provide counsel to these organizations during COVID-19.

One of my Alford Group clients raised $1 million in a week to launch a fund to support their critical services. Another client is a school that launched K-12 curriculum online for 350 kids within a week of closure. They have such great momentum that they recently had nearly 100% attendance at their virtual campaign cabinet meeting. While another Alford Group client is launching a feasibility study and moving ahead full steam.

The experience of being through past crises – plus strategy and a little creativity – is what we at The Alford Group are drawing from to provide counsel to these organizations during COVID-19. I have personally weathered many storms during my career in fundraising and am applying those lessons learned to today’s crisis with my Alford Group clients, and will now share them here with you.

Lesson #1 Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

The recession of 2008 was crushing to arts fundraising and as CDO of Seattle Opera at the time, we were able to maintain our fundraising for the next two years unlike any other opera company in the country. Why? First, I was empowered to do what I thought needed to be done. Second, we communicated with our donors and patrons like they were the most important people in the world and with consistency. I was more a counselor than a fundraiser in those two years. We created loyalty and adopted the phrase “Flat is the new up!”

Now is the time to create effective donor communication strategies in light of COVID-19. Reach out to every donor who has given to you this year and call them! Say thank you for their support, make sure they are doing okay and inform them about what your organization is doing in this time. Ideas include:

  • Use all forms of communication: send emails, send letters, hold virtual forums for members, donors and participants.
  • Be prepared to direct donors to your online giving emergency fund.
  • Inform supporters of the recently passed COVID-19 stimulus package and what it means for donors.
  • Create weekly or biweekly staff rallies.
  • Check in with staff members individually and keep them focused on what they should and could be doing.
  • Hold weekly board member check-ins to keep them informed and engaged in your fundraising.

Lesson #2 Stick to your plan

In early 2001, Seattle experienced a major earthquake and I took the lead on communications for the YMCA, its 16 branches and more than 1000 employees. We had an emergency communication plan and we followed it. In that experience, before evacuating a building with several hundred members, I emailed the entire staff across the county to let them know what was going on and asked them to stay safe and call their supervisor if they were in danger. You can’t plan for everything, but having scenarios identified and steps to follow in advance was a valuable lesson and a literal lifesaver.

You can’t plan for everything, but having scenarios identified and steps to follow in advance was a valuable lesson and a literal lifesaver.

We put a lot of time into planning. Don’t discard your plans wholesale. The world will right itself and those that adjust to the downed tree on the trail and work through solutions to get over and around it will be ahead in the long run. Those who stop, as proven in the 2008 recession, will have a hard time gaining momentum again and will be way behind their competitors.

Lesson #3 Leadership is everything in a time of crisis

In the aftermath of 9/11, I was working with a CEO who led by example, engaged and expected senior leadership to be part of the solution, and kept us focused on our mission and what we needed to be doing to provide support and services to the community. We had no time for self-pity or worry, we sprang into action to take care of our team, our community’s families and children, and to lead the way to collaborate on the recovery in our city.

My advice to organization leaders here is to:

  • Act quickly and decisively.
  • Look at short term plans and then get to the long term.
  • Make the hard choices strategically and do them now.
  • Evaluate your revenue streams and bottom lines, minimizing costs and maximizing your impact where it’s needed most.
  • Stay positive but not “apple pie” positive. Be real.
  • Bring everyone in to address the challenges and know no positional boundaries (staff, members, donors, board). Involving everyone in candid and open conversations regardless of where they sit in the org chart can uncover new ideas and approaches that may just save the day.

Lesson #4 Stay focused on the mission and your values

In times of stress, it is most important to reaffirm what your organization is about and the values that guide your decision-making and communications. The real test is to be able to exemplify your values in the worst of times. This will confirm your organization’s core is strong enough to fare well in the long term.

And now we are facing a global pandemic. While how quickly we bounce back remains to be seen, we need to implement the lessons we have learned from the past to keep moving forward in this new philanthropic landscape. That way when the pandemic wanes, nonprofits are there to help people recover, get back on their feet and sustain what we most value in our communities.

Remember, the world will right itself. And we want our nonprofits there when it does.

Please email me to share questions, comments and ideas! The Alford Group is by your side and ready to jump in and assist.