As I write this, it is raining. You may not think that’s a big deal, but as a resident of Southern California—an area plagued by drought and wildfires—it’s a very big deal. We’ve been hearing about “El Niño” for months, and sandbags, K-rail and umbrellas have been in great demand. Today, El Niño has arrived, right on schedule.
For fundraisers, there are possible El Niño “seasons”—deviations from the normal or expected patterns—year-round. We can’t predict them all, so always being ready for the unexpected has to be more than a cliché; it must be our typical operating mode. We need to:
1. Have a plan in place for problems that have some likelihood of happening. When I worked for a relief and development agency, we had a fundraising plan—on paper—for how we would mobilize if there were a natural disaster in one of the nations in which we worked. If there was a typhoon in Bangladesh or a flood in Mozambique, we didn’t sit around talking about what we would do. Instead, we pulled out the plan and jumped in. We knew what to do, who had to initiate it, who had to sign off on it and who the target audiences were for each activity in the plan.
Your organization may not have “disasters” as obvious as a typhoon in a region that is prone to them. But there are other things that can impact your fundraising: a missed mail date, an email with an embarrassing typo, a website that goes down, a snowstorm on the day of an event … and the list goes on. The time to develop your plan for addressing these things is not when they happen; it is beforehand, when you are not panicking and you can think clearly about what can be done, who can do it and how it can be done. Your response will be far more complete and appropriate than if you freak out and either overreact or underreact.
2. Not overreact. Unexpected and undesirable things happen—and unfortunately, it is usually the CEO’s spouse or the board chair who notices them first. (That’s just Murphy’s Law at work.) In most cases, the vast majority of people don’t notice—and if they do, they don’t really care. (Try to find comfort in that.) For those that do notice, apologize and thank them for calling it to your attention. Fix the problem if you can, and once the heat of the moment has passed, see if you can change anything to prevent the same problem from reoccurring in the future.
For something that is totally out of your control like the aforementioned snowstorm, do what you can but know and accept the limitations of your team. Your staff may not be able to single-handedly solve the problem; although fundraisers are often miracle-workers, it’s hard to melt a foot of snow in an hour. Immediately contact the experts—the venue for the event, the tech support company, the mailer or whoever it is that may be able to help you out. There may not be a real solution (i.e., you can’t turn back time and alter the weather), but you may be able to mitigate it some if you take a thoughtful approach to problem solving, instead of releasing the full force of your emotions (whatever those may be).
3. Not wait too long. Some problems aren’t going to go away; you must take them seriously and start looking for corrective steps as soon as possible. Your job is to be a detective and figure out the most likely culprit. For example, if your income to a particular activity starts dropping, don’t cross your fingers and hope it gets better in a month or two. Do everything you can to be sure there isn’t something going on that is having an impact.
Looking at a too-likely scenario, if a direct mail letter or e-appeal is “bombing,” dig deep to find out if they all got sent out. Were they actually delivered? Was the response mechanism functional (i.e., an envelope included in a letter or a working link to a donation page in the e-appeal)? From time to time, a sack of mail gets pushed into a corner and forgotten, or a group of email addresses gets skipped over. Our job is to figure out the problem, not hope it eventually melts away like the snow.
4. Take immediate steps when something isn’t fixable to be sure it at least isn’t repeatable. Just today, almost a week into 2016, I received a letter from a nonprofit organization asking that as I consider my year-end giving, I include them. Oops. Clearly, that isn’t something they can fix; the year-end train has left the station. But now, when the sting of this missed opportunity is fresh in their minds, is the time to schedule next December’s mailing with enough buffer that it will be delivered in advance of Dec. 31. Otherwise, staff may change or forget, creating a possibility that the 2015 schedule will get picked up again for 2016—and the same thing will happen again.
The best way to avoid disasters in 2016? Assume they will happen and plan your response to possible scenarios now. You may not “get to” use those plans, but it’s far better to invest some time thinking through your course of action when tempers are down and accusations aren’t flying (or at least simmering) than to have to figure out a response in the heat of battle.
This old dog has survived too many “disasters” to count, and if nothing else, each one was a learning experience. Here’s to your success in 2016 as a planner, as a learner and as a fundraiser.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.