Are major donors the answer to Covid-19 deficits?

As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic worsens, Rebecca Cooney finds out whether wealthy individuals are still prepared to hand out large gifts to charity

In fundraising, every penny counts. Every donation, no matter how small, can help a charity’s mission to change the world, and is gratefully received. That said, an exceptionally large gift will always be especially welcome – and can make an enormous difference to a charity and the people it works with. 

So, as charity belts tighten and in-person fundraising events recede into distant memory, could major donors help organisations to plug a growing number of funding gaps? 

Emergency donations 

Anna Josse, chief executive of the donation management charity Prism the Gift Fund, says many of the high-net-worth individuals who are likely to be major donors have been largely unaffected by the economic impact of the global pandemic. 

“It depends on your wealth – if you have a huge amount, even if you’ve lost what seems like a massive sum, it’s all relative and you still have a huge amount of money left,” she says. 

“I have seen many major donors continue the giving they had already committed to, and some who have increased their giving to include emergency Covid donations.”

Lesley Alborough, research fellow at the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, agrees – but adds that charities may still be missing out on opportunities to bring in much-needed funds. 

“Anecdotally, my overall impression is that major donors have not stopped giving, but they have stopped being asked,” she says. 

“Many major donor fundraisers have been furloughed, events have been cancelled, and there’s a sense that since it’s more difficult to engage with this group of donors, organisations have stopped trying.”

Another complicating factor, according to Alborough, is that decisions about whether to pursue major donor options are often made at management level, by people who are not fundraisers themselves. 

That said, she adds: “Where charities have found a way to continue emailing or picking up the phone and staying in touch with their major donors, those donors are the ones who have continued to give – and often where there are established major gifts relationships, those donors have automatically come forward, because they realise that they are needed by the organisation.” 

An underdeveloped market 

Josse agrees that maintaining relationships with individuals who have given generously in the past may be more difficult at the moment, but it is still worth doing. 

Events involving major donors on Zoom may be less relaxed, she says, but simple things like asking all attendees to turn their video on can help to create a more personal and interactive experience. 

Having previously worked in US and Israeli charities, Josse believes the major donor market in the UK is underdeveloped by comparison – something that is only partly caused by a British reticence when it comes to talking about money.

“The problem in this country is that, if you look at a lot of large charities, they’re useless at major donor gifts,” she says, arguing that acknowledging this issue within the UK charity sector would be a major step toward creating more opportunities.

“Many of them have been historically good at direct mail and grant fundraising, for example, but their major donor fundraising is poor,
and the fundraisers who are comfortable getting engaged and asking for money are few and far between.”

Charities without an existing major gifts programme will find starting one takes time and resources, and will not be a “magic wand” that can solve a Covid-induced fundraising crisis, Josse warns. 

In the absence of such a programme, she says, it is worth keeping an eye on relationships with regular donors who give smaller amounts, because it is very possible that among them is someone who could and would gladly give more, but has simply never been asked. 

Aldborough agrees. “It is always a good time to start looking at building a major donor gifts programme, if you have the resources,” she says. 

“Your board of trustees and your existing relationships may give you somewhere to start – but this income stream isn’t going to be your saviour, because we all know these things take time, and right now, people are in crisis.”

All the same, she says, as the pandemic pushes people to think more about wider societal issues, “we are seeing people becoming donors and advocates in ways that probably hadn’t occurred to them before”. So, if you have a relationship with someone who might be able to help, it may be worth giving them a call. 

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