Covid-19: 7 fundraisers in 7 places

As the tide of the Covid-19 pandemic rolls on across the globe and into North America, it is threatening to crush some nonprofits, while others may find themselves riding on a relatively smooth wave of financial support. Most will find themselves somewhere in between. There are many unknowns and uncertainties as we navigate the stormy seas of fundraising and donor relations in the coming months.

Relationship fundraising pioneer, Ken Burnett, suggests the crisis could be fundraising’s finest hour, when we turn to our donors with what he calls a ‘Let’s give before we get, sharing with our friends’ approach’. At the core is the “supporter’s experience that matters most.” Having thoughtful conversations with donors that allow us to genuinely connect and discuss what is happening. Listening carefully what they have to say. How they have been affected. For those who feel forgotten this can be a lifeline. The way we handle the crisis will impact our donor relationships in the future.

In this difficult time, I asked more than half a dozen fundraisers, some working on the frontline, others managing staff, and a few involved in consulting, in different regions and countries around the globe, what they are doing differently.

Seven fundraising professionals in seven places:

  • Robert Dixon, Director of Development at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada
  • Melody Song, Fundraising Consultant, Founder & Solution Designer, Berlin, Germany reporting on China (based on interviews with family, friends in the charity sector, and Ying Ye, General Secretary for the Fundraising Innovation Centre, Shanghai, China)
  • Rodney M. Grabowski, Vice President for University Advancement University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, USA
  • Anup Tiwari, Board Member, South Asian Fundraising Group, New Dehli, India
  • Deborah Berra, CEO, Stiftung Kindernothilfe Schweiz, Aarau, Switzerland
  • Daryl Upsall, Chief Executive, Daryl Upsall & Associates and Daryl Upsall Consulting International, Madrid, Spain
  • Bill Littlejohn, CEO and Senior VP, Sharp HealthCare Foundation, San Diego, California, USA

How did you experience the past few days of the Covid-19 crisis?

Robert Dixon in Toronto, Canada: After the initial shock and disruption, the past few days have actually been rather fun. The remote working technology is operating well, food supplies have returned to normal, and it’s been good to have extra time for cooking, reading, and catching up with friends and family. I’m concerned of course about the wider situation, and particularly for elderly relatives living back home in the UK, but clarity from various governments in recent days has been helpful.

Melody Song in Berlin, Germany: For me, and many people who have families in China but live in North America or Europe, this crisis has been a non-stop challenge since January! China is getting back to normal after two months of lockdown. Kids are still out of school but there are plans for schools to open on May 1, 2020. There are still tight controls by volunteers in each community about who comes and goes, and residents are still using hand-written passes to ensure strangers don’t enter communities without registration. Overall in the past few days, the situation in China has been uplifting.  

Rodney Grabowski in Buffalo, New York, USA: As a leader in advancement, it feels like every day is a week in time given our current dynamic environment. The past few days of the current pandemic has had a dramatic impact on my focus. My first priority is the health and welfare of my team (approximately 130 individuals) and secondly, to our constituency. We have been simultaneously redefining how we work, what is important and then prioritizing in ways that allows us to be sincere and productive during this crisis. Engagement, solicitation and stewardship practices have been upended and revisited based on our current reality and are often changing on an almost daily basis.

Anup Tiwari in New Dehli, India: The past few days have been full of anxiety for family, friends, and generally the underprivileged in India and around the world. Personal anxieties have been addressed by social distancing; however, the large daily wage-earning population in India is not able to stay hungry in their temporary shelters and are rushing to reach their native villages or towns. This puts them and the rest in huge danger. Personally, working from home during crisis means longer working hours as you can’t be in the field and have to manage all from a lockdown confinement. 

Deborah Berra in Aarau, Switzerland: I followed the development of the corona crisis early on in Italy and Ticino (Italian part of Switzerland) and decided on Wednesday, March 11th 2020 that we would start with homeoffice. As an employer, I have a duty of care towards my employees. We are basically set up in a way that work from home is possible. We all live in Zurich, but work in Aarau. In addition, all of my employees are mothers. So it’s good when one has the opportunity to do things from home. Nevertheless, we still had to organize one or two things before we were fully functional.

