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Scared What an Impending Recession Could Mean for You and Your Team? Tom Berekoff on Why Fundraisers Shouldn’t Panic

By Ashley Gatewood posted 12-15-2022 15:45


CFRE International Board Chair Tom Berekoff, MA, CFRE, knows a looming recession shouldn’t put terror in the hearts of fundraising executives. With 30 years in the sector, he’s seen the procession of countless challenges (and sometimes downright scary ones) development teams can come up against.

I recently interviewed him and he shared his wise advice for any fundraiser feeling on edge about what may await in 2023.

Fundraising during a recession is nothing new to you. For development staff looking to prepare now for a possible 2023 recession, what are your top pieces of advice?
Tom: This is a very important question. We often presume because there is an economic downturn that people won’t or don’t give.

Assuming the organization’s MVP (mission + vision + purpose) still matters, times such as these are precisely when our work becomes more important than ever. Along with putting MVP front and centre in your thoughts, plans, and actions, remember there are many people and organizations who will benefit from your work. If anything, keep your mind’s eye there.

Long ago, I was reminded of an important truth about fundraising: “People give through organizations to help people” to produce “I-O-C” (impact + outcomes + change).

It is in these times when we need clarity, compassion, character, creativity, competency, and composure.

Could you provide an example from a previous recession when you ran a successful fundraising campaign or had an initiative that surpassed expectations? What do you think was the secret sauce that helped it succeed?

Tom: I was working with a hospital foundation in a very busy, growing community. The hospital was heavily used, facing the stresses and pressures of the healthcare system that are also commonplace today. The economy was in a significant downturn, and our foundation was being called upon to increase its contributions in areas directly related to patient care.

Our foundation team responded with a focused strategy, knowing we had to be clear about communicating the challenges and issues at-hand, and how these problems related directly to the needs of people.

We told specific stories to illustrate the situation, provided some highly compelling statistics to make the point clear, and then asked our current/past donors to consider their support, as well as reaching out to the entire community.

We made the opportunity to give straightforward, with specific requests helping to accomplish specific actions, and extended our promise to report back on how these investments were producing change. That latter point became an integral part of our thank you and the cornerstone of our more formal reporting.

The true bottom line here was (is) to keep it simple, focus on the significant, and make the critical connection of the donor, to what we do, for those that we serve. Another reminder here—as important as our work is, we must be very careful not to make it about us; it is about what we do, with the beneficiary(s) always top of mind. 

What do you believe is the top soft skill fundraising professionals should have when fundraising in a recession?

Tom: My answer has two parts. We need to be adept at asking good questions, which inform us. If the questions are really good, they actually illuminate the person we are asking through the response they give. There is a fundamental understanding needed—we must only ask questions that help to inform, foster learning, and stimulate action—authentically.  

The second part is we must continually work at the essential craft of listening. We listen to learn and know; and when we are truly proficient with our listening, we are making important statements to our donors, beneficiaries, subject matter experts, colleagues, and others that we are fully “in the moment.”

Listening is multi-sensory, as in addition to hearing the spoken word, we are also mindful of body language, eye contact, the environment (especially if it is the respondent’s home turf), which also tell us a lot.

As importantly, how we listen is also obvious to the respondent. They quickly engage (or dis-engage) depending on whether or not we are “fully in the moment.”

Good questions and listening are especially important during challenging times, so we can be even more empathetic to the respondent, knowing that their time is precious, and circumstances may be especially challenging. For donors, the stress associated with giving can either be reduced, alleviated, or heightened depending on our behaviour.

In challenging times, such as the start of the pandemic, some organizations took the approach of, “Let’s not bother our donors with asks. They have their own financial worries.” It’s a tempting way to think but is often flawed. What advice do you have for development staff bumping up against a CEO who believes fundraising efforts should be pulled back in a recession?

Tom: Once again, this is a matter of clarity with the organization’s MVP. 

Most often, during a recession, the needs of the people we serve are often greater than ever. A true test of our professionalism is being courageous to invite (ask for) support, and to honour the choice of the donor.

The point here is that we continue to ask, so we are not saying NO for donors and prospective donors. A further reminder that we are not asking for ourselves, and not really “for” our organizations.

Rather, we are asking for what the organization does, who it serves, and how donor support really does help make a difference. It is important to put an exclamation point on the importance of meaningful stewardship, at all times, with added emphasis during difficult times.

Beyond expressing gratitude, we need to emphasize that donor support is meaningful and has a tangible, positive consequence with the beneficiary. This validates the donor’s decision and deepens the connection between donor and beneficiary.

Many development teams are wondering how to set their fundraising targets for 2023. Based on your experience, is there a way to know if teams should aim higher, stay the same, or project downward in a recession?

Tom: I’ll begin my response with the obvious. As we look to the coming year with its uncertainty, it is essential we are diligent in our work.

This begins with KYO (knowing your organization), KYD (knowing the donors who choose to support our organizations), and KYB (knowing the beneficiaries and the nature of the challenges, issues, problems at-hand).

I like to keep things simple and, hopefully, with a focus on what is significant. I also like to use alliteration:

  • People
  • Precision
  • Persistence
  • Patience
  • Purpose
  • Promise

In general, my experience is that during a recession, the importance of our work elevates with the needs we are responding to. While these times are really far from simply “BAU” (business as usual) our plans and commitment to actions must be “BII” (business is important).

You’ve said a recession can be a time of authentic opportunity for organizations. Can you expand upon that and how nonprofits can turn a recession into a positive?
Tom: This is a time to remind the organization that its work has not stopped because of a recession, and if anything, our work is even more important. 

Ensure clarity in messaging and actions, being sure to authentically demonstrate that you and your organization are in a relationship with donors. That relationship involves trust. It is constantly being tested…when donors give and when donors decide not to give, or their circumstances prevent them from doing so.

In our work, we understand the fundraising cycle. How we plan for and put into action each phase of the cycle, needs even closer examination during challenging times. 

We need to be very clear not to “feel entitled” to a donor’s support, as though we own them. Our organizations need to maintain the posture of humility, gratitude, and confidence when donors choose to support the work we do.

In so many ways the fundraising professional is the ultimate broker.

We represent the organizations we serve; we engage with donors who choose to support this work. We are also the storyteller of the beneficiary…their voice.

In all of this we must keep a “with” posture, which comes to the essential element of this work—a clear understanding of philanthropy—the love and care of humankind. In its best form, there is no hierarchy, only humanity—which always has and will matter!

For directors of development, it will be crucial for their teams to have the required hard skills to meet (and hopefully exceed) fundraising targets in a recession. What kinds of trainings and education should directors of development make available to their staff to ensure they have the skills to fundraise in difficult times?   

Tom: The role of the leader is a continuation of what I just said about why and how we do our work. As leaders, it is really important that we do our work “with” our team.

In difficult times, to lead well:

  • Communicate clearly
  • Model the way (see The Leadership Challenge)
  • Commit to constantly reminding our team of the MVP
  • Provide inspiration and encouragement
  • Hold each other accountable
  • Show you care (whether we are winning, and when course corrections are needed)
  • Practice KYP (knowing your people)
  • Eliminate obstacles
  • Ensure staff know that you are helping them to do the right things.

Far beyond formal evaluation and reviews, these are times for the leader to be in relationship with team members. Like the economy, they may be facing extraordinary challenges, and sometimes, they feel the heavy burden of the donor and the beneficiary.

If our work matters, the elation of winning and the guilt of falling short are commonplace. As leaders, we must BE here/there, and we must DO (actions always speak loudest).