In the face of emergency…
Posted on: September 26, 2017 at 10:16 am

By Marion Lee, CFRE

Most of us have been here before. Throughout our careers, earthquakes, hurricanes, fire and terrorism have dealt our communities and our country blows that resonate with us long after the actual disaster. No one nonprofit is truly exempt from these disasters, and the closer they are to the epicenter of the tragic event, the greater the impact on their mission.

Messages have come in from across the state that focus on very real issues facing our nonprofit community as we begin the traditional funding cycle of our year. I asked the Lee+ Associates team to share their thoughts as they relate to capital campaigns, events, messaging and inevitably: Is there one solution to a great big problem?

Capital Campaigns: Do we hold or launch?

Joyce Penland: Despite Hurricane Harvey, your organization’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations have not changed.  Yes, your donors may be temporarily unable to help you with a large gift at this time.  But they are understandably moved to help victims of the tragedy.  So, you as a development professional, along with your board, will have to decide if your case is so compelling that you’re willing to launch your campaign now.  After those deliberations, many would advise waiting a few months, if not a year, before undertaking a major campaign at this time.

Amy Phipps: Keep working quietly.  Hurricane Harvey’s effect on your donors will be influenced by their location and their focus.  Your cause is still important and your donors know that.  Be sensitive to the needs of those affected and, if your mission aligns with those needs at all, see if you have a part to play. But don’t stop your campaign work.

Karen Kegg: Consider holding until Spring of 2018. People here need time to assess their situations and figure out their plans. Don’t stop the planning, do what you can to prepare by revising materials and messages.

Covita Moroney: Campaign mode helps focus messaging and can add discipline to the schedule of fundraising moves/solicitation. Keep the key parts of your plan moving forward.

Special Events. Is the timing right?

Joyce: Organizations that focus on disaster relief are well-positioned to continue special events and fundraisers, as donors’ hearts are attuned to their cause at present.  For other organizations–the arts, education, and others–special events that are already in the works could be tailored to include a disaster relief component.  Social media is full of organizations (SA Zoo, The Witte Museum for example) who are opening their doors to hurricane evacuees at no charge…leaving donors and the general public with glad hearts for their efforts.

Amy: Special events and fundraisers (tons of offers-what do we do) – if this is about other folks offering to put on events for you, I hope you have a policy about that.  (If not, after things settle down a bit, look at crafting one).  Be true to your mission and your values and be realistic about your capacity to staff outside events.  Not everything needs to happen at once. Push the pause button with some of these donors and call on them later, if the timing would be better for you.  You may not be able to say yes to everybody right now, but use this opportunity to build and cultivate relationships.

Karen: Continue as planned.  All nonprofits have needs that have to be fulfilled.  I would acknowledge the great relief efforts from Hurricane Harvey, but continue on as planned. Prepare for a possible slight downturn in ticket sales and auction proceeds.

Robin Bradford: Yes, on fundraisers – but with clear limits. The nonprofit’s role is to appear/speak (if possible) and accept checks. My recommendation is to create a form with info about event, fundraising goal, and expectations.

Covita: In all types of campaigns or events, pinpoint the exact positive impact that your nonprofit will have on people served. This applies to LOIs and grant applications also.

What is our Message?

Joyce: Honesty is always the best policy. Nonprofits need to be upfront about the current situation and tell donors that they’re aware that their cause may not be “top of mind” right now due to the pressing needs of neighbors up and down the Texas, Florida and other impacted areas.  It’s still important to remind donors that your cause is still worthy and still merits their generosity when the time is right.

Amy: Needs are great, plans are nebulous, many offers of help exist, but always stay true to your mission.  I think funders appreciate knowing anything you are doing at this time to help those in need- even if you aren’t directly connected, perhaps your staff is doing a food drive or spending a weekend at a shelter.  Make sure that’s communicated as it builds a lot of goodwill.

Robin: At a former organization, we did weekly newsletters telling families’ stories (to show evolving needs, partnerships, etc.) – some successes & some challenges. We showed that we were having a daily impact. At the same time, internally, we were working with FEMA and other international aid funding opportunities – it’s all a whirling mess for some time. But it’s key to communicate your local ongoing impact to your donors – this builds tremendous power for future efforts. Also, watch for mission creep and communicate about how work you’re doing relates to the mission/work you’ve always had/done, etc.

