What if someone said to you a couple of years, or even 18 months, ago that in September 2020 you would be starting a new fundraising job and dividing your work time between camping out at your dining table and a deserted office suite? Probably most of us would have been incredulous or even laughed out loud, but here we are trying to inhale as much impetus and human connection as possible from Zoom interactions and phone conversations!
So is this the ‘new normal’ and what else will change as we all negotiate avoiding getting COVID-19 while trying to get vaccinated? I have two perspectives on fundraising to explore here though they do overlap. One you’re probably hearing about quite often, which is, what lasting impact will the pandemic have on how fundraising is done going forward? The other is more personal and that is the experience of starting a new job in the autumn of 2020.
As you’ll know if you saw my piece last month, I made a work change last year, not through choice but circumstance. Regardless, I know other fundraisers who decided to do this anyway, I suppose if you see an opportunity advertised in which you have interest, why not? However, over my first few months, many people have said to me how difficult they imagine it must be to get up to speed with a new organisation when not able to interact in person with donors, colleagues, and others. After all, fundraisers are in the relationship building business, and you do that in person, right?
Not necessarily. Over the years I’ve adapted to my prospects and donors as needed including some who are happy to conduct relationships (and their giving) by email and one, to who I became quite attached and who appeared to reciprocate, that I met once a year each December for over 12 years to collect their annual gift. We gauge what donors want and adapt to that along the way making sure we cover everything we need to in the time and/or via the medium we are given.
In the current circumstances I’m learning to be even more adaptable and nimble, while also keeping my activity strategic. What will be the key to getting a prospect to agree to, yet another, Zoom meeting on their schedule? I still have the novelty value, or buffer, of being new but we are using ‘new’ technology which some people will be open to but a few older demographics might not. I’ve heard colleagues talk about donors who want to wait until meetings can be done face- to- face again.
Being in a pandemic can also be liberating, what is there to lose by contacting a past donor to check in with them, ask how they are doing and give them an update on your organisation? Also, when you are locked down and discouraged from travel it’s not possible to use the reason for a work visit to a donor’s home city as a reason to approach them for a meeting, so what other options do you have? I saw that one colleague had the idea of a ‘virtual’ trip to one of the places they would normally be going to in person – they even promised customized backgrounds to show images of the place where the donors live.
One big issue that many people seem to have, whether they are fundraisers or in other professions, is keeping motivated when most of the time our office companions are now our pets, partners who are as stir crazy as we are, or our children who can be way more demanding than work. How do we mix up or vary our days, when we are more dependent on ourselves to navigate projects? Or, for the more meeting-focused day, how do you negotiate ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and get the rest of your work done? That’s when fundraising, in all its forms, scores for me. Having now been in this industry for decades I know that we all hit walls sometimes but there has always been enough variety in my job description to ensure that if one project is stuck there’s another to which I can give my attention until the first moves forward or I get a second wind.
I saw changes in the fundraising environment in 2020 from how organisations measure their fundraisers’ productivity (don’t get me started on that!), through to foundations allowing nonprofits to include overheads and core costs too in their funding bids and allocations. There is also a big question of how people’s attitudes to their philanthropy might change, for example, some organisations could find that they lose out to others that have a more obviously inclusive mission, but that is still to play out. During the recession of 2008 I had a donor who decided to focus their support for people with immediate needs, such as not being able to feed their families, and away from the educational institution that I represented.
My personal take away is that I have a new lease to grow and be creative in my work. Not having institutional knowledge or advanced relationships can have drawbacks but it can also present opportunities, isn’t that a good place from which to build?
Nina Botting Herbst
Nina is a Director of Development at DePaul University in Chicago, and lead author of the seventh edition of The Complete Fundraising Handbook.