How Fundraisers are Going to Sustain Nonprofits Through this Crisis

I don’t know exactly why I feel so compelled lately to act as a cheerleader for the nonprofit administrator. Maybe it’s because the nonprofit sector is S&W’s bread and butter (and my gainful employment, my Moscow Mules and Peanut M&Ms #Covidsnacks). And maybe it’s because I was on the other side of the desk for 17 years before the move into consulting, overseeing development operations, as a frontline fundraiser and in the role of chief development officer. I was even laid off as the result of the 2008 recession. I know just how challenging it is to be in the trenches, faced with meeting a dollar goal essential to your organization’s survival, even in the best of times. The year 2020 has inspired many a new verse in my Ode to the Fundraiser ballad.

With the reliance most nonprofits have on philanthropic support, I truly believe it’s our chief development officers and their teams who will be key to the recovery, the long-term sustainability and the vitality of these much-impacted organizations.

Yesterday, in yet another Zoom meeting, deep in conversation with the founders of a local organization about what the months to come will look like and what it will take to get fully up and running, one of the founders asked if we had heard the story of concert pianist Maria João Pires at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1998. None of us had.

The story goes something like this: Maria was invited to play Mozart’s piano concerto No. 20 during a lunchtime concert. Given the relaxed nature of this performance, there was no dress rehearsal. As the concert began, Maria realized she had prepared Mozart’s piano concerto No. 21; she had written down the wrong concerto and had just two-and-a-half minutes to deal with this realization before her solo. She immediately got the conductor’s attention to let him know she hadn’t prepared the correct piece and didn’t have the correct concerto notes with her. He, however, continued conducting the orchestra, telling Maria he was sure she would do just fine. And, more or less, she did.

It’s true that this feat might not have been as difficult as it seems for a seasoned pianist who had performed the piece in the past. Personally, I would have still experienced panicked paralysis upon realizing that I was unprepared and at risk of public humiliation. If you’ve recently found yourself in the spotlight without a script—suddenly and not by choice “playing it by ear”—I’m sure you know what I mean.

Here, in Week 9 of This Quarantine Life, the biggest question for nonprofits is: How will we recover from this? I say, it’s simple: by tapping into your development team.

Development professionals are digging deep down into all they know about what works in fundraising to face the all-new challenges of this all-new time. In essence, they’ve signed up to perform a concert solo only to realize they’ve practiced the wrong piece. And yes, many have been caught like a deer in headlights at the beginning of this unprecedented situation, but they are rebounding because the tools they have collected over the years are somewhere inside of them, ready to be applied.

At S&W, we’ve had a front-row seat to these improvised piano solos and see what they can illustrate for leadership and boards who may need to find ways to extract the very best from their development teams. Like in the case of Maria and the Concertgebouw Orkest Amsterdam, these leaders simply need to believe in their master fundraisers and their ability to move things in the right direction. They have to tell them they’ll do just fine.

This is a time of anxiety and sleepless nights. It’s a time when a group of heroes not usually recognized as such are going to make all the difference. Yes, it’s time for the fundraisers to take center stage. Of course, some may hit a wrong note or two, but my bet is that when we make it through the worst of this challenge, their performance will receive a standing ovation. It’s certainly the ending I’m cheering for.

Philanthropic people will always invest in a mission that matters, if that mission is powerfully communicated. Fundraisers will always find success when they know their donors well, tailor their approach carefully and steward these critical investments. Organizational transparency and professionalism will always earn support.