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Communicating with donors at a time of crisis

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Communicating effectively and appropriately with donors is even more crucial in a time of crisis. COVID-19 has affected everyone across the globe and concerns and anxieties run high.

COVID-19 was unusual as it affected everyone across the globe, making it very different to other health crises or natural disasters in recent years.

Man wearing a face mask to help protect from COVID-19

It especially impacted audiences and donors. This was especially true of donors that were retired or semi-retired in their 70s and 80s and those more at risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. This made fundraising from such donors very challenging. Not only were they facing the same unprecedented shock as the rest of us, they also had personal concerns about their own health and their families.

Arts organisations have had to be aware of two things when fundraising:

  1. Attention is largely on front line or health-driven organisations.
  2. Your most loyal donors are likely going to be experiencing high levels of anxiety, with their attention focused on their own families and communities.
How do you ensure that your communications with donors are appropriate, sensitive and empathetic?
Here are six key areas for arts organisations to consider:
1. Are your donor communications appropriate?
Fundraising is about relationships. It is essential that donors hear from the organisations that they fund on bad days, as well as good days.
COVID-19 was a challenging time, with large numbers of people finding themselves in lockdown. During this time, donors often welcomed being able to have conversations with the organisations that they fund. At times of anxiety, many donors will be glad to hear from a friendly face and will be happy if fundraisers check in with them. It’s important for organisations to communicate about how their organisation is operating and planning to develop activities, as well as to thank them and to seek their advice. Short video updates via software such as Bonjoro in the See Also section can also be useful.
Donor communications must be practical and informative. Remember that donors have been wrapped up in disaster coverage, and it’s essential that organisations don’t add to the noise.
Build individualised responses to donors. Some will be pleased to contribute to ideas around strategy or creative ways to amend business models to respond to a crisis. Other donors might be happy to be media spokespeople or to help the organisation in shaping its plans and strategies. The skill of the fundraiser is in spotting this potential.
During times of crisis, it can be tempting to let donor communications drop but it’s essential that this doesn’t happen. When the crisis fully passes, donors will remember which organisations were in touch and engaged with them. Your organisation will want them to be active as part of future plans and strategies.
2. How are your donors feeling?
Empathy with donors is critical. Organisations need to be mindful about how donors are feeling and how they might behave. Aggressive appeals that ask for their help to solve organisational problems are not appropriate. At the same time, giving donors passive updates that completely ignore the context of what is going on are similarly problematic.
Many donors were at home for long periods of time and may be feeling isolated. It’s therefore essential to see things through their eyes by considering these questions:
  • What communications are appropriate and what might be helpful to them right now?
  • Who will they want to hear from?
  • Are there resources that your organisation has available that could help donors that are home schooling their children?
  • Is there content in your organisation’s digital archive that will be interesting for donors that may find themselves in front of the television more than ever before?
3. When is it appropriate to ask for donations?
It will be case dependent as to whether it’s appropriate to ask for donations at times of crisis such as these.
Your donors may have bought tickets to performances or shows that were cancelled, and if handled sensitively it would be appropriate to ask them to consider turning these gifts into a donation. Don’t forget to adhere to relevant tax and data protection rules.
Also remember that the ask always needs to be appropriate and to understand that not everyone will be able to give during a crisis. Ticket buyers should always be offered refunds and must not be pressurised into making a donation.
Some donors may also want to suspend conversations about gifts, but even if this is the case, it’s important that organisations know when it’s appropriate to make contact with them again. With COVID-19 there were so many uncertainties about how long social distancing would last. It’s important that fundraisers have concrete plans of action as to when donors want to be contacted again.
4. Which fundraising appeals can work?
If you do decide to launch a fundraising appeal, then it’s important to follow good practice. Often donors need easy ways to help, so an organisation’s response needs to be simple and distinctive. Many donors at times of crisis want to support their local communities, where they can have a direct impact. Linking an appeal directly to COVID-19, if this is far away from an organisation’s mission, may feel inauthentic and false.
Campaign messages should be as clear as possible and there should be clarity about how donations will be managed and what exactly the campaign will achieve. For example, some organisations may want to launch a fund to support young musicians. Being specific gives reassurance to donors and may encourage new donors to give generously for immediate needs.
The timing of campaigns is also crucial. It is too early to say how COVID-19 will affect financial markets in the long-term, but it’s likely that donors will honour their immediate commitments. They then may take a pause from philanthropy whilst they wait for investments to recover. For organisations just starting campaigns, they should have confidence. It may be that, by the time campaigns come to be realised, donors are feeling more confident. Again, keeping good relationships with donors as they take a pause from giving is essential.
