Fundraising in Tough Times

In September of 2008, in the teeth of the Great Recession, the Weekend Briefing asked eight of America’s best fundraisers to share their thoughts.  What should advancement officers do during the most challenging fundraising climate in memory?

Every single person responded.  Their wisdom is as meaningful today as it was then.

“Number one is to continue to go see people. Number two is to continue engaging your top volunteer leaders in the discussion. Hearing from peers means more than anything we can say. Point three is to not overreact to daily business news. Now is the time for calm and steady leadership with colleagues and donors. Institutions doing important business will remain strong through this difficult time.”

Al Checcio
Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations
Fordham University

“Make sure donors know you understand how tough things are. You don’t want to alienate a long term supporter. Some traditional outright gift donors may lean toward a more conservative planned gift; you need to be prepared to respond in kind. The challenges of the economy are going to place increased importance on properly stewarding your prospects and donors. It is always smarter to take care of the friends you have now than to make new ones.”

Jon Heintzelman
Vice President for Advancement
Loyola University Chicago

“The most important thing we can do is get in front of our donors. We must get out of the office and talk with them. A down market impacts their portfolios and their capacity to give, but our donors know that our mission does not change and they want to support that. “More than how much they give, this economy may impact the timing of their gifts. If we do what we ought to be doing, donors will give what they always intended to give. It may take them longer to do so. They may hold off on a major commitment until things bounce back a bit. “Two, thank donors personally and meaningfully. Let them know what their investment means to us and to our institution. “Three, tell donors what you do with their money. Advancement folks are great at getting gifts and moving on to the next prospect. Donors want to know how they have helped, and they deserve to know.”

Tim O’Callaghan
Director of Institutional Advancement
St. Ignatius High School, Cleveland

“Stay close to your prospects and donors. Even though you may feel they are distracted, they appreciate the things and people in their lives that give them stability and comfort. Send personal notes, emails, or make calls to let people know you are thinking of them. “Track the sectors that are not suffering. In tough times there are always businesses that make money and even do well. Keep informed and stay connected to these people. “Be sensitive to the realities of the day, but don’t doom and gloom. No one likes a pessimist. Focus your message on the impact of your institution and how it is serving society, not on the needs your institution has.”

Julie Tolan
Vice President, University Advancement
Marquette University

“Ask only for those things that are truly high priorities. This is no time to put forward weak cases or long lists of needs. Remember there are those (hedge fund managers, for instance) who are still making money. Share your vision for the future and engage your donors even if the short term receipts fall.”

Jim Langley
Vice President for Advancement
Georgetown University

“If you are behind your desk, you are not raising money. “Personal visits are the key to building relationships. “You do not get what you do not ask for. And, “If you are not writing two thank you notes every morning you are not doing your job.”

Greg Naleski
Vice President for Development
Nativity Miguel Network of Schools

“Stay closer than ever to your donors and future prospects. In strong economic times our work can get very transactional as you move from one gift to another. Down markets provide unique opportunities to show our donors and prospects that we really care, that we are committed to building lifelong relationships with them that go deeper than gift transactions. “Work the sectors of the economy that are still strong. Whether it be the oil and gas industry or other private businesses that seem to be thriving, look closely to take advantage of the sectors and donors that can carry you through the rough periods. “Take this time to think strategically about your operation. How can you best allocate resources? In what areas should you be prepared to grow? This can be a good time for updating your IT system and strengthening your database, for example. Use this opportunity to benchmark other successful organizations.”

Lou Nanni
Vice President for Development
University of Notre Dame

“My sense is that the most important factors to successful fundraising do not change in tough economic times, they just become that much more important. My top three are always: 1. Having a clear and compelling mission and vision for the future that resonates with potential donors; 2. Having leadership who can and will express that mission and vision with passion; and, 3. Having the ability to make the case that philanthropy allows the institution to deliver on its mission, realize its vision and execute its strategic priorities. “The tougher the fundraising environment, the more difficult it is to get away with low grades in any of these three areas. Donors are more discerning than usual in determining their giving priorities. Environments like this also increase the noise factor, as our donors are really preoccupied with happenings in the markets and the world. That means we have to work harder to get our message across.”

Jim Hussin
Vice President for Development
Boston College

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