Covid-19: 7 Fundraisers in 7 Places – Update

Covid-19 has created an intensely challenging moment in our lives, our history, and our economy. I was curious to know how my colleagues, who generously shared their insights at the beginning of the pandemic, are adapting to the changing situations in their parts of the world. Are they struggling? What can we learn? How are donors responding to the situation?

The two common themes emerging from this mosaic of perspectives are 1) that successful fundraisers continue to fundraise, while being mindful and intentional with a focus on engagement and stewardship and 2) donors continue to support the causes they care about.

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

Are you seeing any particular changes or trends in giving?

Robert Dixon in Toronto, Canada: I said last time that the crisis could prompt a surge in giving to the community – and everything I’ve seen since then supports that theory. At Ryerson, we’ve been humbled by the number of alumni and staff giving generously to help our students who are facing reduced income and higher costs. Companies and grant-makers across Canada and further afield are coming together to maximize their impact among frontline workers and vulnerable communities. And our major donors remain passionately committed to the causes they support.

Of course, economically the future is uncertain, and no-one can predict how philanthropy will ultimately be affected. Financial activity has been significantly reduced, many are facing job losses or lay-offs, and governments are acting on an unprecedented scale. We’ve refocused much of our fundraising activity on engagement rather than solicitation, with a change in our short-term revenue expectations as a result. But the crisis so far has demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit and our innate capacity for extraordinary generosity, which should give fundraisers everywhere hope for the future.

Melody Song in Berlin, Germany: In China the crisis gave birth to a new type of nonprofit organization: Open Source Social Project. An example is Wuhan2020 which is a community of 4000 volunteers that contribute in real-time to “establish a synchronous data service for hospitals, factories,  procurement and other information, and to convene all those who want to contribute to the anti-virus campaign so that everyone with relevant skills can participate in the development of related topics, and complete it in a self-organized and collaborative way with open source community culture.”  This type of project is what China’s nonprofit sector is looking for in the future on an agile approach to further a cause rather than building NGOs.   

Rodney Grabowski in Buffalo, New York, USA: Like most other institutions of higher education, we established student emergency funds and a health care support fund that people could contribute to. Our method of solicitation was through email with the ability to give online. Over the course of the past 4 weeks, we have had 500+ donors contribute over $145,000 with an average gift of $290. It is interesting to note, of the $145,000; $53,000 was contributed from 3 individual donors therefore, the average donation less the big gifts is $185. Our typical average gift for phone is $97 and direct mail $166. We are seeing a higher average gift as a result of this significant cause-based giving approach.

That said, we have regularly been reaching out to our donors that have made 6+ figure gifts in the past and there is very little interesting by this group in contributing to these funds. Honestly, this is not surprising to me as I reflect on the maturity of the program at the University at Buffalo versus other institutions of higher education that I have worked at. While the University at Buffalo is almost 175 years old, in many ways we are a young institution. In the 1960’s we transitioned from a private university to a public university that is part of the State University of New York System. UB is one of 4 university centers within the SUNY System of higher education (64 institutions of higher education). The public version of the University at Buffalo did not invest in pursuing philanthropy until the late 1980’s and the program did not start maturing until the early 2000’s.

While we have seen some good results for the emergency funds and have received a few 6 and 7-figure gifts, most gifts of this size have been put on pause by the donor until they can see the other side of the pandemic.

Anup Tiwari in New Dehli, India: The scale of giving has expanded. More people are giving. Because a large number of daily wage labourers are stuck without earnings due to the lockdown, citizens and NGOs are donating dry rations and cooked meals every day. There have been two TV telethons to raise funds for Oxfam and Save the Children India. All small and big NGOs have launched their campaigns. However, most of the money is going to PM Cares Fund, a newly instituted non-profit fund backed by the government. Contributing to it is considered ‘prudent’ by corporations and big donors. The fund is being extensively promoted across all TV channels and social media.  

Deborah Berra in Aarau, Switzerland: Ich vermute, dass mehr Gelder NGOs zufliessen, die lokal tätig sind. Dazu können Organisationen, die in der Schweiz tätig sind, besser Auskunft geben als ich. Ich warte die kommenden Monate ab und werde dann ein Résumé ziehen.

Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA:

We processed more than 400 gifts in the last week, almost all for our C19 fund, and many from new donors; the trend is that people want to help because we have shared the message effectively across many platforms – TV, email, Web, social media.  The theme – we’re all in this together – is resonating.

