How Nonprofits Can Fundraise During a Recession

What to say in an appeal asking for donations

Every few years, there will be a national or international crisis event resulting in a financial recession. Some are more severe than others, impacting people’s spending ability, which in turn impacts your revenue as a nonprofit.

We’re in the midst of a recession caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantines. Like businesses, you as a nonprofit are struggling. You’ve most likely seen a significant drop in donations, had to cut back on programs, and possibly even furlough or let go of staff.

You need revenue to continue operating, but is now a good time to solicit donations?


Should We Ask for Donations?

A lot of nonprofits are wrestling with this question. Everyone is struggling. Would it seem tone-deaf to ask people to donate now? And if we do ask, what’s the appropriate way to do it?

Before even approaching the question of donations, the first thing to check is your relationship with your donors. Hopefully you’ve been nurturing the relationships with your support base through engaging marketing and personal contact. You need have a level of trust with your supporters before you make this kind of ask. This article has some really great advice on how to navigate donor relationships.

If you’re a nonprofit that works in a sector directly impacted by COVID-19, or any other crisis, then there is no question that you should ask for donations. This applies to nonprofits across the board when dealing with crisis events such as conflict, natural disasters, or any significant shift. Supporters expect you to ask for donations and are more open to giving because they see an immediate need that can be met.

But if your work is not involved in that crisis, you can’t honestly solicit funds to help in that event. However, when the crisis event results in a recession, as in the current situation, you have a legitimate need to raise funds right now.

Only you can tell when the right time to make this appeal is. It’ll need to be preempted with messages of empathy along with getting a pulse on how your supporters are doing. When you’re ready to make an appeal to your supporters for donations, here are some key points to keep in mind.


Key Message Points to Communicate

The following points form a good template for an appeal, whether by email, print newsletter, or video. However, they can be rearranged to best fit your message.

Empathize with your supporters. Acknowledge that it’s a difficult time for everyone so it doesn’t feel like this is coming out of nowhere. Thank them for taking the time to read or watch this message even though they have a lot on their minds.

Share the honest reality of how the recession has affected your organization. When typically you want to convey strength and an optimistic outlook, now is the the time to be blunt. Let people know that just like businesses, the recession has caused a drop in your funding. Tell them what has happened or will happen with your staff and your programs as a result of the lowered revenue.

Remind people of the importance of the mission. Even if what you do has no relation to the crisis, let people know that your work is still important and it must go on. Your supporters already believe in your mission – help them remember why they care.

Be clear about what your strategy is. If money is tight for both you and your donors, it’s important to reassure them of how frugal and effective you will be. Outline how you intend to adjust your programs and modify your work, both in the short term and the long term.

Acknowledge your supporters’ financial situation. They need to know that you’re aware of their struggles. Before you make an ask, show that you know how difficult of an ask this is given the current recession.

Ask donors to self-select. Tell them that if they are in a difficult financial situation, they don’t have to give. This will relieve their guilt, show that you truly care, and build loyalty for future donations. Then say that if they are in a secure financial position, ask them to donate above and beyond what they normally would to help fill the gap. Many nonprofits are afraid to make a bold ask like this, but if you’ve developed a strong rapport with your supporters, they’ll be eager to answer the call to step up.

This article has some further suggestions on a fundraising email with an example that was sent from the YMCA.


Sample Coronavirus Fundraising Email

This is an actual email that I sent out on behalf of a nonprofit I work with. This followed about a month of weekly emails simply updating the supporters on the nonprofit’s work in the midst of the crisis, along with providing mental and emotional health resources for them. This email was the first time directly asking for donations since the pandemic started.

The nonprofit’s name has been removed, and the email has been modified to reflect a generic mission so you can see how it could fit with your nonprofit.

Dear Steven,

Every week, we hope our emails find you well. But we know this is a time of great struggle for many people – physically, emotionally, and financially.

Businesses across the country are also suffering financial losses, and that includes nonprofits. We want to be honest and transparent with you during this season – [Nonprofit] has experienced it too. As a result, some of our field programs have been temporarily suspended.

Despite the significant decrease in donations we’ve experienced over the past month, our mission is needed now more than ever. To ensure our field partners can continue their critical work, we are pulling from our rainy-day reserves to fund them. Our office staff will also be taking a slight, temporary pay cut, and we will be suspending all print communication to save money.

We know you’ve supported [Nonprofit] in the past, and we are so grateful for you. If you are currently in a difficult financial situation, we are NOT asking you to give. Please take care of yourself and your family.

However, if you are in a position of financial stability during this crisis, will you consider making an increased gift, or becoming a monthly donor?

In a time of chaos and despair, you can provide hope for those who need it the most. Will you step up and help fill the gap?

This email had a positive response with one of the most donations the nonprofit had ever received through a single campaign. It was also segmented and sent to people who had never donated with slightly different messaging, and the nonprofit got more new donors in a day than they had received this year so far.

Of course, this email was written for a specific audience of supporters of the nonprofit. How you communicate with your supporters will depend on your brand messaging and relationship with them. This article has a helpful breakdown of a nonprofit email soliciting donations during this crisis.


In any kind of crisis, nonprofits tend to lean towards one of two extremes. They’re either too afraid to ask for donations, thinking they’ll be perceived as insensitive. Or they’re too aggressive and plead for donations like it’s the end of the world.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for donations in a crisis, even when your supporters are financially struggling. It just needs to be a balance of true empathy and honest audacity. It also can’t happen unless there’s a level of trust from your supporters built from an ongoing relationship.

A single appeal probably won’t recoup all your losses, and depending on how long the recession is, you might be struggling for awhile. But occasional campaigns like this one can help your organization keep its core program running and staff onboard, while also building a deeper relationship with your donors.


Article originally published on Medium.


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