Have confidentiality/permissions policy/form for vulnerable populations (don’t re-traumatize). Post-disaster work is nebulous and ever-changing – start a “fund’ or “campaign” and start asking even if the specifics on how dollars will be spent is not yet clear. If unexpected funding comes in and needs to be reprogrammed for non-Hurricane Harvey work, make sure wording on donations is not restricting. We were able to get FEMA reimbursement for an organization that provided housing for evacuees – but that wasn’t clear for months and continued to change every sixmonths when it was renewed. Communicate impact, internally be flexible.

Covita: Sharpen your messaging particularly in campaign mode. Drive all message into the same focused points that specify who will be helped and how. Include special outcomes in your message byusing graphs and charts to raise your efforts above the fray. What are the Foundations going to do?

Joyce: Foundation resources are finite, so they will not be the answer.  Savvy organizations will stay focused on their mission, their clients’ needs and will continue to appeal to foundations, corporations and individuals who have supported them in the past.

Amy: Will the foundations save us?  Nope, they can’t.  Not enough money, even if it were all pooled.  But talk to them and let them know what/how you are doing. If they can’t help, they are sure to know of others who might be able to.

Karen: I believe Foundations will take the same attitude they always have in times of emergency: no, they do not have the resources to save you but they will do what they can to cover as much ground as possible as quickly as possible.

Can we reach out for emergency funding?  

Joyce: Nonprofits faced with budget shortfalls can always approach their loyal base of donors, particularly those at the top, to ask for stretch gifts.  Long-time donors are savvy about how disasters have a wide impact across the nonprofit spectrum.  We are seeing philanthropy at its finest as a result of Hurricane Harvey. From “rich and famous” starts of sports, music, film and television to neighborhood children running a lemonade stand for charity, seeing the suffering of our neighbors has spurred an amazing response of generosity unlike anything we have witnessed since Hurricane Katrina.  We seem to be at our very finest when things are at their very worst.

Amy: Make sure you know where it is (SAAF, for one) and if you qualify.  Go for it if you do.  If you have specific immediate needs, contact past donors to see if support might be there.

Marion: After hearing from my colleagues on these topics, here’s my own perspective:

Depending on your mission and proximity to Texas, Florida and other impacted areas, gather your Board and develop a plan that identifies the three most vital priorities your organization needs to address in the next six months and the next 12 months.

If you are standing on the edge of a capital endeavor, assess carefully what you really need. Is it funds for temporary housing and programs, or is this the time to step out with a capital endeavor possibly smaller than planned? This is the proving time. If you know your donors, how they have been affected, and where their hearts are, this may be the time to go to some of your consistently loyal supporters and ask for their help with a major gift. If you have not cultivated or stewarded these relationships, and you don’t know your donors, this probably is not a good time to approach them for a significant gift.

Once that plan is in place, speak it to your staff, your donors, your community, region and your state. Don’t back down on what you need and don’t be embarrassed. Be clear, thoughtful and explain why, who, how and when. Timing on your message is critical and, again, the better you know your donors, the easier it will be to determine when to reach out.

Everybody wants to give you a concert, party, or in some way lend a hand. It is generous loving hearts that want to reach out to help you. Be thankful, wise and cautious. Special events are time consuming and can drain the already stressed energy of a staff and volunteer corp. They also are not free or rarely are they free.

Give the foundations room to breathe. They are as stunned as the rest of us and some of their staffs have sustained personal loss as well as loss to professional environments. They are in the process of meeting with their trustees, formulating their plans and determining where best they can help. They will be there, but it will take time.

Above all, please remember, this country, most particularly this state, steps up when asked. It’s hard to wait, but help is coming.

Thanks to everyone at Lee+ Associates for their help in writing this article. Our thoughts, time, and energy are with all of our friends and colleagues in the nonprofit world. We are here. Even if you don’t know us, reach out. We will do what we can to advise, help, and lift your spirits.