Campaigning During A Crisis: How to Adjust and Plan

Campaigning During A Crisis: How to Adjust and Plan

June 25, 2020 by Dan Schipp

The nonprofit world, just like the world in general, has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing crises over the economy and race relations in the US. All of us involved in philanthropy are working to determine our course in the choppy and unchartered waters.campaigning during a crisis

Recently JGA sponsored a webinar aimed at casting a guiding light on moving forward with a fundraising campaign in the midst of these challenges. The webinar, Campaigns and COVID-19: What the Pandemic Means for Your Campaign, brought the perspective of four guests representing organizations at different stages of campaigns: planning; leadership gifts/quiet phase; major gifts/public phase; and campaign closure.

Stage 1: Planning

If there is a “best” campaign stage to be in during these challenging times, this is probably it. The first thing to be done during the planning period is to create a strategic plan and define the role that philanthropy (a campaign) will play in funding it. In light of the current crises, your plan, of course, must consider the lessons learned and impact of these events on your organization in the future so you can set your vision accordingly. As Gail Lowry, chief philanthropic officer of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana noted, having a recently completed strategic planning process helped Gleaners to be more nimble when COVID-19 tripled the demand for its services and better positioned Gleaners to demonstrate how efficiently it could respond to urgent needs.

Having set your organization’s future direction and adjusted it if needed to encompass the changing realities of today, the next step is to test your plans with potential donors. The campaign feasibility study is a means to see how well your vision resonates with those stakeholders who will need to play a lead role in bringing it to fruition. It is an important step that should not be overlooked in light of difficulties created by the current crises. Look for new ways to connect with stakeholders to get their input, including conducting feasibility studies via phone or videoconference if needed to maintain social distancing requirements. You can also explore the possibility of conducting electronic surveys to gauge the reaction of a broader section of your constituents who may comprise the upper or middle portion of your gift table.

Another key piece put in place in the planning stage is the campaign timeline. As this crisis has reminded us, the timeline, while projecting key steps and milestones along the way, must be flexible. But a timeline – a road map – is essential. “Having a timeline and sticking to it has been extremely helpful and extraordinarily critical,” added Lowry.


Stage 2: Leadership Gifts/Quiet Phase

For organizations in the pacesetting, lead gifts phase of a campaign, do not assume that all prospective donor conversations must come to a halt due to the ongoing crises. Donors are still making generous gift commitments despite today’s uncertainty. In fact, Kelly Teller, director of development at Park Tudor School, shared that they have received a seven-figure, campaign leadership gift since the crisis began.

Now is the time to follow up on pending campaign solicitations. Reach out to those with whom you have started conversations about lead gifts and ask them how they would like to proceed. Do not presume they want to step back. “By continuing our weekly meetings with school leadership and gift officers and reaching out to leadership donors,” explained Teller, “we were able to keep our campaign top of mind and tell the story of how what we do impacts this changed world.”

It is also important during this time to approach those prospective donors who are among the “inner guard” of your stakeholders – board members, campaign volunteers, and others who have shown a real passion for your organization’s mission. Divide this list into two groups: 1) those who have the closest relationship with your organization and who would likely be open to a gift conversation in a virtual setting; and 2) those who will have to wait until you can meet in-person (but do not neglect to continue to cultivate them).

Most importantly, communicate! Continue to hold campaign meetings virtually. Keep lead donors and prospective leadership givers apprised of how COVID-19 is impacting your organization, how you are carrying out your mission in new and different ways, and the impact of all of this on your campaign.


Stage 3: Major Gifts/Public Phase

If your organization is in this stage of a campaign during a crisis, your focus will need to be on cultivating prospects and strengthening your prospect pipeline. This may be a difficult time to solicit gifts from prospects who may not be well-connected to your organization, but it is still a good time to cultivate these relationships. And it is also a good time for discovery phone calls and outreach via email and texts.

Joe Klen, associate dean for advancement at Wabash College, explained that during the last few months phone calls seem to be getting a higher response rate and this type of donor outreach was working better in this environment than prior to the pandemic.

If you are in a comprehensive campaign, you may want to concentrate on promoting giving to the annual fund. For Wabash, which is in the third year of a $225 million campaign, a lot of time and effort the past several months has centered on annual giving. “We’ve been focusing on those individuals who have not yet renewed or who have decreased their annual gift, encouraging them to consider becoming monthly donors,” said Klen. “We’ve also planned and carried out our most successful Day of Giving ever (6,000 gifts totaling $1.2 million) with a push for our student response fund as a way to have the greatest impact on those we serve during this crisis.”

If you are in the major gifts/public stage of a campaign during a crisis, creativity and flexibility in working with potential donors are essential. Look at new and different ways for communication and cultivation, embracing virtual communication tools where possible. Flexibility in offering longer and uneven pledge periods may also be needed, for example. It is also fundamental to reassess your campaign timeline and determine key dates and benchmarks for making adjustments to your plans and timetable.


Stage 4: Closure

If you are nearing the endpoint of your campaign, you have several options to consider:

  • stay the course through the remaining months of the campaign if you have not yet reached your financial goal;
  • extend the timeframe for the campaign in order to allow more time to reach your financial goal;
  • increase the goal and extend the timeline for your campaign in light of new needs emerging from the crisis; or
  • bring the campaign to closure whether or not you have met your goal.

These scenarios must be thoroughly vetted by your organizational leadership, campaign cabinet, and board before a decision is made.

For some organizations, the impact of COVID-19 on operations has been so great that it has demanded immediate attention on the “here and now.” Such was the case for the Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT) which in the last months of its “Front and Center” campaign had to cancel the last third of its performance season resulting in a substantial loss of operating revenue. Fortunately, the IRT, at that point, had met its $18.5 million goal and was on its way to surpassing it with the aid of a $1 million challenge gift. Jennifer Turner, director of development for the IRT, explained, “Even though we still had several more potential donors to approach in the closing months of the campaign, we chose instead to focus our attention on the pressing current situation and bring the campaign to an efficient and effective conclusion with $20 million raised.”

While it was a bittersweet way for the IRT to conclude its campaign, the conclusion still warrants appropriate celebration. Turner explained the celebration would be celebrated more quietly at the present moment, but with a more robust celebration to come.


While the four campaigns highlighted were all in different stages of their campaigns, they were all impacted by the tumultuous environment we see ourselves in currently. Woven throughout their responses to this tumult was an ability to adapt and a dedication to continuing to see their vision for their missions to fruition.