Daryl Upsall in Madrid, Spain: The past days have been kind of surreal. On March 11, after a lot of traveling for work, my partner and I headed for a long-planned break at the beach and then couldn’t travel back to Madrid. Currently, we are on complete lockdown with mandated self-isolation, and people here are abiding by it very strictly. It’s like a post-Franco legacy. When orders are given, they are abided: empty streets, no cars driving on the streets, shops closed. Very different, for example, in the UK, where people were still gathering in sunny weather and having parties. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and everything was super organized there, fully stocked shelves, staff sanitizing the cart for you before you touch it, and cheerful staff. While the clapping from balconies started here, there is no spring to volunteering out of solidarity happening as is the case in other countries.

Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA: Beginning March 16, we converted our monthly e-newsletter (Philanthropy Notes) to a weekly update from me to go to all of our donors and Board members, etc. with email addresses (approximately 15,000).  This is both emailed and posted on our giving page (  We are using this platform as communication and stewardship for our donors, including providing appropriate and helpful links to Sharp’s and San Diego County’s Covid-19 resources.  We had a 45 percent open rate for the first email on March 16. Like many other healthcare organizations, we created a COVID-19 fund for our three Foundations/system. The fund will make grants to Sharp departments and entities for medical equipment and supplies, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators, tents, as well as training and other professional resources to support the direct care of both Covid-19 patients as well as others in our community.  We have received several generous gifts to the fund.

What’s the political and economic context in your country or region?

Robert Dixon in Toronto, Canada: As I write, Canada’s Parliament has just passed an aid package of $107 billion, offering delays to numerous payments like tax and student loans, while increasing support for those who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19. States of emergency have been declared in Ontario and Toronto, closing all non-essential businesses and requiring employees to work from home where possible. Unemployment has increased significantly in the past couple of weeks, and stocks are down, but Justin Trudeau has emphasized the underlying strength of Canada’s economy.

Melody Song in Berlin reporting on China: Luckily, the timing of the peak of the crisis in China coincided with the largest traditional festival – Lunar New Year – when everyone planned to celebrate for two weeks. It gave the government the necessary buffer in the beginning as factories and some shops were closed due to the festival anyway.  It was relatively easy to ask people to stay put (as they were already with their families) and stay home. China also has a good monitoring system from municipality down to individual community associations and good citizen registration system. In other words, the Chinese government has the capacity to monitor and control its people’s movement easily.  Though this sounds a bit scary, I also believe this system was key for China to defeat the wave so fast.  

Rodney Grabowski in Buffalo, New York, USA: The current political and economic context in New York and the United States has been very fluid. While Buffalo, New York is a six-hour drive from New York City, the epicenter of the United States outbreak, the policies and practices that have been implemented by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo have been universal throughout the state. Ten days ago, New York State went from to a 50% workforce reduction of non-essential employees to 100% effective Sunday, March 22, 2020 at 8 pm. While we anticipated that this was going to happen, and had been planning accordingly, it happened much sooner than anticipated.

On the national front, there is great concern that much of the country is not taking this issue as serious as we are in New York. While the messaging from our federal government in Washington, DC has been consistent on social distancing and banning large gatherings, it stops short of giving specific directives to states. While many states have issued “stay at home” type directives, there are some states that are not willing to do so which is putting all of us at risk around the world. Regarding the economy, the stock market is extremely volatile and seeing unprecedented swings of market value.

Anup Tiwari in New Dehli, India: Overall the Indian government has shown a direction by putting 1.37 billion people under a lockdown. 0.8% of the GDP has been allocated to overcome the pandemic. Some critics feel this is not enough, but the government has promised more announcements in the future. India has millions of people in the middle class who can weather a few months with some hardship like everyone in the world, but another 300 million below the poverty line will find it extremely difficult. Other countries in Asia with large populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines may face similar issues soon.   

Deborah Berra in Aarau, Switzerland: The economy is almost at a standstill at the moment. Only system relevant professions are still at work. Such as those who continuously earn too little for their work and have received too little recognition for their work. This applies to all professions with a high proportion of women. The number of unemployment has increased. I am convinced that this development will continue until the end of the year. Property, real estate, and securities will again emerge as winners from this crisis. Large companies are likely to survive this period without issues and perhaps even emerge stronger from this crisis. But what about small companies, SMEs (small and mid-sized enterprises) and the self-employed? They are the ones who keep the economic cycle going in Switzerland. 

