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The recent pandemic caused by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has sparked the beginning of a global economic downturn, if not a complete recession. With the new economic landscape, the nature of fundraising is going to change. In this post, we want to help nonprofits in their efforts to continue fundraising in a recession.

A common misconception is that an economic recession means that fundraising will completely dry up. However, past recessions have shown that the impact is more complicated than that. While some organization types may fare better than others, past economic downturn data show that nonprofits who continue fundraising during times of widespread financial hardship tend to come out stronger than those organizations that did not do the same. 

Looking back at how organizations previously adapted to survive hard times, we’ll pinpoint some key tips and strategies to use at your organization. Read on to help ensure your nonprofit emerges from the recession strong.


Identify where you are a ‘charity of choice’ for donors

There are many unknowns right now in the world. We don’t know how much of an impact (or for how long) the current Coronavirus outbreak will affect the economy or how quickly society will get back to ‘normal.’ The best that nonprofits can do is accept the unpredictability of the situation and put their best foot forward. 

It is likely in the current climate that a lowered GDP will decrease overall philanthropic giving, as happened in previous economic downturns. If donors have to start cutting back their giving, the key thing for nonprofits to do is identify those donors for which they are a “charity of choice.” These are your key, multi-year donors who consistently give on an annual basis. 

Nonprofits should identify these key people and invest in keeping them engaged—spending money on them and prioritizing communication and outreach to this group first and foremost. The focus right now should be less on acquisition and more on those who are already at your doorstep.

Right now, we’re in a ‘chasm’ phase—what’s important to do right now is build a bridge to the next normal. In this period, it’s paramount to count on those closest to your organization.

Here are strategies you can use with your already engaged donor groups:


Know your donor file

Now is the perfect time to take a hard look at your donor file. The people you want to put in the “prioritize” basket should not only be those who give the most but those you give loyally and consistently. Your organization will have the most significant share of wallet from these groups.

While philanthropic giving may shrink, organize those who are still engaged, and make sure that you remain their charity of choice. Ensure any communications stay genuine and authentic whatever your revised goals are.


Show the impact your organization is having

Now your organization’s mission is even greater than it was before. Let donors know about the impact your organization is having during this downturn to show that it is still relevant. 

Nonprofits are still going to be important in society, so continuing to have conversations with people and being as active as possible on social media matters in the long-run. Having that opportunity for people to be informed and to have an avenue for them to give should reign supreme. 

For example, a youth community agency that typically meets in person has now had to change its focus to help those children engage in online learning. Many of those in the club don’t have access to a computer and need the club’s help to raise money for them.

Always state the reason why your organization is still relevant. For a museum, this could mean asking for support so that the facility can reopen when the time is finally safe. Stick to the donors who have already given or engaged with the nonprofit.


Develop a (renewed) case for support

Ask and answer questions such as why should a long-term supporter give now? How does that donation or gift show impact? Look at how the current situation relates to your organization as a way of modifying your nonprofits’ case for support, even if it isn’t going to be permanent.

If we return to the youth community example, the case for support the organization could make is that a $150 or a $500 gift to the organization would provide an iPad or tablet to children who have lost access to learning. Get specific about the tangible impact of the donation.

Another key item to remember: the return on investment for not sending out a campaign is zero. One thing for certain is your nonprofit will receive zero dollars for no investment in campaigns.


Rethink your acquisition strategy

There is no question that communicating stewardship is of the utmost importance right now, as is keeping loyal donors close to your organization. That said, if your organization has taken all the right measures as far as those who are already engaged and you want to go a step further, it could be worth looking at acquisition measures. 

For this, reactivation is probably going to be the best place to start. Focus your time and energy that you have leftover to encourage those who were once engaged to get involved again since you’ve renewed your case for support. Some ways to do this are:

  • Looking at the donor file again and identifying lapsed donors and previous one-time givers
  • Taking advantage of available call centers with extra capacity to do outreach
  • Putting any additional funds into mailing and renewal campaigns, with the renewed case for support included.

For example, your nonprofit may have some individuals on your list who have only experienced the organization through a gala, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be open to moving into a multi-channel giver if given the right opportunity. Use that modified case for support to get people involved again; just keep in mind that acquisition is difficult even in an optimal fundraising environment, and while it will be more difficult now, it is not impossible.


Flexibility is key: prepare to pivot more than once

In this ‘chasm’ phase where your nonprofit is trying to build a bridge, you have to stay flexible and listen to feedback. Listen to loyal donors, staff, and leadership for suggestions and prepare to pivot multiple times if a plan isn’t working. 

This might mean listening to things that are hard to hear—especially when plans have been laid down and you want to execute them. This is a period where it’s hard to know what will come next, so developing a willingness to quickly switch gears is going to be essential to the survival of your organization.



In a recent report by the Better Business Bureau, 80.5% of charities anticipated that their 2020 revenue would be lower than expected. However, the outlook from donors was positive with (30.8%) saying they planned to give more to charities in 2020 (as compared to their average annual giving in the past three years). These rates were even higher among Millennials and Gen Z participants surveyed. So while things may change, hope is not lost. 

Try to position your organization for success as best as you can by continuing fundraising in a recession. The current situation might be hard, but economic downturns always turn a corner, and we all will come out of it at some point. Remaining strong during the difficult period is vital.

Do you feel like your nonprofit could use more profound advice or assistance in focusing on the right supporters with the right message? Our free expert-led upgrade lab gives you three weeks of the coaching and toolkit you need to communicate to your donors in uncertain times. Sign up here.