Lessons From the Pandemic: What Will We Carry Forward?

three people at a desk; two shaking hands

With more than 3 million people in the U.S. getting vaccines daily, we’re beginning to see the light at the end of this long Covid-19 tunnel. But as we look forward to in-person meetings — dare we say no masks some day? — we at Creative Fundraising Advisors are also thinking about what we learned this past year and about what positive ideas, learning and adaptations we might carry forward with us.

Here are a few areas where we have seen significant and positive innovation:

Digital Engagement and Presentation

Prior to the pandemic, the case for support for most capital and comprehensive campaigns was told in print. And even though it was often repurposed for websites, it still began in print. But over the past year, we have begun with the digital platform, and lo and behold, it has provided flexibility, freedom and impact far beyond our expectations.

Here’s an example: The Actors Fund, a national human services organization that serves the entertainment community nationwide, engaged us to help raise funds for the Hollywood Arts Collective, an arts center with 151 units of affordable housing for artists, an 86-seat theater, art galleries, rehearsal studios and office space in Los Angeles. We worked with a designer who knew how to take PowerPoint to a whole new level. We embedded video from Annette Bening, a board member, at the beginning of the presentation to frame and make our case.

We were able to use this presentation in dozens of meetings, quickly sharing our purpose and vision with a visually engaging, information-rich tool. And when we had an opportunity to make a pitch for a seven-figure gift from a family foundation, we “convened” representatives of the foundation, The Actors Fund and our firm on Zoom and shared the presentation together while sitting in multiple different cities. Nobody had to get on an airplane, and we were able to have a conversation with more people in the “room” at the same time. It proved to be a highly effective and rewarding experience that resulted in a $1 million pledge.

National Discussions

This past year, as our country faced a collective reckoning on issues of historic and ongoing racism, we at Creative Fundraising Advisors were able to leverage technology to host national discussions on difficult topics such as why people of color are under-represented on development staffs and why our boards are whiter today than they were two decades ago.

Prior to the pandemic, frankly we had no idea how to host a national webinar. Look how far we have come! We were able to connect with experts around the country, bring them easily into conversation, engage hundreds of people in truly purposeful and meaningful conversation — all in the course of a couple hours on Zoom. We all may have been forced to learn how to utilize this technology, but our industry and nonprofits have benefited. Important professional development has never been easier to access.

Feasibility Studies

Our work across the country grew significantly over the past year because we were able to quickly adapt our feasibility study work. We found that it was quicker, more efficient, and easier to convene focus groups, small group interviews, and individual conversations via digital platforms. We didn’t have to travel, and people didn’t have to make their way through traffic and weather to provide their opinions. Participation in our feasibility studies soared, and our clients benefited tremendously from this increased engagement with their donors.

National Talent with a Click

CFA began working in 2020 with Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), an amazing organization working to end generational poverty in North Minneapolis. NAZ wanted to host a donor cultivation event with a national speaker. It may not have been possible — travel or expense-wise—prior to the pandemic. But we were able to bring in journalist Thomas Friedman to a virtual event that drew hundreds of people. It was a big win for NAZ, and an important opportunity for CFA to think about how organizations of all sizes in all places could do something similar. We like to think of it as donor engagement beyond the virtual gala!

Digital Memberships

One of our clients, the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has tripled attendance at events by offering them on a digital platform. Prior to Covid, people would have to travel to Santa Fe — a lovely place, but not easy to get to. CFA helped SAR develop a digital membership program. As an organization that traditionally drew on in-person experiences for their membership, SAR saw a dip in members over the last year. However, they made a distinct decision to expand their programming online, and offered their constituents a new way to interact with the organization. As part of this online expansion, they recently launched a Virtual Membership for new SAR members.

Since launching on February 1st, they have had 120 people sign up for virtual membership (with 55% of them outside New Mexico). Because of this new member growth, they’ve also all but closed the gap from last year’s pre-pandemic membership numbers. An additional and unforeseen benefit of the free online programming is they have added over 2,500 new records to their database from all 50 states and 19 countries. And because this platform has no fixed number of people who can participate, SAR is finding new audiences world-wide.

Looking Forward

As we look back at our work with clients through the pandemic, one overarching theme evolves: organizations that stayed true to their mission and did not let the pandemic limit the scope of their vision to deliver on that mission, have emerged stronger with new tools and competencies for the future.

Suffice it to say none of us at CFA could have imagined the changes we had to make — and how our clients would need us to help them make those changes. But we did it together, and while we can’t wait for the world to get back to normal, we plan to bring a few things from this most challenging year forward for the good of our clients and our field.

Paul Johnson  Creative Fundraising Advisors

Paul is the founder and president of Creative Fundraising Advisors based in the Twin Cities.