In the last few decades Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism has taken hold in Switzerland, which is harmful to society and the results can now be seen in times of a pandemic. This trend should be reversed. On a positive note, at last our politicians, from the left green to the right SVP, are finding a consensus. I can’t remember the last time I experienced this. They should take this as a lesson for the future.

Daryl Upsall in Madrid, Spain: For the longest time, the governing socialist party’s actions were marked by indecision, allowing large gatherings, such as the celebration march to mark International Women’s Day, a big ultra-right rally and football games. When the lockdown was announced there was a mass-exodus from Madrid with people heading to their vacation homes on the beach and in the mountains. There’s a mood of resignation but no social unrest (yet). The economic consequences are disastrous for a nation whose biggest economic sector is tourism. Hotels and restaurants are hit very hard with many closing down and going out of business. Numbers for unemployment are expected anywhere around 30-35% when we come out of this.

Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA: In the United States, the stock market declined by 30 percent over the last two weeks, the filing of unemployment claims rose to a record high 3.2 million and the president signed the $2 Trillion C10 stimulus act. A large amount of the businesses in the United States are shut down, with only essential business open. Many people are now working from home. It is a very challenging economic situation; with hopes of improving through the government stimulus and going back to work in the next 60 days.

Are you seeing any particular changes or trends in giving?

Robert Dixon in Toronto, Canada: It’s too early to be sure how this will affect giving: only two weeks ago, the current situation was unimaginable! We expect healthcare philanthropy to grow during this crisis, but we also see individuals and organisations increasingly aware of their responsibility to their communities. It’s possible Covid-19 will ultimately prompt increases in civic philanthropy too. That said, we expect the uncertainty and disruption will mean a reduction in giving in the short term, and a delay to major gifts in particular.

Melody Song in Berlin, Germany: Based on the Chinese charitable sector, a lot of donations will be trending to giving with a high priority for supplies and care of frontline workers, care of seniors and other high-risk groups, and with lesser priority for community support. Corporations stepped up their giving and Ying Ye, General Secretary for the Fundraising Innovation Centre based in Shanghai, spoke about the specific cases of Fosun and Didi (for details please see Melody’s separate article round up on Chinese donations during Covid-19 crisis). In a crisis like this, money can’t buy anything if you have nowhere to buy.  Innovative solutions will come around when people identify the need and the gaps (like the medical supply purchase and taking care of doctor’s transportation and meal problems). 

Many smaller nonprofits will not survive.  They want to quickly diversify to individual giving after relying on corporations and government for many years but found out that individual cultivation takes time. It’s a matter of organizations having the necessary cash flow to get them through the next couple of years and give them time to build individual giving.  In the United States and Canada, individual giving is stronger but we should be expecting a shortage from corporate and other institutional giving (because Covid-19 relief will exhaust funding!).  Lessons from China: it’s time to build stronger rapport with existing individual donors and have new donors in the pipeline.

Rodney Grabowski in Buffalo, New York, USA: Currently, we have seen a dramatic slow-down in giving. At the time that the pandemic was ramping up in New York, our students went on spring break and thus our call center was already planning to take that week off. Now that students are no longer on campus en masse, we have stopped calling for donations altogether. Instead, we are purposefully focusing our communication efforts to showcase care and empathy. We have now advanced our communication efforts to highlight some of the heroic actions of our students, faculty and staff — all stepping up in ways that showcase the strength of humanity. Historically, the university has received a high percentage of its major gifts in the final quarter of the fiscal year (Apr – June). With the volatility of the stock market, the transition to funders wanting to support crisis-related projects, and our refocus on relationship building with our donors and prospects at this time, we aren’t projecting the same volume of major gifts to close as we were just a few weeks ago.

Anup Tiwari in New Dehli, India: In India the first quarter of the year experiences maximum giving as it is the end of the financial year. Therefore, individual giving is expected to survive with some damage at least in the first quarter of the calendar year. The second quarter will be good for giving but the share for non-profits may decrease, as State led emergency funds such as the Prime Minister Cares and Chief Minister Relief Funds may receive most. Corporate philanthropy funds have already been flowing to these funds with the largest donation so far amounting to $200 million. Asia has been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak since mid-January as active fundraising stopped in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam quiet early only. The rest of the countries have been affected mostly since mid-February.     

