Two Truths and a Lie: Fundraising in a Pandemic


My dear friends, colleagues, soul sisters and brothers in the Development department… I see you. You work your tails off when times are flush, and now in the middle of this pandemic and economic fallout, you’re pushing yourself to even more extreme limits.

You carry the weight of the organization’s worry within you. You pore over your spreadsheets and run reports and make calculations based on every possible scenario. Your mind is filled with sentences that begin “what if…” What if we move the event to next spring and double our goal by incorporating a VIP party AND an auction? What if we create a new virtual volunteering program to engage our biggest corporate partners and then ask them each to give us $10,000? What if we go back to our biggest individual donor and ask for next year’s gift upfront?

Mostly, you lose sleep.

I wish I could wave a wand and make this painful uncertainty go away.

But until I get my certification as the Fairy Fundraise-mother, I bestow upon you two truths that are true always, even in times like these…and one lie to beware of.

Truth #1: We’re the joy givers.

In case you don’t already know this, the role of a Development professional is to take one person’s (or one family’s or foundation’s or corporation’s) dream of doing good in the world, and make it a reality. And those dreams haven’t immediately dissolved just because we are in the midst of a pandemic. Actually most of us, donors included, are feeling even more desperate for good news and positive action than we were before this befell us.

We know, because Maya Angelou told us so, that “among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” You are the ones that offer people an opportunity to liberate their souls. Giving is the gateway drug to a lasting transformation that brings people, institutions and companies meaning, purpose, connection, and yes – joy.

It is not a burden to give. It is not offensive to be asked.

When times are dark (and when have they ever been darker, my friends?), please don’t shirk your responsibility to bring joy to people’s lives. When you ask donors to be generous you are offering them break in the clouds, a release from the fear and sadness surrounding us. Don’t deny them that.

Truth #2: There is enough money to go around.

Yes, my friends. Even now.

Were you operating from an abundance perspective back in “normal” times? If not, here’s your crash course, here’s the whole three-day retreat condensed into seven words – there is enough money to go around.

The question has never been “is the money out there?” The question is always “which door do we open to find the money that’s ours?”

If you have any doubts about that, look at wealth distribution throughout the world – 2,000 people on earth have more money than 4.6 billion combined. Remember that a 100-year-old British man set out to raise 100 pounds for the National Health System and raised 40 million instead.

The money is there, it always has been.

But when we are thrust into true uncertainty, as we have been during the past three harrowing months, the illusion of scarcity creeps up and really wants to stick around. We don’t have enough toilet paper, how could we possibly have enough money for our nonprofit? The economy is truly in freefall, shouldn’t we hold back on asking?

Which brings us to the lie that you’ve maybe heard whispers of lately, or maybe it’s a refrain that’s growing inside of you as you try to navigate this unfathomable reality (while simultaneously homeschooling your five-year-old and trying to keep the toddler out of the cat litter):

This is going to be a tough year for fundraising.

Here’s the truth within this lie – it’s going to be a tough year for all of us. Whether we lost someone due to COVID, are struggling with our mental health, concerned about our financial futures, or just desperately yearning for our “old lives,” this time is challenging on every level.

And… if your organization was doing important work that deserved to be funded in February, then it is still doing important work that deserves to be funded today. Yep, I believe that is true even if you have had to temporarily suspend operations or cancel programs.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to frame your work as the essential, life-giving, joy-bringing, world-changing stuff it is – even in the midst of a pandemic. Your team must come up with the reasons why your mission is more important now than ever before – why the vision you carry for the future of our communities, our country, and our civilization is as critical as it ever was.

Your message must be that you are using this time not just to doggy paddle but to learn a new stroke. And then do it – accelerate your work by utilizing the virtual platforms you’ve been flirting with for years, get creative and open your doors to an even wider audience.

And please remember that while most of us are being forced to cut back our spending – both because all the things we used to spend money on are no longer available to us, and because of layoffs, furloughs and dwindling savings – I have yet to speak to a person who believes that now is the time to cut back on charitable giving.

Giving has not been canceled.

You, my Development comrades in the trenches, do not have to bear the organization’s worry alone. But you do have the chance to walk into that staff or Board Zoom call tomorrow and change the tenor of the conversation.

There is joy here, even now. There is money here, even now. You are the catalyst between the two. Even now.

Now get some rest.

Learn more from Jessica James (CEO and Founder, Jessica James Consulting) on how to nurture corporate partnerships in the midst of a pandemic.