Optimism, communication, and leadership: Fundraising during COVID-19

Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Fundraising during a global pandemic is not an easy task. How can fundraisers stay optimistic, yet realistic, during this time? How can they properly communicate and steward donors? How can fundraisers be leaders?

So, we asked the experts about these topics. See what they have to say below.

Optimism – how do we stay optimistic and keep our donors optimistic about our mission?

Dr. Gene Tempel, dean emeritus of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and president emeritus of the IU Foundation, believes that it is important for nonprofits to focus on the possibilities that arise now, but also to be open and honest with themselves and with their donors.

Dr. Gene Tempel
Dr. Gene Tempel

“Our mission and our work can enable us to survive difficult times,” he said. “They call us out to be our best selves, and use our actions to create a better world.”

Tempel pointed out that the philanthropic sector provides hope, stability, and optimism: “We persevere through time times and challenges. It will get harder, but it will give us the chance to find a new path forward and succeed.”

Dr. Tim Seiler, Rosso Fellow in Philanthropic Fundraising, also mentioned that good news exists during these tough times.

Dr. Tim Seiler
Dr. Tim Seiler

“We’ve seen philanthropic responses from people such as the Indianapolis Colts owner, who provided a matching gift to Indiana’s Gleaners Food Bank, to the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, who donated thousands packages of cookies to encourage blood donations,” Seiler explained.

“People look for hope and stability at this time. So while these are tough times, it’s important to continue on, make the case for your organization, and illustrate how it continues to provide value and hope for its clients or beneficiaries.”

Bill Stanczykiewicz
Bill Stanczykiewicz

Director of The Fund Raising School Bill Stanczykiewicz added that there is no playbook for this pandemic:

“We haven’t experienced anything like this pandemic before, so it gives nonprofits the opportunity and challenge to use their knowledge and expertise to craft their own playbook.”

Communication/Stewardship – what do we tell our donor/how do we ask for money?

Tempel says that nonprofits should act as the “Explainer in Chief.”

“First, ask your donors, potential donors, and beneficiaries about how they’re doing. Maintain frequent, open communication with them, but tailor that communication (i.e. segment your donor list) as much as possible to different types of constituencies.”

Seiler also encourages nonprofits to make the case for why the organization’s work is still relevant and benefits their beneficiaries and the community.

“If your mission was valid last month, it’s still valid today. Invite donors to continue to be a part of the impact that you’re making in the community,” he said.

As for techniques to use, Seiler recommends direct mail and e-fundraising.

“Direct mail offers direct contact for people at home with the outside world. It gives you the chance to thank donors and tell your story in a compelling way by keeping them informed of who you are, what you’re doing, why it’s important to the community, and why it might be important for them.

“In addition, maximize your e-fundraising opportunities. Personalize communication, host virtual get-togethers, and use Zoom or other video conferencing resources as tools to help you communicate with your stakeholders.

“During this time, people are going to be online more and checking their mailbox more. Use those opportunities to also conduct proper stewardship: thank your donors, deepen your relationship with them, empathize with them, and invite them to take part in your organization as you continue to accomplish your goals and serve the community.”

Tempel also encourages nonprofits to be empathetic.

“Reach out to your donors and other stakeholders. See how people are doing and how they’re feeling. Act proactively, but also know that people are going to respond to this crisis in different ways,” he said.


How can nonprofits act as leaders during this time? Tempel discussed multiple ways that nonprofits can act strong community leaders.

Focus on values.

“Affirm your values, and affirm your case to your stakeholders and your great community.”

Focus on managing and on serving as a symbol.

“Know how to get to the point in the future that you want to be at. In other words, know your finances, know what can and can’t be accomplished, and craft scenarios to be prepared for various situations. Be prepared to craft good explanations of those issues for your constituents as well. ”

Learn and know about philanthropy research and trends.

Tempel also encourages fundraisers to know and understand the history and trends of philanthropy during downturns.

“Develop trend lines and answers to questions. Know what to look for in the field. Look up research and realize that sometimes you’re going to have to make tough decisions.”

Gain consensus and build collaboration.

“Listen carefully to your staff, board, and volunteers. Ask everyone at table to express their opinions, letting people express contrary views or challenge the ideas that you put forward.

“Remember that even the most naïve ideas may have kernels of wisdom. Use those, and be able to explain your final decisions to your donors.”

Use this difficult time to assess your mission, vision, and values.

Tempel cites the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost as a tool for organizations to start anew.

“What kind of organization do you want to be after this? Take this time to step back, reflect, and take the first steps in building an organizational analysis and assessing your strategic plan. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses, and then decide where you need to make adjustments moving forward.”


To learn more, go to https://blog.philanthropy.iupui.edu/2020/04/22/optimism-communication-and-leadership-fundraising-during-covid-19/

  • : Lilly Family School of Philanthropy