Do you have additional learnings to share?

Robert Dixon in Toronto, Canada: Nimble organisations are most likely to survive the crisis and thrive after it. We quickly adapted our engagement opportunities for virtual audiences, offering webinars on a range of subjects connected to the pandemic, and have been delighted at the enthusiastic response from alumni and friends. Opportunities to help students directly affected or to support relevant research have also been popular. Transparent, frequent and focused communication has proven critical for maintaining donor relationships and sustaining enthusiasm among staff. And at these challenging times, even a word of thanks is much appreciated.

Melody Song in Berlin: As China is gradually lifting the lockdown and going back to the new “normal”, NGO fundraisers realize many lessons learned from this crisis. One of the realizations is that when it comes to a universal crisis, individual organizations play a lesser role than a concerted government-led effort.  The question individual NGO‘s face is, which is more important: individual organizational capacity or collaborative effort to furthering a cause or movement?  

COVID-19 showed China’s fundraisers that money is not king.  Looking to the future, should partnerships change from a “here is money, come up with solution” attitude to an attitude of “let’s find a solution together”.  Lastly,  we can all agree that philanthropy is a systemic action.  We need to start thinking beyond differences amongst individual entities and focus on what we want to achieve through a systemic effort.  

Rodney Grabowski in Buffalo, New York, USA: As a Vice President responsible for the direction of our alumni engagement and philanthropy programs at the university, it is imperative that I lead the division of university advancement into the future. There are key questions I have asked my executive team to answer in reviewing and preparing for our ‘new normal’. Each member of the Executive Team was asked to identify key areas/programs under their leadership and begin answering these questions:

  1. Strategy Type: Is your work relevant now versus pre-COVID-19?   
  2. Do you have the resources you need to effectively execute this strategy during “Work From Home”?  
  3. Do you have the resources you need to effectively execute this strategy when the economy opens back up?
  4. Are you able to be effective with this strategy during “Work From Home”? 
  5. When the economy opens back up, will this strategy still be effective in the short-term (0-3 months)?       
  6. When the economy opens back up, will this strategy still be effective in the mid-term (4-12 months)?  
  7. When the economy opens back up, will this strategy still be effective in the long-term (13+ months)?

We will use the answers to these questions to reanalyze our annual budget and allocate resources to align with the strategies.

Anup Tiwari in New Dehli, India: This move towards In-kind gifts will increase the propensity to give but could reverse the relatively newer behavioural change of giving money to some extent. The NGOs that rely a lot on corporate funds will face tough times as a chunk of this money has gone to government relief funds.     

Deborah Berra in Aarau, Switzerland: Ich führe 1x die Woche einen Teamcall durch und je 2x pro Woche pro Mitarbeiterin einen kurzen Call. Des Weiteren kommunizieren wir über die Chatfunktion von Teams. Das war für mich vor allem die ersten paar Wochen sehr intensiv. Ich habe bis über 50 Stunden die Woche gearbeitet. Inzwischen pendelt sich die Situation langsam ein, so dass ich wieder mehr Zeit für meine anderen Aufgaben habe und wieder weniger Stunden arbeiten kann.

Wir haben Anfang März eine neue Mitarbeiterin eingestellt. Sie online einzuarbeiten, war und ist eine Herausforderung für beide Seiten.

Alle meine Mitarbeiterinnen sind Mütter. Die aktuelle Lage verlangt vor allem von ihnen viel ab. Homeoffice und Kinderbetreuung geht nicht so einfach nebeneinander. Da benötigt es einen Partner, der seinen Teil der Betreuung übernimmt. Es ist aber in der Schweiz immer noch so, dass wenn es um die Kinder geht, mehrheitlich die Mütter ihr Arbeitspensum senken, um ihre Betreuung zu gewährleisten.

Bill Littlejohn in San Diego, California, USA: Clearly, increased communications (probably three times more than normal) has improved our response significantly.  Also it has helped redefine the case for philanthropy for community hospitals – see my LinkedIn post . The Inside Philanthropy article on LinkedIn which talks about our success.  The collaboration with marketing and digital strategy has been very beneficial.

Based in Zurich, Switzerland, Julie Berthoud-Jury, PhD is a major giving consultant who works with amazing people to achieve big dreams.

Interested in networking internationally? Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear from you and connect you with other fundraisers around the globe.