Over the last weeks, I have come to expect this daily question: “Brad, what is going to happen to giving and fundraising due to the coronavirus?” As fundraising professionals, it is only natural to ponder this question, especially when our economy may face significant disruption.
To answer this question, I want to talk about running marathons. Over years of running, I have learned that my past performance is the greatest indicator of my future performance, especially if the race conditions (such as the weather) are similar.
For example, a few years ago I ran a marathon in Savannah, GA in 4 hours, 50 minutes, and 19 seconds. A month later, I ran the Las Vegas marathon (where weather conditions were very similar to Georgia’s) in 4 hours, 50 minutes, and 27 seconds – a difference of only 8 seconds over 26.2 miles! I have seen this happen over and over again with my race times. The best predictor of future performance is past performance. To understand what will happen with giving in the United States with respect to the coronavirus, we need to look at our recent history.
Thankfully, we have never had anything similar to the coronavirus before, at least not in modern times. However, we have had significant, life-threatening natural disasters and major market corrections. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many lives and homes were lost, and Americans rallied to help the victims of that violent storm. A few years later, when the housing bubble collapsed, the stock market plummeted more than 50 percent. What happened to giving in these situations?
For several months after Hurricane Katrina, giving throughout the United States was redirected toward hurricane relief efforts. During the housing crisis of 2008-2009, while charitable giving did decrease, it only went down by 5.1 percent overall – not 50 percent. These proportions are important. Our recent history will give us a clearer perspective on our current crisis.
Given these uncertain times, what are we to do? I have three suggestions:
Move forward with your work, engaging major donors around their annual fund gifts. When the financial crises occurred in 2008-2009, donors were not adding new charities to their list of causes, but they did continue to give to the ones they were already supporting. This was especially true of faith-based non-profits.
Delay making the ask for a large campaign gift unless you have an urgent need to ask for the gift based on the timing of your project. Given all of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus and the stock market, think of this season as an additional cultivation season. (That is, unless you are supporting work related to the coronavirus.) Here’s what you might say to a major donor you have been cultivating: “We are so looking forward to talking with you about your gift to our campaign. But given all that is going on with the coronavirus and the markets, let’s delay this conversation for a few weeks?”
Walk closely alongside your donors during this season of unknowns. Check in on how they are doing and when you do, remind them of the important work they are a part of with your organization. Remember, our goal is to walk with donors over a lifetime— good times and hard times.
While I don’t know exactly what the future holds with the coronavirus, I know that at some point over the next few weeks or months, the trajectory of the virus will change. Until then, be flexible and open to some unexpected changes, but keep moving forward.
This weekend, I was supposed to be running the Barcelona Marathon, but due to the coronavirus the marathon was canceled so instead I will be running the Big Island Marathon in Hawaii. I predict I will finish the race in 4 hours, 10 minutes – my time from the Donna Marathon in Jacksonville just last month.