Deborah Berra in Aarau, Switzerland: I assume that donors who have supported us sporadically will no longer donate. However, I trust in our long-term donors that they will show their solidarity even in times of crisis and support children in need. Even more so now, when Covid-19 will have unexpected consequences, for example in Africa. The WHO fears terrible things for the inhabitants of this continent. We hope with difficulty that there will not be a global humane catastrophe, but we are convinced that there will be a lot of additional work in our projects.

Daryl Upsall in Madrid, Spain: Clearly organizations delivering in-country services are getting waves of support. Such as Caritas Spain (connected to the church) has a long history of caring for the homeless and poorer members of the community. Interestingly, in recognition of UNICEF Spain’s contributions to the global funding of UNICEF (as one of the most successful fundraising UNICEFs), and Spain having a massive shortage of masks and protective gear for medical personnel, the UNICEF warehouse in Copenhagen donated a large amount of stock of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to Spain. This was communicated to monthly donors and they’ve seen a massive surge in donations. Because for once they can say they’re helping people in Spain and helping medical professionals, a popular cause at this moment. Some surprises: BirdLife International (SEO in Spain) is doing extremely well as well as UNRWA (Palestinian Refugees in the near East) and surprisingly the Cats Association! Others are organizations are struggling, as for most people it is hard to connect at this stage to an overseas need when there’s massive need perceived internally.

My F2F company “International Fundraising” closed down as a result of the crisis. DRTV is doing exceptionally well. Telephone is working everywhere in the world. For phone call agencies in Spain, the duration of warm calls have almost quadrupled. More people are responding to social media ads and responding to the digital fundraising trail, moving through to the conversation. It is a little bit more difficult for people to make a financial commitment for a monthly gift, which is the end point for everything in Spain. People are hesitant because of financial uncertainties; will I have a job at the end of this? There’s been reportedly a 400% increase in will writing in the UK and in the process wanting to leave money to charity. I predict legacies income will go up in many Western developed markets at the end of the year. Historically, giving went up during every major crisis, including in 2008. Causes dealing with crisis locally are generally doing better than those internationally.

Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA: The philanthropy world in the United States has exploded with many funds being created to support Covid-19 efforts including in healthcare and those impacted by the economic downturn. There have been numerous gifts and grants of $10 million or more, including large grants by technology companies like Intel and Google. While there is some pause in traditional major giving due to economic uncertainty and new priorities, millions of Americans are wanting to help through gifts of cash, medical supplies, and volunteering. It is too early, and the crisis too widespread to know what the trend in giving will be in the second half of the year. Right now, people are responding to the emergency. 

How is your work affected and what are you/your staff doing differently as a result of it? Any learnings to share?

Robert Dixon in Toronto, Canada: We’re all working remotely, and donor meetings are now via phone or Zoom. We’ve rediscovered the importance of a regular routine and frequent social contact – not just with our colleagues, but with our supporters too. We’re all facing this together, and our prospects appreciate the conversations as much as we do. And their responses have sometimes surprised me – despite what I said before about uncertainty, some donors have already indicated their willingness to move forward with a major gift in the next month. So be open to the possibilities!

Melody Song in Berlin, Germany: Many of my Chinese colleagues are working 24/7 on the crisis.  They are now dealing with the aftermath and figuring out what to do next.  Most of the nonprofits in China exhausted their funds and reserves.  Many major donors also exhausted their funds in the Covid-19 relief effort.  It remains to be seen how the charitable sector can revive itself.  One thing is clear for Chinese charities, they can no longer depend on government and corporations and diversifying revenue to individual giving and other sources is going to be critical in the months to come.

Rodney Grabowski in Buffalo, New York, USA: At this time, 100% of my staff are working remotely and are mastering video conferencing technology. We are changing our alumni engagement models to add more virtual connections and online engagements. Where we’ve always had a successful bi-weekly “Wednesday Webinar” series, we are seeking to augment that kind of program and feature more university faculty and alumni.

