The importance of continued social profit cannot be underestimated for organizations in any kind of field. Especially in times of crisis, it’s important that voices of organizations be heard to continue accruing this so-called social profit such that in the long run, the organization has something to work with on that end. Douglas Nelson runs down how organizations can continue building social profit during public emergencies. While the concept of social profit may be difficult to wrap one’s head around at first, the contingency measures that Douglas shares are sure to keep your organization’s social engines running as smoothly as can be expected.
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Social Profit Perspectives On A Crisis
We usually have on our show a leader from a social profit organization in Canada or the United States that’s responsible for the entire organization or the fundraising for that organization. We’ve had more than 55 leaders come on the show and share their learning, wisdom, worries, wants and hopes for the social profit sector and their own organizations. I hope many of our regular audience has gained a lot of the insight and advice that those guests have brought. It’s special to have a place where the leaders in the sector can share what they’ve learned and helped develop the sector.
We’re going to try something different. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we at the Discovery Group had been having conversations with leaders all across the country, both in Canada and the United States. What we’ve learned from those conversations is something important to share with all of our audience. What we’ve heard is a real hunger for leaders to be able to answer the question, how do we move forward? It is a more empowering question than, what’s going to happen? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that and you’ve heard that in your team meetings and board calls.People have a real hunger for their leaders to tell them how to move forward. Click To Tweet
When are we going to get back to normal? How are we going to restart our fundraising activities when that happens? What are we going to do in the meantime? How are we going to serve our mission, continue to make grants, provide service and make investments? In some cases, people are asking the question about how the organizations are going to be able to keep their doors open. Speaking with clients, we’ve heard a wide spectrum of perspectives, approaches, and plans. This episode is sharing what we’ve learned so that you can apply those learnings in your own organizations.
In our conversations, we’ve heard a few themes and I’m going to share those with you. The first is organizations are trying to figure out how to communicate with their donors and how to keep their board members engaged. As all of our audience know, it’s a difficult balance to share the challenges your organization is facing with your top donors and sometimes even with your board when you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do to respond. Some social profits are comfortably pushing forward with planned asks and are planning additional asks.
Some organizations are responding quickly to ramp up their plan giving activities as many Canadians and Americans are redoing their wills in the face of the pandemic. I’ve heard a lot of concern from CEOs and board chairs that their fundraising teams, one of the most expensive assets in the organization, are sitting idle and worries that they’re not connecting with donors. Since they’re not able to ask for money, what is it they’re saying to donors? Woven through almost every conversation, strategy or confession is this feeling that they want to know what’s going on.
All of us in the social profit sector are like everyone else. We want to know what’s going on. One piece of advice that I hope that you will at least take the time to think about and maybe apply to your conversations in your communications with your teams, with your donors and with your boards is to focus on providing the certainty of process. What are we going to do? Not on providing a certainty of outcome, which is what is going to happen? No one that I’ve spoken to has that crystal ball. Until we find that crystal ball or until the medical scientists and researchers help us move forward from this pandemic, we’re not going to know what’s going to happen. We need to focus on what it is as individuals, within our teams, within our organizations. What are we going to do?
I’ll give you two examples of that. One is focusing on contingency planning and not on forecasting. Many organizations are confronting the fact that their budgets, planned revenues, and expenditures simply aren’t relevant to what’s happening. Many boards are saying, “We need a forecast. We need to know what will happen if revenue goes down by 60% or 30% or 10%.” Forecasting is about where we will be. It’s about what will happen. Whether boards or leaders want to admit it or not, we simply can’t know.
A lot of forecasting is based on understanding that is summed up by this observation. We know the facts as they are now will not be relevant in the future. We’re going to use those facts to forecast what may happen in the future in order to make decisions. We know it’s not accurate, but we’re going to cast those inaccuracies into the future and build organizational plans around it. It simply isn’t inspiring. We know it’s not going to be accurate and I don’t think it does our organization a good service. Instead, I would encourage you to focus on contingency planning, which is about what we will do if or when something happens. If our revenue decreases by more than 20% over the quarter, we will consider or take the following actions.
If by September our revenue is down by 10% or 40%, we will consider doing the following or taking the following actions. By focusing on the actions that the organization can take, it helps ground boards and leadership teams in the here and now and the realities of the hard choices many of our organizations are needing to face. The second is when it comes to donor or partner conversations. Many of you who have been reaching out to donors and your top supporters may have noticed that a lot of donors want to engage in conversations about what you think will happen. To the greatest extent possible, focus instead on what your organization will do or what impact did this pandemic may have on your mission.
For donor conversations, develop very clear messaging about how the pandemic is impacting your mission work and how your organization is reacting to the crisis. It’s focusing on what you’re doing, not on what is going to happen. Remember that COVID-19 is happening to everyone. Many of us have seen organizations both in the private sector and in the social profit sector talking about the deep impact the pandemic is having on them, which inspires our donors not to talk about our experience but to talk about their own. Instead of engaging in a conversation about supporting the mission work of our organizations, it encourages our donors to retreat further away. The more you can talk about the positive action your organizations are taking, the more effective or compelling and more authentic your conversations with your donors are likely to be.
