Fund Raising in a Recession

By: Jeffrey A. Schoenherr

As I travel from coast to coast on the path that all development road warriors hate (well, at least this one does) it gives me time to reflect on something that has been the single biggest issue that has consumed people in our business for the past six months: the economy.

If I don’t hear about that topic from my colleagues and the staff members I manage every day, then it is undoubtedly the opening line of each donor I visit. “What are we going to do — the stock market is down another 500 points” or “Gee, it must be very difficult to ask for money right now.”

Well, actually, it is. But that’s why we should be out there in front of our supporters, now more than ever. I’m calling it our “mission possible.”

Think about this: Two intelligent and politically savvy men just fought off more than a dozen rivals to compete in a terrifically hard-fought battle to become the leader of our country. And for what? The magnanimous opportunity to lead us through a seemingly impossible task of difficult times — a tanking economy, high unemployment, two military conflicts, and a rising federal deficit.

Most people would have said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” However, those two men saw the possibility to lead and the potential to make things better, so they rose to the challenge. Now it’s up to us as fund-raising professionals to embrace these economically difficult times, to see them as an opportunity, and to get out there in front of our donors with more enthusiasm than ever for our respective causes.

I admit that one afternoon not so long ago, I was nearly sucked into the “sky is falling” mentality. As my staff and I watched the stock market plunge for the third straight day (I think we were down nearly 1,200 points for the week at that point), I made the mistake of noting out loud, “Well, this isn’t going to make the last two months of our fund-raising campaign any easier.”

Immediately, I noticed the defeated look on their faces and the hesitation in everyone’s eyes. From that point forward I decided that I would take a positive view of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and focus on what we can do now to prepare for the better times that must lie ahead.

About a week later, I began to notice that other people in the world of university development were doing the same. I began to receive letters and e-mail messages from fund-raising consultants and leaders touting the need to “stay the course” in our mission to secure money for our worthy causes.

Several of the letters and messages mentioned the fact that, since 1966, the United States has been through approximately 11 years that qualified as “recessionary.” However, during that same time period, giving has increased by more than $275-billion (current dollars and before inflation adjustment). That is a huge increase and proves that Americans continue their generosity and bounce back quickly from hard times.

I mentioned that statistic to members of my staff, and their attitude grew more hopeful. We began to focus on what we could do, now, to steward our relationships with our donors. It may sound counterintuitive, but now is the time to travel to your best donors and talk about their philanthropic goals. That proves that you are not only on their side during the good times, but also there to dream with them during the bad.

Let me share an example of that approach. Here at Johns Hopkins, we recently completed a successful campaign to raise $3.5-billion. But shortly before that campaign concluded, one of my colleagues sat with a donor who noted that she would certainly like to support our institution with a large scholarship gift. However, she said, because of the recent economic downturn, her investment portfolio was no longer in any shape to make such a gift.

My colleague, ever the good development professional, began a conversation with the donor about what she would like to give in the future, when times are better. Our donor was so pleased and excited to have the conversation that she told us she was ready to make the commitment when her investments bounce back. Mission possible.

That’s the kind of conversation you have to have with each of your potential donors. You have to make sure a strong relationship exists for when the economy improves. Help your donors visualize their future goals for giving and you’ll turn “I’m not in a position to give at the moment” into “I’ll be ready to give in six months.”

Now is certainly not the time to be scaling back our outreach and stewardship functions. It’s up to us as development professionals to lay the groundwork for the future. History shows us the economy will improve, and when it does, we must be prepared.

I didn’t begin my first column for The Chronicle with the intent to write a pep talk, but that’s what this is. The most successful development shops will “stay the course,” continue to visit their donors, and make a successful case for support — if not now, then in the future. Of course, the case you make may need some modification of its message and a bit of patience with the donor, but in the end, American philanthropy will continue to thrive. Be sure your shop stands ready.

Jeff Schoenherr is director of the regional and international major-gifts program at the Johns Hopkins Institutions, which just completed its “Knowledge for the World Campaign” and raised more than $3.5-billion. He will write regularly for The Chronicle’s Careers section about career issues in college fund raising and development.

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