This episode continues our series in looking back at how fundraisers shifted in the wake of COVID-19 in 2020. Daniel Ross, Director, Technology Solutions at Pursuant, sat down with Amy Sexton, CFRE, Senior Director of Resource Development Clubs, at Boys & Girls Clubs of America, to share how her organization leveraged virtual events to raise major gifts, stewarded corporate giving, and more.
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The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing our industry in 2021?
One of the most significant areas is going to be growth. Many organizations are looking at sustainability and what it looks like across each organization we serve.
We had a great year in 2020, thanks to the generosity of our donors, foundations, and all the other corporate sponsors and business lines that support us. Everyone rallied around COVID and overcoming the challenges created by the shutdown.
The biggest obstacle for 2021 will be figuring out how to sustain that level of fundraising without relying on the tragedy of COVID to motivate people to give.
Are there new strategies that you’re testing or that you would like to try as you’re shifting?
Our organization was very hands-on with face-to-face fundraising, but now we’re finding that we can raise a significant amount of dollars virtually. So we’re finding that travel budgets don’t need to be as large. Certain things don’t necessarily need to be in place to raise some of these more considerable dollars.
Of course, we’ll go back to traditional events and things like that, but we’re looking at new and innovative ways to raise money. One of those areas is virtual events.
We will see a little more emphasis on virtual, at least for the next year, before we start to go back to face-to-face visits, face-to-face events, and more populated events in general.
We also see a big emphasis on the smaller group setting: so small group events, more donor-centered activity instead of a sort of mass-market activity.
Did the way you measured your fundraising success change in 2020?
We did see a shift in how we measured fundraising success. We base success on activity, especially major gift activity, and track the number of visits a gift officer completed. We would ask questions like:
“How many folks have you spoken with? How many people have you touched base with? How many stewardship activities, et cetera, et cetera.”
We have transformed from more of a lag indicator to a lead indicator. Now, we focus on the quality of the visit, the conversation, what happened in the conversation, and are shifting to more donor-centered activities.
Were there any new strategies you tried in 2020 that outperformed your expectations?
One of the strategies that we tried was virtual feasibility studies. We weren’t sure initially if studies were going to work at all, and we found that donors were surprisingly open to having conversations. These were stakeholders, donors, and constituents. People in the community were very willing to talk about the future. And we had to make sure that the timing was right. We waited until probably mid Q2, early Q3 before launching any of those. But we had organizations that had to put the brakes on a lot of their campaign activities.
Some restarted, in which case we redid a feasibility study; some paused and started before they had gone into a feasibility study.
As you think about 2021, what does scenario planning look like in your world? Where are you investing in your programs?
Looking at those donors who stepped up and supported us in a significant way this year, we are asking, “what kind of stewardship can we do?”
We are investing in one-on-one relationship building and support.
How are you deciphering who to invest in for retention and stewardship versus approach for an upgraded ask?
We’re consulting the database and looking for donors who have supported us for more than five to seven years.
We’re also looking at the endowment spectrum: donors who have given for more than five years. If there has been significant support in the last year, we’ll prioritize those donors for the first conversations in terms of priority.
On the major donor side, we’re going to leverage a top-down approach from some of the largest gift levels to the smallest. Not to say that one is more important than the other; it’s just what makes sense from a workforce and organizational standpoint.
In which giving channels have you seen a decrease in revenue, and which have you seen an increase?
Many of our larger corporations that support us, like Coca-Cola, Disney, Planet Fitness. Our larger partnerships have taken off in the wake of COVID.
The one line item that has stayed strong through and through and has grown exponentially is individual giving. It’s funny, on the Boys & Girls Clubs of America side, that line item is not as strong as we would like it to be, but I know our team is working hard on that. But at the individual club level, we have many organizations that are doing very well from a fundraising standpoint.
What are your favorite tools that you leveraged to excel in your role?
Any tool that is donor-centric around stewardship. I preach to organizations and constituents about how important it is to be donor-centered, understand the donors, placing the donors’ wants and needs above the organization, and then use your stewardship wisely.
One of my favorite things is I like to ask organizations is what kind of stewardship they have in place now and how they can enhance it without struggling too much on their budget line. Are there additional things that they could do, like special thank you notes from board members or from a CEO? A thank you note from the development director, birthday cards, anniversary cards — things like that.
If a donor is particularly interested in art, could we send them some unique art that some of our youth make in some of our art programs? It’s about tailoring stewardship to what will speak most to the donor and scaling that up.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add to the conversation?
Like good pasta, throw it to the wall and see what sticks. You need to have a healthy testing process. Organizations that are flexible and test new things will be the ones that come out on top.