By: Peter Dudley;

5 Keys to Preparing for the Next Pandemic

– Every nonprofit I know is hurting right now. I don’t have to tell you how COVID-19 has devastated—and continues to devastate—the sector.

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I work for an organization that will not only survive this long downturn, but will likely come out stronger for it. Since I’m relatively new to fundraising—just two years in development after 17 years in CSR—I have been reflecting on the key things that put Cancer Support Community San Francisco Bay Area (CSC) in a position of strength and confidence during this crisis. I have come up with five points, four of which you may think are obvious but one which might surprise you.

Gather a Strong Board

Everyone says that a strong board of directors is important for a nonprofit, but I see many organizations that fill their boards with people whose main—sometimes only—qualification is a deep passion for the mission. Every executive director, no matter how experienced or capable, needs to have trusted, knowledgeable people they can rely on both in a crisis and in the good times. A strong, confident board will make wiser long-term decisions during good times to allow the ED to invest in infrastructure, development, and reserve. We at CSC were able to put all our support groups online and have the entire staff working from home on one day’s notice because we had a flexible and robust infrastructure as well as a trust that our reserves (see point 5 below) would be enough to see us through. While many organizations were struggling just to make sure all their staff could even get their email remotely, we were already planning the rollouts of our next online programs and communications.

Foster a growth mindset in your organization

In my long career, I’ve worked with an awful lot of incredible people, and the team at CSC is no exception. Chances are, your people are pretty exceptional too, or will be with the right training, experience, and support. While it’s critical to hire capable, talented people, it’s also important to build a resiliency into the organization as a whole. When people cling to what they know and are afraid of learning, or even failing, your organization is going to have a very hard time navigating something like a pandemic that shuts down one-third of the entire economy. But when your people know they are supported, and that part of their daily job is to learn and grow and innovate, they will reward you, and your clients, with imaginative, forward-looking, and often surprising solutions in times of crisis. And the more you can build a shared sense of ownership among the team, the more the whole team will rely on each other for ideas, solutions, and backup in a crisis.

Diversify your funding sources

Some nonprofits, by their nature, are tied to certain funding streams and simply don’t have the ability to diversify. Many, however, fall into a trap of getting too reliant on a particular type of revenue. At CSC, we are still heavily funded by major events, but we also have worked hard to increase our corporate partnerships, our grant writing capacity, and our large and growing base of individual donor support. Because of this diversification (which, to be honest, I wish we had progressed farther on before the pandemic hit), we can contemplate canceling one of our three major events this year without falling into a real financial crisis. Having a diverse set of revenue streams also allows us to allocate our staff time where we think the highest return will be realized… not just during a crisis, but every year. Donor cultivation, donor stewardship, corporate or sponsor outreach, grant applications, major events—even though we’re a very small team, we have enough capability, and the growth mindset, to redirect our efforts where we need, quickly and effectively.

Focus on relational fundraising, not transactions

People don’t give to organizations, they give to people. Millennial donors in particular aren’t loyal to organizations, they are loyal to causes. Staff turnover at a corporation can derail a long-standing funding arrangement. All this is to remind you not to take any of your donors for granted. At CSC, being in a position of strength at this time has allowed my development team to spend time reaching out to our donors not to ask them for money, but to ask them whether they are doing okay and whether there is any way we can help them in this very strange, difficult time. Every one I have talked to has been deeply grateful for the call. They won’t remember what I said. They may not even remember I called. But the feeling they get—the fact that I know them and care about them—may lead them to give more when we get past the initial shock of this crisis, and we return to regular fundraising.

Build a robust legacy giving program

If you don’t know much about legacy giving (formerly called planned giving), set aside time to learn. A robust, mature legacy giving program can account for as much as 20% of a nonprofit’s annual operating revenue. It’s also a way to engage donors who may not have liquid cash to donate today but who would be happy to ensure your organization has the capacity to deliver your mission long into the future. One of the reasons CSC has a strong reserve fund is the strength of our legacy giving program, which has yielded some substantial donations over the years. By directing bequests over a certain size directly into our reserve fund, we build up our reserves while maintaining a balanced budget through our other fundraising.

Not all nonprofits will survive this downturn. Some may merge, some may fold. Others may emerge stronger. I feel fortunate to be at an organization where the leadership had the discipline, foresight, and imagination to do all five of the things I’ve noted above so that when a truly devastating crisis hit, we were ready to respond.

When this crisis is over and you’re having a good year, remember that that is the time to plan ahead for the next crisis. There will be one, eventually.

Peter Dudley, Chief Development Officer, Cancer Support Community

Peter Dudley is the Chief Development Officer for Cancer Support Community and former Wells Fargo SVP. He currently serves on the Community Health Charities national board of directors.

Peter is an author and nationally recognized expert in corporate social responsibility, marketing, and employee engagement.