(October 8, 2020) When the pandemic first hit in mid March and everyone was sent home, Juniper Locilento, Chief Development and Communications Officer at Community Food Centres Canada, was expecting things to slow down, that raising money during COVID would be slow.
“I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to get caught up on all those projects our team just never had time for,” she says.
Instead, it turned out to be one of the busiest fundraising periods in the organization’s history. In an extremely short period of time, CFCC , a national charity that works with organizations in low-income communities to build health, belonging, and social justice through the power of food, was catching up with an outpouring of nationwide generosity.
At Assaulted Women’s Helpline, a 24-hour telephone and TTY crisis line for women experiencing abuse, Manager of Resource Development Yvonne Harding was sharing a similar experience. Cheques were arriving in the mail unsolicited, and she was fielding phone calls from people eager to support AWHL.
Much has been written about the devastating effect of the Covid 19 pandemic on charities in Canada around the world. But some organizations, particularly those providing direct services like CFCC and AWHL, experienced a remarkable surge in support.
CFCC and AWH have several commonalities that in large part drove their fundraising successes: the nature of their causes—access to food and support for women experiencing abuse—are urgent, basic human needs that resonate with the vast majority of the population.
Both saw a huge surge in need as the pandemic hit.
The number of people in Canada experiencing food insecurity, meaning they lacked the financial resources to access an adequately nutritious diet, jumped by 39% as layoffs and closures spread across the country in the pandemic’s wake.
Similarly, AWHL was overwhelmed with the number of calls coming from women desperate to get out of abusive situations and seeking shelter. The lockdown became the perfect situation for abusers: women were trapped at home with no witnesses and no way to leave.
According to Harding, in an average year, AWHL receives 4,000 calls a month, a number that’s steadily risen to 8,000 calls a month.
The dramatic increase in the need for emergency food and rising levels of violence against women during the lockdown made headlines nationwide that served as a well-publicized case for support.
Both Locilento and Harding are quick to point out that much of the increased support they received during the early days of the pandemic was almost entirely responsive: a surge of generosity in the face of growing community needs.
Still, their takeaways are relevant for all charities navigating these unchartered fundraising waters.
- Double down on digital. Like many charities, both CFCC and AWHL stepped up their digital games. Until recently, CFCC had been primarily focused on major gifts, but the pandemic pushed them over the digital divide. “We conceived of and launched our Good Food Access Fund in less than 24 hours,” said Locilento. Under less pressing circumstances, an integrated campaign might take weeks or even months to get off the ground.
AWHL also increased its digital activity, sharing videos and making better use of social media. “We don’t want to bombard people, but they genuinely seem to want to know what the need is and how we’re responding,” says Harding.
- Now’s the time to experiment. Doing things differently is the prevailing social zeitgeist – and fundraising is no exception.
“It can be so easy to overthink, but the things we have done over and over again that worked can’t be done right now. So, we might as well experiment and be willing to make a few mistakes. It doesn’t necessarily feel like there’s a right way to do things anymore, so now’s the time to experiment,” says Harding.
Assaulted Women’s Helpline delved into new ways of finding supporters, taking advantage of Canada Helps’ platform supporting organizations that work with at-risk communities, and accessing Imagine Canada’s database of foundations providing emergency COVID funds.
Locilento too says CFCC seized the opportunity to try new things, including significantly more reporting back about the situation on the ground, and the pandemic’s effect on family, staff, and volunteers. They held their first ever virtual town hall to report back to donors and were nimble about its execution. “We didn’t agonize over the guest list, so we had long-time major supporters on the same call as those who’d just made a first gift through Facebook.”
- Stewardship is more important than ever. Although CFCC and AWHL have gained the support of new donors, Harding and Locilento share the view that raising money during COVID means staying focused on stewarding existing donors, particularly at the corporate level.
“We’ve had a few pleasant surprises with new corporations reaching out, says Harding. “But our focus is on deepening our existing relationships rather than proactively seeking new corporate supporters.”
Raising money during COVID means communicating the need and demonstrating donor impact is crucial, says Locilento. “The sums raised so far have been amazing, but a big measure of our success will be the extent to which we can keep these folks with us, while helping them to understand that food charity isn’t a long-term solution for food insecurity.”
- Work with your corporate supporters to find alternatives. Like many organizations, CFCC and AWHL raise significant funds through fundraising events, and attendant corporate sponsorship. “If there is a silver lining, it’s that we’re having more conversations directly with our corporate supporters and finding out how we can work together to recognize their support if we can’t have our gala.”
Assaulted Women’s Helpline made a decision early on that a virtual gala to replace their usual live event wouldn’t work for them, and after conversations with the scheduled guest speaker and the presenting sponsor, opted to develop a video campaign instead.
“It’s also our 35th anniversary, and the campaign highlights the people behind the crisis line – what’s it like for the supporters and people who use the service, and some of the changes that have happened over the years.”
It was an initiative the presenting sponsor of the gala jumped at supporting.
CFCC too found that their corporate supporters approached their support with flexibility, imagination and a true spirit of philanthropy.
“In talking to corporate supporters, their desire to do good came across loud and clear,” says Locilento. “The corporations we spoke to demonstrated a real desire to step up and provide opportunities for employees to step up too by including employee giving or matching components. Usually there’s a negotiation, but not this time. There was an understanding of the need to move as quickly as possible.”
“These matching campaigns provided a powerful incentive to give, especially on our digital channels,” says Locilento.
- Don’t shy away from fundraising. Raising money during COVID, in extraordinary times like these, it’s easy for volunteers and staff to feel that fundraising efforts may be perceived as tone deaf or misplaced, unless it’s directly connected to the pandemic response. But Locilento cautions that not fundraising is risky too. “Even during the best of times there are people who don’t like fundraising and find reasons not to.” Locilento was part of a research project by fundraising think thankRogare, which recently released a report compiling common objections to fundraising during the pandemic and counter arguments to help fundraisers make their case.
Harding saw this reluctance play out first-hand during a recent 5K charity run for their organization. “Some of our peer- to- peer fundraisers were reluctant about asking and others were really surprised that simply putting it out there to make their choice.” Her advice: raising money during COVID means letting people know what the need is and let them decide whether to give, and in what amount.
- Celebrate your team. “Our team has been working incredibly hard every day,” says Locilento. “Everyone is dealing with increased stress levels at home, caring for children and other loved ones, and with feeling anxious about the future. And yet they continue to step forward in a big way.”