Compassionate Leadership Keeps Fundraising Team Engaged During Pandemic

By Beverly Neisler posted 21 days ago


Last year, none of us knew what we were facing when the announcement came that our team was required to go home to work due to this thing called the COVID-19 pandemic. We cancelled a much-anticipated donor gathering scheduled for the weekend, packed up our offices, and vowed to see each other in a few weeks.

At that point, only a few of us were familiar with virtual meeting platforms like Teams or Zoom.Terms like PPE, super-spreader events, and social distancing became part of our everyday vernacular.

Quickly Pivoting

The team at HSHS St. John’s Foundation, at the time, had eight full-time employees. Quickly, we began making plans to adapt. How could we turn in-person gatherings into virtual events? How will we steward donors and continue to fundraise without seeming insensitive to the current situation; and what would it take to adapt to a new normal when we didn’t understand what the new normal would be?

The hospital stopped surgical procedures to make room for the anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients. Many people in our health system lost their jobs—another jarring effect of this new normal. Two of our full-time foundation positions were eliminated. The news was devastating, but there were no complaints, just a resolve we were going to get through this.

We always prided ourselves on being a tight-knit team. As their leader, my years of managing people and situations were put to the test. There was a feeling of leading people through a black tunnel with the fervent hope we would  reach the other side and come out stronger.

The term “compassionate leadership” kept coming to me; to meet my teammates where they were in the moment; to be a compassionate listener; and to adopt the attitude that our donors will be there for us, but we must take care of our team, first.

Staying Connected

Although I am not someone who thrives on micromanaging, I felt the need to do regular check-ins with our team to see how they were doing, help answer questions, brainstorm or provide whatever they needed.

We began using Zoom to connect with each other. We set up daily team checks-ins at 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., and insisted cameras be turned on to literally “see” everyone. We welcomed the cameo appearances of spouses, significant others, kids, dogs, and cats to lighten the mood. We scheduled Zoom team happy hours, some with themes. From time to time, we ate lunch together on Zoom. We learned to laugh and enjoy each other in the moment, whatever the moment brought, and to not take ourselves too seriously. We continued to remind ourselves our team is “small but mighty.”

On a personal level, our team faced much adversity. Team members dealt with deployment of a spouse, remote school learning, personal health crises, and one person lost her dad to COVID-19.

Additionally, we had numerous quarantine scares as well as one COVID-19 diagnosis on the team. The path has been anything but smooth. But through it all, we did our best to take care of each other.

While dealing with personal crises on the team, we did our best to take care of our donors. We have missed them so much.

Fundraising Success in a Pandemic

One month in from working remotely, we hosted three virtual fundraising events with 84 percent of our attendees making contributions to our pediatric healing garden. We hosted a virtual donor stewardship gathering complete with our donors picking up gourmet dinners and watching a concert, all from our homes.

We called our donors to check in: we texted them; we emailed them; we Zoomed with them; and we kept the hope alive that our donors would be there for us when we came out on the other side of this pandemic.

Our diligence has paid off. Last June, just a few months from the start of the pandemic, our team closed a $1 million gift for the HSHS St. John’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and in just a few weeks, we will announce a $1 million fundraising agreement with Panda Express, one of our beloved corporate partners with Children’s Miracle Network.

Providing channels for open communication, meeting each teammate where they are, adjusting plans when needed, offering praise when things go well and working to remove barriers gives us the motivation to keep going. This team does not get bogged down in the “what ifs,” and we do not buy in to any negativity.

We believe our donors will continue to be here for us when COVID-19 is in our rearview mirrors. Today, with the dawning of vaccines, there is sunlight in the black tunnel we once found ourselves in. Our team is as strong as ever.