Making tough decisions with no road map

March 17, 2020

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Responding to the Current Moment

Given that most nonprofits focus on bringing people together, the rapidly changing circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic and rapid decisions being made by government, communities, and organizations, such as restricting large gatherings, go straight to the heart of our mission and goals.

So what should we do? We can’t control what may happen in the next few weeks. But we can control how we handle it.

I’m not a public health expert, and I can’t tell you what to do about cancelling events or programs. I can offer some advice about how to approach those decisions and communicate them to your supporters and participants.

As ever, start with your mission and values.

Centering your mission and core values is never the wrong choice. What do these statements – crafted during more peaceful and focused times – tell you about how you should approach the current situation? Clues about how to act can be found in the principles you have already defined.

Show your circles of support that you care about them

Nonprofits are surrounded by “circles of support” – their board members, staff, volunteers, participants, audience members, donors, funders, and partners. These people are part of your mission, and they make your work possible. Don’t become so concerned about your nonprofit that you forget to show care for the people who matter to that mission. Consider how the choices in front of you (closures, interruptions of services, postponements or cancellations of events) will affect them. Allow their points of view to inform your decisions.

We’re in this together. Say that.

What do you say to people when you have to cancel something – something that they were looking forward to, or something that might be very important to them? Be honest. Explain the reasoning behind your decision. Be kind. Acknowledge that you are disappointed, and so are they. Thank them for their past support, and ask them to stick with you during this crisis.

Offer whatever information you can.

Whether you are choosing to cancel an event or following a government recommendation for closure, people will still want to know how you are going to proceed. Will the event be rescheduled? Offered online? Outright canceled? Give people this information as soon as you know it. Uncertainty is making us all anxious. Don’t let your event be the source of someone’s anxiety.

Ask for their continued support.

This is particularly important for fundraising events that may be canceled. When this occurs, try to reach your sponsors before you make a public announcement. Ask them if they will allow you to keep their event sponsorship funds and deliver their benefits in some other way. Then, ask ticket buyers if they would be willing to convert their event tickets into a donation. Most people coming to these events are already your friends, or they are friends of your friends. Deploy your event committee members to ask people for their generosity in allowing their ticket purchase to be retained as a donation. Send thank you letters noting the 100% tax-deductibility of this gift immediately. (Tip: if your whole office will be working remotely, make sure that at least two people go home with letterhead, envelopes, stamps, and access to the donor database so these letters can be produced. You can reimburse employees for their home printer ink as well).

Inflexibility is not a good look.

If you are planning a ticketed event that is not a fundraiser, consider how you handle patron inquiries very carefully. Firmly enforcing a “no refunds, no exchanges” policy at this moment does not make you look like you care about your audiences and patrons. Remember, we’re all in this together.

Whether your event is going ahead or cancelled:

  • Be flexible in your exchange policy and offer to send people gift cards for the value of their tickets.
  • Many organizations promote turning your unused tickets into a donation instead. This was a stronger option in the past – but most typical ticket buyers no longer itemize their taxes. You can offer ticket donations as an option, but if you insist on this it will feel as though your organization is just keeping their money because you can. Don’t expect to see these ticket buyers in the future when things have settled down, and expect negative social media backlash from frustrated audience members.

A local theater issued this email to their ticket holders when they had to cancel their current production, which communicates options clearly:

“Current ticketholders may:

  • Support us by converting your ticket into a tax-deductible donation
  • Exchange your tickets for our next production 
  • Put the cost of your ticket towards the cost of a 2020/21 Subscription
  • Receive a refund

We are accepting returns and waiving exchange fees for the foreseeable future. Please call our friendly Box Office team to help you through this process.

If you would like to help us mitigate the losses we may incur as a result of the virus, please consider a tax deduction.”

Note how this email is clear about options, asks for donations but does not insist on them, and offers personal service to each ticket holder. This is a good example of taking everyone’s needs into account in your communications.

Ask for help…remembering that everyone needs help right now.

This point is for all nonprofits, but is particularly relevant for cultural groups that rely on earned revenue. Your circle of supporters cares about you, and recognizes that event cancellations will be financially hard on you. You should ask for their extra help if you need it. In these early days, I am seeing the most positive reactions to this when the gift is positioned as helping the organization meet a specific need related to the crisis. For example:

  • An area ballet company has had to cancel their spring series and community dance classes, but has committed to paying their staff, dance company, and teaching artists. Supporters can offer gifts aimed at helping them meet their payroll without their ticket revenue.
  • My alma mater has opened a Student Emergency Fund so that alumnae can support sudden expenses for students who are challenged in traveling home and learning remotely for the rest of the semester. The College has not promoted this – instead, it’s been traveling through social media from alum to alum, reminding us that helping the college right now really matters. This is a great example of asking your most committed supporters to reach out to others in your circle, reminding everyone that we are connected by our shared love of the organization.

These are hard times, and there is no tried-and-true strategy for managing these challenges. Rely on what you already know – center your mission and values in your decision making. And keep your circles of support close to you. Demonstrate that you care about them, just as they care about your organization and its mission.

Stay well.

Trimarco Headshot smAllison Trimarco is an affiliated Instructor and Facilitator with The Nonprofit Center at the La Salle University School of Business. She also owns Creative Capacity, a private consulting practice. She facilitates the fundraising and strategic planning sessions in Dodge’s Board Leadership Series.