Andrew Barton

Jan 27, 2021, 12:00 PM

Fundraising resolutions: coronavirus and beyond

Every time I go to France with my wife, we always end up saying we really should get our French up to scratch before we go next time. Well, in 2021 we’ve made a resolution to do something about it. We are working our way through the “Learn French with Paul Noble” CDs. They are brilliant. I have learned so much in a few hours. So, even if you get nothing else from this article, but you’re interested in learning French, try this course!

After the tough year we’ve had keeping churches and charities afloat, many of us may be feeling too exhausted to resolve to do fundraising differently. Or we feel that any good intentions will soon get swept away in the day-to-day busyness, especially when we’re having to replan to keep up with the changing coronavirus situation.

Fundraising is so critical to your organisation that it does deserve some priority. So, let me offer six actionable fundraising resolutions that could pay dividends in 2021.

1. Keep Fundraising

This may seem obvious but in 2020 some charities were too nervous about asking supporters. Fortune favoured the brave. Quite a few Christian organisations I worked with raised record amounts in their appeals, even though they weren’t coronavirus front-line response organisations. They were sensitive to the fact that coronavirus could be affecting their supporters’ health or incomes. But they also hypothesised that they had a core of supporters whose incomes were unaffected and had more money in their bank accounts because they were spending less. These people turned out to be more than willing to support causes dear to them.

Some boards are sometimes so keen to protect their programmes that they will cut fundraising costs. That is seriously false economy. Fundraising, and relationship building with your supporters, needs constant nurturing. Stop-start approaches will not achieve best results. It also takes time to get a fundraising machine operating at full throttle.

2. Keep in touch

This has never been more important across all fundraising income streams. Many trusts and foundations really stepped up in 2020, making grants that ate into their endowments. Many major donors also stepped up: the Stewardship Rapid Response fund was an excellent example of Christian philanthropy at work. It’s possible that the worsening crisis caused by the new variant of coronavirus may lead to exceptional generosity in 2021. But, thereafter, philanthropists may be more cautious. Many will want to ensure that their core charities are supported and they will be reluctant to take on new ones. How are you going to ensure that your organisation is one of those core charities?

In mainstream individual giving, support held up surprisingly well in 2020. But the longer the pandemic goes on, there will be more supporters who are struggling with their finances and need to cut back their giving. How are you going to ensure that your organisation is one of the core charities they support?

High quality thanking and reporting back is always important, but particularly in this environment. Whatever you do, keep the tone fresh and authentic. Avoid your communication sounding administrative or formulaic. And don’t forget to use virtual events: webinars, virtual coffees etc. Five Talents, a Christian micro-finance charity, has done a brilliant job in this online space.

I’m a Trustee of a small Christian charity, The Streetlight Trust, entirely run by volunteers. We ran our first ever matched-giving Christmas Appeal in 2020 with four of our existing supporters providing the match. We wrote to the people who had normally booked tables at our (cancelled) Christmas Ball. The results were amazing as we raised over £30,000 in total. I spent a Saturday afternoon in January e-mailing around 50 people who had contributed. I had eight replies, almost by return, thanking me for keeping them in touch. I think we nailed it.

Which takes me to the third resolution.

3. Mind your language

Last year I ran a skill-share for a group of Christian charity CEOs. One of the things that they seemed to take out of the conversation was the acronym BOY – Because Of You. Too often, I see charity communication which is all about ‘us’ and ‘we’: it’s organisation-centric.

Charities need to mind their language and genuinely put supporters at the centre. At a very simple level this can be done with expressions like, “Thanks to you, children are now…”

But there’s another level – you could think of this as “Donor Centricity 3.0” – where you speak to the identity of supporters. I think this is especially important for Christian charities because a motivation for giving is to express something of who you are. That might be a moral identity, like being kind and generous. Or it could be a faith identity. So don’t thank someone for their gift, thank them for being generous. Or maybe thank them for their faithful partnership.

4. Think Ahead

I was a hockey player for many years. I remember a particularly stellar season where one guy made the difference to our team. He was never rushed and didn’t seem that quick, but he was always in the right place at the right time. He read the game and had an uncanny knack of knowing what was going to happen next.

Like my former teammate, charity leaders – and certainly fundraisers – have to be one step ahead. It’s especially important to be thinking where supporters are likely to be mentally when your communications land. Just look back over the last year: in March there seemed a sense of togetherness and positivity despite the bad news. But six months on, that had led to a sense of frustration and irritation. Where will people be in three months time?

I am a fan of the somewhat neglected art of scenario planning. When I worked as a corporate planner in the finance sector in the 1990s we certainly made use of it. It helped free up thinking. And I think that’s much needed at the moment.

We don’t know how coronavirus is going to play out from a medical point of view. We certainly can’t be sure of the economic and social impacts. So we need to think about alternative outcomes.

I was doing this with one of my Christian clients, who has a high dependency on a time-limited community fundraising campaign. So, last autumn we started thinking through some scenarios as to how the pandemic might play out in 2021. As a result, I think they will be much better prepared for the worse-than-expected second spike that we are currently experiencing. Are you using scenarios?

5. Think about your fundraising time horizon

Although you need to keep fundraising in all circumstances, your financial position does affect your fundraising time horizon.

I can think of two Christian charities that I know well that are in very different financial positions. One is fortunate in having very healthy reserves. It can plan with a three-year horizon in mind. The other charity could run out of cash in the next financial year. This focuses the mind. There’s no point coming up with a brilliant plan for regular giving acquisition that will be cash negative in year one. They need cash now. The focus must be on two things: submissions to a small core of Trusts and Foundations with whom they have deep relationships; and individual giving appeals, especially with their core middle donors.

What is your current reserves level and when does the cash run out, based on a range of financial projections? The answer is crucial to informing your fundraising priorities. With that understanding in place, you can develop plans looking beyond the annual budget. Remember that there are very different timelines for generating return on investment across income streams. Some activities can be assessed on a one-year timeframe, but others (for example a regular giving or a major donor programme) cannot.

6. Stay positive. Adapt a growth mindset.

Given how long this crisis has gone on for, and how tired many of us have felt, this resolution might take a bit more willpower to keep the faith.

Early on in the crisis, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising released data forecasting dramatic income decline across the sector. It felt a bit like Private Fraser in Dad’s Army: “We’re all doomed.” Whilst not making light of the huge negative impacts on some fundraising streams, there were some positives in 2020 and I’m sure there will be in 2021 (although I don’t underestimate the challenge of managing the change).

Major donors were at home and not flying around the world and it looks like they will still be for a while yet. You can get to talk to them. They aren’t in control and their empathy levels have increased.

Many older Christians are often very active volunteers and yet they are being asked to isolate. They are probably still feeling disempowered. Giving can be a hugely empowering thing for them and they may still be very willing to respond to your asks. 

As we go into another lockdown, many people will again be spending more time at home, watching TV and on all manner of digital devices. Done right, digital fundraising can deliver great results and it can be executed in an agile way. You don’t need to spend a fortune to test and learn, and only then, scale up.

So, despite the pressure, as leaders, adopt a growth mindset: focus on what you have not on what you don’t. Think about different ways that your closest supporters can help you. Never waste a good crisis.

Andrew Barton



Andrew Barton is an Action Planning associate based near Milton Keynes. A freelance fundraising consultant with a particular interest in international development, ecology and mission, he has worked in executive leadership fundraising roles at World Vision, Oxfam and Christian Aid.