5. Invest in fundraising
It is essential that organisations hold their nerve. Whilst it feels very alarming in a crisis, with the possibility of venues being shut, you need to be confident to strengthen your donor engagement, cultivation and solicitation. If you look after donors well, they will emerge on the other side of a crisis, perhaps even stronger supporters than before. They will be a vital part of helping to rebuild an organisation’s strategy. It will be those organisations that have taken care of their relationships that will be best placed to reconnect with fundraising, once the recovery from a crisis starts to take shape.
6. What is the impact of COVID-19 on audiences and ticketing?
‘Getting bums on seats’ has long been the adage of the performing arts, and ticketing for theatres as well as museum exhibitions, library events, and other parts of the sector absorb a great deal of time, effort and resource. In an analysis of data by TRG Arts and Purple Seven, advance theatre ticket sales in the UK were seen to drop by 92% as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where organisations sell tickets, this accounted for 40% of their turnover, on average, but it is often much higher, with as much as 95% of some business models based solely on box office revenue. With this in mind, the implications of lockdown and social distancing policies are potentially profound and far reaching on those parts of the arts sector where ticketing plays a significant role.
During the lockdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences were seeking refunds for their tickets whilst the industry tried to maximise its cash flow and to work with audiences and donors to maintain its financial viability. Organisations responded to this in several ways, including encouraging ticket buyers to donate their ticket value to the charity instead of getting a refund; allowing open ended exchanges through applying credit to accounts to be used at a later date; and offering Friends scheme subscribers credit towards the following year’s renewal. In some countries, such as the UK, there is also the potential to claim Gift Aid on donations to further contribute to vital core funding.
Contractually, a refund on a purchased ticket must always be offered in the first instance, but the language and approach that is used when communicating with ticket holders is imperative in terms of maintaining the relationship with the booker over a longer period of time. Your audiences were already facing the same unprecedented crises that your organisation was; the uncertainty, the risk of unemployment and the stress of illness and self-isolation. This is therefore the time to be understanding, supportive and compassionate, but many ticket holders will understand and will want to help.
Several ticketing software providers, including Spektrix and Ticketsolve in the See Also section, offered solutions to support organisations in processing mass refunds and donations.
Where organisations sold tickets through third party agents, there was also an opportunity to connect with them to discuss their approach during this time. Stay22 in Montreal offered 100% commission to new partners and has increased commission by 20% for existing partners. Similarly, ticketing platform Eventbrite increased its functionality to support ticketed events moving from live to virtual. Where organisations are moving work online, this is also providing a new opportunity to reach out for potential financial support. London’s Phoenix Artist Club moved its cabaret programme onto a digital platform and launched a ‘tip the artist’ scheme alongside it.
Venues also started to think beyond the immediate shock to the bottom line and consider ways they could build resilience into their earned income and ticketing strategies for the future. Internal policies that directly impact ticket buyers, such as exchange and refund processes, may have needed to be reworked, and businesses should have continued to review payment compliance standards to ensure that staff working at home could accomplish tasks efficiently and responsibly. Donation policies and stewardship processes also needed to be reviewed so that new donor relationships established through this time could be sustained and cultivated. Organisations might have also wanted to revisit their pricing methodologies, reviewing opportunities to sell to a more price-sensitive consumer, including models like dynamic pricing or models such as ‘pay what you decide this is worth’. In addition, many organisations – especially those without existing digital presence or platforms – found it difficult to monetise digital or online activity during the initial period of the pandemic. It is worth considering hybrid solutions to fundraising going forward, such as a mix of digital and in-person contact.
Globally, we still don’t know how consumer behaviour will be impacted longer-term as a result of the pandemic. Despite forecasts to the contrary, ticketing flourished in the period after the 2008 recession. One theory was that audiences increased nationally due to more people staying in the country rather than going abroad, therefore having money to spend on entertainment and nights out.
Behind the scenes, established financial models of producing may need to be reviewed with existing contracts of box office splits, guarantees or 1st calls being thrown into the air and new ways of financing and balancing the risk for artists and venues arising. The role of public subsidy to arts organisations here will become paramount, allowing venues to continue to produce challenging work and develop their artistic risk-taking with less reliance on ticketed income.
Regardless of what happens in the future, you have learned that the immediate challenge at the beginning of this crisis was to sustain relationships with audiences and ticket buyers which organisations had worked long and hard to develop and grow. Empathy and decency go a long way to support the arts sector to recover, maintaining relationships with audiences and encouraging them to engage with the work of organisations differently. There is now also a whole host of new potential digital audiences on the horizon.

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