This is a difficult story to tell, because it’s about one of the hardest days in recent memory: September 11, 2001. And it’s a fundraising story – but one you’ve never heard before.
You may remember the chaos and confusion that gripped the nation – not only in New York and Washington, but pretty much everywhere. People glued to their televisions. Hundreds of thousands stranded in airports. An atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
For many people, the regular routines of daily life ground to a halt.
Can you raise money during a crisis?
The events of September 11 created a real dilemma for fundraisers around the country. On the cusp of the year-end fundraising season, many were paralyzed. “We shouldn’t ask now,” they decided. “Our donors are preoccupied. They won’t respond. They might be offended.”
So they canceled their mailings and phone banks, canceled their benefit events, deferred their donor meetings. At least, many of them did.
Ignoring conventional wisdom pays off
Alyssa Schuren was fresh out of college, working her first fundraising job for Toxics Action Center, a grassroots community organization based in New England. She had spent the previous week calling donors and scheduling “ask meetings.” She’d had great success, with 17 appointments on the calendar.
Then September 11 happened.
While so many seasoned fundraisers were backing away from their donors, Alyssa did the opposite. She called them all – again – and asked, “Do you still want to meet? Is this a still a good time to talk about our work?”
Sixteen out of 17 said, “Yes, come on over.” All 16 gave, with several increasing their support.
Alyssa was too inexperienced to know that she shouldn’t ask for money in the middle of a national crisis. As it turns out, she was a lot smarter that her more experienced peers.
Today, she is not only a skilled fundraiser, but a terrific fundraising trainer.
When in doubt, get closer to your donors
While very few events compare to September 11, we all have our organizational crises. You lose the big grant. The executive director decides to leave unexpectedly. An unflattering story makes the news. Somebody embezzles money. A fire shuts down your office.
During these moments, there is a strong desire to hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over. This is exactly the wrong response. In times of crisis (or even perceived crisis), your job is to strengthen your ties to you donors – to reinforce your shared values, and to reassure them about the continuity of your work.
Here’s an exercise. The Gift is Just the Beginning, to help you think about how to engage your donors more deeply, whatever the circumstances.
If you don’t ask, nothing happens
Following September 11, 2001, many nonprofits noticed a drop in donations. Fundraisers assumed that donors were diverting their gifts to disaster charities like the Red Cross.
Turns out that in the twelve months following the attack, about one percent of philanthropic gifts went to 9/11-related charities.
So why did these organizations see their fundraising totals decline? No surprise – they cancelled their benefit events, mailings, donor meetings, etc. They stopped asking, so of course their income went down.
While external events often can affect our fundraising, we control the most important variable: how and when we engage our donors.
Don’t give in to fear – ask more often!
I’ll give the last word to our colleague Tom Ahern, one of the smartest fundraisers I know. “You are not asking enough,” he said at recent conference. “I guarantee it.”