My last trip to see a client onsite was February 28, 2020.  After I flew home, a friend who is a virologist gave me some masks, wipes, and advice to buy three weeks of groceries “just in case.”  So I did.  (If he’d told me to buy toilet paper, I’d have said he was a total genius.)

And here we are, still on Zoom, 2 years later.  And as I’ve reflected on all that’s happened, I’ve compiled some lessons learned and observations that I hope will be useful.

Lesson #1 – Relationships always matter. 

I’ve been in fundraising a long time.  I’ve seen many economic crashes, and all kinds of things.  Even though this situation was genuinely unprecedented, the core tenet is the same. What I’ve found is that when an economic or organizational crisis of any kind strikes, the organizations that continue to reach out and stay in touch with supporters fare far better than those that panic and withdraw.  That trend continued in this crisis as well.  Those clients that made a clearly articulated case for needs and demonstrated how they were meeting the moment often saw additional gifts, exceptional gifts, or in the case of organizations like food banks, an unprecedented level of new supporters.

And those that did a great job of calling and thanking those new or increased supporters have seen improved donor retention rates too—the extra effort was noticed, particularly at a time when not everyone was making that effort.

Lesson #2 – Meet people where they are.  And where they are keeps changing.

Early on, getting meetings with donors over the phone or by Zoom was actually pretty easy—people were going stir-crazy and craving conversation with someone other than their household.  Often conversations would get pretty deep pretty quickly as people were processing their thoughts about values and meaning of life.

Now, donors are all over the map with their interest in meeting—some want to meet in person, some wish to but have family limitations, others don’t want to meet at all.   This can mean that the largest gifts, which make up the bulk of our fundraising results in any given year, may take longer to be realized than they used to.  So our frontline fundraisers are having to adapt, and it’s not always straightforward.

Early on, programs that were poised to create virtual engagement were able to build bonds and connections with many new supporters and often had more people attending virtual events than they ever had with in-person programming.  Today, we’re all getting Zoomed out, and it’s not unusual to see that half those who register for a Zoom event actually show up.  So programming has to be really compelling to get attention.

Lesson #3 – The great resignation has hit our field, too.

Just as described in many fields, we are seeing advancement teams struggling to find qualified people and burning out those who remain to cover the vacancies.  Turnover is happening, as it sadly tends to in our field, but now more of it is related to rigidity about working from home.  We cannot expect that employees will want to spend 40-60 hours a week in the office anymore, particularly if they 1) are women, 2) are under the age of 40, and 3) have kids.  Everyone knows now that it is possible to work from home at least part of the time and still get a quality job done.

Being a worthy cause is no longer enough to keep people.  Which leads me to….

Lesson #4 – The past is gone.

I had a client say to me, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal,” and I had to say—”I need you to accept that things will never be like they used to be and prepare to be a leader for this new world.”

The hard truth is we need to manage differently now—with a focus on outcomes and values, not on presence as a proof of commitment.   And in the same way that our donors are all over the place with their preferences and needs for connecting in person, so are our staff.  Our Human Resources staff have been in reactive mode for two years now, and there’s a big disconnect between HR policies and this new culture. That said, new policies need to happen in response to the new world if we want to attract and retain the best talent.

Lesson #5 – People still want to make the world a better place.

A few weeks ago, I got a direct mail piece with a teaser printed on the outer envelope that said, “Feeling down about the state of the world?  Read what’s inside…” and I opened it.  Why?  Because fundamentally people give because they want to help and make things better.

Good fundraising has never been about instant gratification or immediate results.  It’s always been about consistent and persistent focus on engaging the people who support our cause. That will never change.

Our job is to adapt, encourage, and recognize those who join our cause, and celebrate them.  If we continue to do that, continued success is possible.