Earlier this month (April 2020) I taught four masterclasses on fundraising in time of uncertainty. In one of these a participant asked about donor retention in times of uncertainty. How to keep your donors at a time when you may not be able to do exactly (or at all) what you promised to do and what they intended supporting? Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of any donor. But I think there are some aspects that you might like to keep in mind.

Your donor lives in the real world, too

First of all, do not forget that your donor lives through COVID-19, too. Your contact person. Their boss. Their board or management. They all live in this topsy-turvy world of ours as well. They are hit by the measures in the fight against COVID-19 just like you. Not being able to visit their loved ones due to lockdown. Working from home and feeling uncertain about how effective they can be like that. Just like you.

Your donor may understand!

Because of this, your donor may have a rough understanding of the challenges you may have to deal with. Especially if you had built a close relationship with them before, so that they were well-acquainted with your work and how you approach it. And well-aware of your target group and their specific needs and constraints. So, they may actually be expecting you to be in touch to exchange ideas about how to proceed in this pandemic.

Adjust

As your donor is adjusting to the new reality, they will understand if you need to adjust your approach in this period, too. Make sure that you are very clear about what you need to adjust, how and why. Document it. Be clear how these adjustments impact overall implementation, budget, and achievement of the set goals. Show that you are only adjusting the way how you can implement the activities so that you may still achieve the agreed aims.

This could be for instance when you are transforming your meetings from face-to-face events to online events. Such adjustment may require some extra investments in technology, equipment, expert support in facilitation, etc. At the same time, costs for rent of a venue, coffee and tea breaks, rent of a projector, etc. might be reduced. The overall goal of hosting an exchange of ideas and opinions remains intact. If this is the case, and if you document it well, most donors would not object in my experience.

Put on hold

It is possible that you are wholly unable to implement the planned activities and cannot work toward the set goals with another approach. In this case, you may ask your donor to put the grant on hold, to pause it as it were, until such moment when you might again be able to implement. All donor contracts allow for force majeure, unforeseeable circumstances, as a reason to suspend the contract and its implementation.

The downside of this is that your target group is not served in the meantime. And that you may not be able to use the grant funds to cover operational costs (which you may not be able to stop) during the pausing of the project activities. This way, pausing might destabilize your organization and endanger your future operations. If you are not able to cover ongoing running costs during this pause, and if you see a reasonable risk to your future operations as a result, discuss this openly with your donor. Perhaps they have suggestions for action you might take. Or they might be able to allow you to use some of their funding for this end. They can only allow you to do so, if they are fully aware of the situation and the risks. This means you will have to be very open about your whole financial picture and prospects. And you must share your analysis why you feel you cannot be operational in this period and serve your target group.

Shift

However, maybe you see new needs appear that are closely related to the scope of the project. Maybe your original goals are less urgent for your target group at the moment compared to these new needs that appear. In that case, you might discuss with your donor if it is possible to do a shift in your project so that you can address the new, current needs of your target group properly.

A shift can also be a slight change in focus of your project, maybe from implementing certain procedures to providing instructions and information with a view to prevention. For instance, if you work on dental health issues. You may not be able to provide real dental care, but you might help your target group in teeth brushing routines. Or by providing them with toothbrushes and toothpicks and so on.

You might do a shift in target group, too. For instance, if you were working on hygiene projects with children, you might now want to expand your work toward other age groups. Given your expertise, this might be easier for you than for any other organization, including a government institution.

Expand

Possibly the COVID-19 measures are making your mission all the more urgent and important. What if you were supporting battered women in your community centre? Women who are now very vulnerable being confined to their homes without visitors being allowed due to a lockdown. Clearly, these women need you now more than ever, and you need to be more creative than before in finding ways to reach them.

This is something you should discuss with your donor. How can you address the extra pressing needs of your target group, who are close to your donor’s heart too? Maybe your donor has ideas. Maybe other grantees they know have developed clever approaches for such situations. See if your donor can allow re-allocating part of your grant to intensifying your work. Maybe they even are able to add a bit of extra funding or to help you acquire some extra funds from other sources.

Donor budgets

Through all this, keep in mind that donor budgets are not a given. Your donor’s budget may  decrease or disappear. Maybe their government needs to reallocate it. To fund measures to keep the economy going and to protect the most vulnerable persons in their population. On the other hand, your donor may see their budget increase. For instance, if they are perceived to be able to contribute meaningfully to any COVID-19 response or mitigating measure. If you have a COVID-19-proof adjustment, shift or expansion ready to roll you might just be there at the right time. You might just be helping your donor find a good way to spend extra money in this case.

Communication

Key in all this in my view is that you need to be very open with your donors. Tell them how you are handling the COVID-19 measures inside your organization. How it is impacting your work. How your target group is affected by the disease and the measures against it.

Tell them about your wobbly financial situation (if it is wobbly, and yes perhaps you would want to use another word for it) and ask them for advice.

If you want them to be your true partner, take the first step and be a true partner to your donor. Ask them how they are doing, for starters. After all, they live in the real world, too, and they may be just as confused as you are.