Messaging + Storytelling

How nonprofits should approach fundraising and donor communications during the Coronavirus pandemic and financial crisis

First and foremost, this isn’t business as usual. Many for-profit marketers and fundraising “experts” might try to convince you that this is a great time to be ramping up fundraising activities to capitalize on the crisis. It’s not. It’s not even close to the right time. But, that doesn’t mean you should halt all your donor relations activities either. (Note: Unless your nonprofit organization has a restricted fund and is funding and/or doing work directly related to the Coronavirus pandemic. See details below.)

Here are some basic guidelines to help your nonprofit navigate through these uncharted waters:

Be accountable and transparent

Let your donors know what’s going on in the organization. Your donors care about your mission, but they also care about the people behind the mission. How are you addressing the Coronavirus within your workplace? Don’t forget to keep donors in the loop, especially in regard to how to contact staff, especially if you’re working remotely or if it may take longer to process donations or respond to messages.

Reorganize and plan for a new “normal”

Those plans that you put in place for 2020 probably need to be revised, especially if you had planned in-person fundraising events. You need to consider if the events should be pushed to a later time, canceled altogether or reorganized to something virtual. How can your fundraising plan adapt to the current state of affairs? What new funding priority needs will your organization have now? In reality, with so much unknown, the new plan might just be to scale back and assess as each week and month comes—and that’s okay. Remaining agile and adaptable to changing circumstances is important right now.

Continue fundraising efforts

But proceed with caution. Two things are happening right now—a global pandemic and a financial strain caused by instability in the stock markets and job insecurity. As noted in a recent NonProfit Pro article, organizations that stayed the course after 9/11 and the 2008 recession fared better in the long run than organizations that pulled back and stopped soliciting.

While staying the course is good, it’s also important to reassess the timing of solicitations until calm returns from the immediacy of the pandemic crisis we are experiencing right now. If people are fearing for their health or that of their elderly parents or young children, your email or direct mailer is probably not top on the list of their priorities and therefore it might turn off a donor completely. Unless your nonprofit is an impacted health care nonprofit or directly raising funding to assist with efforts to respond to needs caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, you should think carefully about both timing and messaging when making any direct asks right now. It may be that waiting a few weeks or even turning a spring fundraiser into one in the fall might be a better return on your investment.

Practice good stewardship

Keep talking to your donors. Acknowledge they are going through a hard time too. Not every communication with donors should be a direct ask anyway, and now is the perfect time to put some of those other relationship-building communication skills into practice. We are all in this together and that is one message you want to make sure you get across to your donors. Thank them, check in on them, acknowledge the fear they may be having both health-wise and financially either from being out of work now or a decline in their stock portfolios or both. Think long-term relationship building not just their next donation. Consider also how your organization can be a source of information and support during this time. It might be a time to give back to your donors for all they have done, which will position you better in the long-term.

Deliver uplifting, impactful stories

The news can be downright dreadful right now, but you have an opportunity to bring a smile to a donor’s face with an uplifting story about the impact of your organization and the difference your donors have made for the cause you serve. Receiving hopeful and inspiring messages can actually be a service you can provide to your donors and stakeholders right now. Give them a reason to feel happy while also sharing your organization’s impact. It’s certainly okay to continue to express an ongoing need in these stories and stress how much of an impact your donors have for the organization (without directly asking for a donation). Depending on the mission and current capacity of your organization, you may also consider brainstorming other meaningful ways you can serve your supporters right now.

Be tactful

The last thing you want your nonprofit to be accused of is trying to capitalize on the crisis (remember, perception is what matters not just reality). Consider if or how your organization and your client base might be affected. Your messaging should acknowledge the hard time we are all going through and the uncertainty that people feel. It should also address your nonprofit’s and clients’ needs directly. Showing the impact of how fundraising dollars will be spent and why they are needed at this time is critical. Organizations that support homeless populations, victims’ services, health care, etc. might have real legitimate needs to fund raise right now (and therefore need to send specific appeals). But, if your organization is not directly supporting vulnerable populations at this time other stewardship communications is not only the tactful approach at this time, but will also be better received by your audience.


The Shoestring Agency encourages nonprofit organizations to utilize their state or local nonprofit associations as well as the National Council for Nonprofits for guidance during this unprecedented time.

Here are some other tips articles related to communicating and fundraising during this crisis that meets our agency’s stamp of approval: