How Essential is a Fundraiser?

by Erica Waasdorp

A few weeks ago, I gave kudos to the post office, printers, mail houses, etc. But what I failed to do was give kudos to fundraisers. I recently spoke with John Jeffries, the founder of the New Canvassing Experience, a face-to-face fundraising agency focused on helping nonprofits find more monthly donors.

We discussed how essential or non-essential fundraising really is (or seems to be). Here’s my take: All fundraisers are essential. Let me explain why.

One of the most common discussions heard in the past few months is that of the difference between essential workers and non-essential workers. It all seemed to come down to what was essential for daily living: groceries. mail, deliveries, landscaping, liquor, coffee, food, pharmacies, home improvement, banks, Zoom.

Next up were those nonprofits that were providing immediate on-the-ground services to COVID-19 patients or those at risk. Food pantries, food delivery nonprofits, disaster-focused nonprofits, hospitals and health centers saw their services were in much higher demand than before.

Then there were some nonprofits that saw increases you’d not typically think about. For example, animal welfare organizations had to move to foster-based services at first.

With the need for nonprofits spiking to higher levels than ever before, you’d expect the need for funds to increase, right?

That’s why what I saw happen next is so very disturbing: One of the first things many nonprofits did was lay off their fundraisers.

I’ve heard of hospitals where dozens of people were furloughed and then let go right in the first few weeks after the shutdowns. A friend of mine was one of them. A huge hospital system let go of their fundraisers first.

I’ve heard so many nonprofits stop all fundraising. No asks. Nothing. Dead silence. They clearly saw fundraisers as non-essential workers. Many of those organizations may now have to look at merging with other organizations, or they may not survive. They cut off their lifeline.

I get it: People panicked.

Smart organizations changed their fundraising. They increased their digital approaches. They added the phone. They continued with their direct mail appeals or added more. They approached funders for special support. They started asking for more monthly gifts because they saw how much money was coming in from the monthly donors they had.

But fundraisers depending upon face-to-face asks suffered. Let me clarify the two types of face-to-face fundraisers:

  1. Major gift officers are mostly face-to-face, aimed at big gifts. Many were let go, even if they were close to finally asking the donor for the big gift.
  2. Face-face fundraisers are typically called canvassers, street or door fundraisers. They’re aimed at generating monthly gifts from new donors. People weren’t going out and with social distancing, this type of fundraising stopped.

Several face-to-face agencies quickly started offering phone calls instead which worked for many. Some organizations moved their face-to-face budget to television or digital approaches. Everybody knew this was going to be temporary, simply because face-to-face generates a huge influx of new monthly donors who will stay with organizations longer than one-time givers.

So when the country started opening up in May, the hope was that face-to-face fundraisers could get back on the streets soon, abiding by all the same rules you’d expect from other companies that allowed people to come in.

Just think: The number of possible donors they’d be able to approach while standing in front of Walmart or Home Depot would be amazing.

Some face-to-face agencies became very creative. One provided six-feet red carpets to their fundraisers, so they could have conversations with prospective donors that way. Others used clear masks like I’ve seen waiters and waitresses use, so you could see the fundraisers’ faces.

Contactless payments were already common before, but now everything was contactless.

With all of this, just a few organizations have been daring enough to try face-to-face again in the past few months. Because they know how essential these fundraisers are for their livelihood, but more importantly, for the livelihood of the people or animals they serve. All done following the rules. And the numbers don’t lie! They’re raising more funds because of it! Because the universal rule is that donors want to help when asked.

But for other organizations, fundraisers are still not considered essential workers until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. Fundraisers may never be able to go back to asking for those crucial monthly gifts.

If I look at my own role as a fundraising consultant, helping organizations get their mail out and ask for monthly gifts, I’ve never felt more essential than ever before! And fortunately, most of my clients saw this, and together, we’ve been extremely successful.

And if you were to ask me: Why am I fundraising, and why am I essential? It’s because without me, the nonprofit doesn’t raise the funds they need to keep going, to keep helping the people, animals they serve.

Let me finish with this analogy: Fundraisers are like captains of a ship. They should be the last to leave because they can help you and your nonprofit weather the storm, no matter when or where it comes from.

How do you feel as a fundraiser? How does your organization think about fundraisers? Are they essential or non-essential? What can we collectively do to change that? We could face future pandemics, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and other disasters, so the more we can put in place now, the better off we, as a fundraising community, are in the long run.