As a leader in advancement, it is imperative to showcase three things to your team: that you care, that you have empathy, and your commitment to retaining a connection to them at a very difficult time in our history. I have been regularly communicating by email to the team to provide meaningful updates and direction that is also practical and comforting. The first day of 100% remote work, I implemented an optional virtual coffee hour where everyone could login. I made time to ensure I was prepared and had a meaningful update – I provided information on our current status and opened the floor up for questions. We had over 60% of our staff participate and the feedback was outstanding – they appreciated the access to me, empathy expressed, and the words of inspiration. Leadership in a time of crisis separates the strong from the weak. The respect that you garner from your staff, volunteers, and constituents when you provide clear, empathetic leadership can last a lifetime.

Anup Tiwari in New Dehli, India: Most of the NGOs have started working from home practicing social distancing before the national/provincial governments announced lockdowns. In Asia most of the fundraising depends hugely on face 2 face and telemarketing, both of these processes have come to stand still. Corporate philanthropy has also changed direction as companies are almost mandated to contribute to state led relief funds instead. As a learning, I feel non-profits in the region have to diversify their portfolio of income, enhancing fundraising channels and sources e.g. direct response TV, digital, and major donor giving. These may be lesser impacted by pandemic of the nature of Covid-19.

Deborah Berra in Aarau, Switzerland: I carefully looked at different online tools and decided to join Microsoft Teams. I manage our migration project using the project management tool awork and we communicate via Zoom. Our team sees and hears each other regularly. 1x per week we meet for a joint call. With each of my employees I have on average 2 calls per week. I am also available for my team via e-mail, the chat function in the team or via Whatsapp at any time.

It is an unusual, frightening time for all of us. Home office with children is also not an easy task or to take care of one’s parents in this moment is just as difficult. Being at home for such a long time can also have an effect of feeling cramped and leads to more conflicts. Nevertheless, we are privileged because we can work from home, have a roof over our heads and enough to eat and drink. However, it should not be underestimated what a psychological strain the current situation can be for some people. 

But I believe that we can come out of this crisis stronger – if we all help each other and especially if we stay at home and only go out when necessary. My team is trying to keep our heads at work in these hectic times. They are all working hard to ensure that we can continue to function and do our jobs despite this unfamiliar situation. We are also still here for our donors and can be reached by phone or e-mail. I am proud of my team.

Daryl Upsall in Madrid, Spain: Despite having an office in Madrid for our consulting and headhunting, we all are used to working remotely anywhere in the world, so our set up and the way we work has not changed. We all have laptops and our CRM and data is in the cloud and on Dropbox Professional. New requests for consulting and recruiting are coming in and we’re winning new clients. People are delaying some decision-making. For now, we’re saving costs on international travel and hotels. It’s been great, with clients and colleagues not commuting and everybody is more available to chat via the likes of Zoom, GoToMeeting and Skype etc.

Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA: Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA: California and San Diego went to quarantine/work at home/no gatherings on March 13. As hospitals and health care systems are considered part of the federal critical infrastructure sector, it is expected that all employees continue to report to work; however, Sharp endeavored to increase the number of those who can work from home. In consultation with our HR leadership, our Foundations were one of the first entities to create an office/remote work environment.

Our Foundations are “open” and operational; however, many of our team members are working from home (with access to RENEXT in the Cloud, network files through Citrix and email through the OWA network). Our mainline telephone numbers have been set up to provide information on making contributions and leaving messages; the messages are be checked on a regular basis. Gift processing and acknowledgement is continuing but not on a daily basis (2-3 times a week depending on volume). All committee or group meetings have been postponed, cancelled, or are being conducted as conference calls. 

We suspended all inpatient Friend of the Foundation (FOF) and prospect visits; however we now communicate with patient care staff regarding FOFs that are in the hospital so that donor stewardship can take place if appropriate. We are suspending in-person Guardian Angel (gifts in honor of caregivers) presentations; all GA recognitions and notifications are now through the mail and email (this was a very important of element of our e-philanthropy strategy, being able to provide all Guardian Angel recognitions electronically in a timely manner while the mail and in-person recognitions take place. 

As we are limiting personal interaction in the coming weeks, we have recommended staff focus on other Foundation activities as appropriate. Here are some expamples: update RENXT dashboards and queries and reports; portfolio review; clean up files and directories; writing – review and update acknowledgment letters; web content; case statements and proposal templates; stewardship reports; Keep in touch with Board Directors, committee members, donors, allies. 

A translation of the article was published in the German fundraising magazine, Fundraiser Magazin and can be found here:

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