We’ve gathered six ideas for you to consider that have come from our conversations with clients and other leaders in the sector. These ideas may be helpful to you as you’re moving forward with your own board and donor communications. The first is to make it personal. Be candid about how you’re feeling and how your team is pulling together. Your board should know what is giving you strength, hope, and optimism through this crisis. Your donors should know what you’re concerned about. Remember, they’re scared too. The more authentic your communication, the greater impact it will have onboard engagement. Secondly, pick up the phone and a pen. Ensure every top donor and board member has received a personal phone call from the CEO or board chair or both.
Updating them on how your organization is responding to the pandemic and sharing the vital role of volunteers and donors to the work your organization is undertaking. While email is important, a personal call is essential for meaningful engagement and personal exchange. Second, write each board member and the donor a handwritten note thanking them for their commitment and their service. If you forgot to bring your stationary from the office, a very personalized email can do. I encourage you to be as creative as possible to get a handwritten note in the hands of those that are closest to your organization.Focus on contingency planning, so you know what to do if something unexpected happens. Click To Tweet
The third strategy is to support your board and your top donors. They are your chief ambassadors. Provide your top donors and your board members with talking points so they can communicate how your organization has been impacted and how it is responding to the pandemic. With your board, you can consider providing social media ready messaging and focusing on helping them tell the story of the good work your organization is continuing to do or perhaps even will be doing once the pandemic is lifted. Number four, and this is one that will be difficult for many people, is to add one more Zoom call. Arrange a Town Hall style video conference as an opportunity for board members to hear updates, provide advice and to connect with fellow travelers in your mission.
By creating that space for people to share their impressions, opinions, and ideas, you’re creating a virtual community, but a community nonetheless. It allows people to use the lens of your organization and your mission as they think through how they’re going to address this pandemic for their families, friends, and communities. Number five, ask for advice. No doubt you’ve already made more than a few hard decisions and likely we’ll have many more to make. Ensuring board members feel that they’d been consulted and are aware of the hard choices ahead will strengthen their connection to your organization.
Are there any special skills or knowledge that your board members or top donors possess that can help guide the organization’s pandemic response and strategy? Do you have board members who’ve experienced natural disasters or have seen an organization through the 2008 economic crash or have seen an organization through a traumatic personal event? Lived experience and the opportunity to share helps volunteers, be they donors or board members, feel useful and engaged. Harness those experiences and the knowledge that comes with them.
Number six is to tell donor stories. For those of you who I’ve worked with or have had the chance to meet in person, the opportunity to speak with donors is the most important energizing part of all work in the social profit sector. Donor stories resonate loudly in all environments, particularly in a crisis. Share stories about how your organization is responding to the crisis through the eyes of those that you benefit and those that are giving to you. Share how other donors are responding and what they’re saying to your team.
Those closest to you want to know how your mission is helping people respond. Use names, pictures, and details as much as possible to convey authenticity and to give that feeling of real-life experience in your mission through the view of your donors. At the Discovery Group, we work with organizations and encouraging many people to get out and help them figure out more ways to be in front of their donors on a more frequent basis.
My colleague, Gina Cuthbert, has a personal catchphrase that is nice and simple. We always talk about getting some t-shirts made that say simply, “Talk to the donors.” As leaders in your organization, regardless of where you are in the hierarchy, the opportunity to inform the hard decisions your organization is making with experience and conversations that you’re having with those who support you the most is incredibly valuable.
If you’re leading a fundraising team, you need to be the one talking to more donors than anyone else on your team. Lead by example. If you’re the CEO or the executive director, now is the time for you to be showing your team and sharing as much as possible your connection and your commitment to those who support your mission so generously, whether it’s board members or as donors. For those of you who are on boards and are looking for ways that you can contribute to your organization, call the executive director or someone on the fundraising team and say you want to be thanking donors.
You want to be reaching out and sharing the gratitude that you as a volunteer board member have for those donors who are serving your mission through their giving. The more that we connect with those who support us through this time and those that we serve, the more quickly we will be able to emerge from the pandemic, whatever the world looks like and whenever we’re allowed to come out of our houses again and get back to doing the great work.
Those organizations that have stayed connected and engaged with their donors and their boards are going to be the organizations most stable to deliver on their mission sooner rather than later. We are at a very interesting time. We’ve heard from leaders across the sector that not every organization is going to make it. Many people in the sector have lost jobs. Many organizations are finding it very difficult to keep the doors open or wondering how they’ll keep the doors open into June or July. Where you are now in your organization is the best opportunity to reach out.
Connect with those that matter most to your organization. Let them know the gratitude you feel and the benefit that they’ve had or they’ve made in the community through their previous support. Continue to reach out and connect. That is what makes this work so special. The human connection that we build through our work is what makes our sector possible. I wish you all great health, wonderful fundraising, and donor conversations. I’m interested in your feedback and your ideas on how others and how you are reaching out to donors. Please visit us at TheDiscoveryGroup.ca. Reach out to me personally. I’d love to hear what’s working for you. I’d love to help you answer any questions you may have. Until then, stay well. Thank you.