James Murphy, Ph.D. CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

How well did your culture of philanthropy perform during the “pandemic stress test?” What lessons can you draw from the past few months of disruption to inform your fundraising strategy and help set priorities to move forward?

It seems clear that during the height of the crisis, philanthropy played an essential role in quickly developing new resources to fight the challenges of coronavirus. Many organizations shifted to targeted, transactional fundraising with great success, sometimes at the behest of donors. In the case of one hospital, a donor committed a six-figure gift with the condition that the hospital launches a COVID-19 fund to build on her donation. Other organizations were less prepared and made a choice to freeze budgets and reduce advancement staff as part of a policy to identify “essential” and “nonessential” roles.

Whatever shape the future takes, it is no longer business as usual. Strong organizations that thrived during the crisis should not be complacent. Lesser-prepared organizations should assess their approach to philanthropy to build new resources. Either way, now is the time to develop a robust, go-forward strategy to ensure your culture of philanthropy is seen as essential to the future of the organization.

Building a stronger culture of philanthropy while executing a more aggressive fundraising strategy is tricky to pull off, but it can begin with an assessment of how well you performed under the pressure of crisis. It starts with data. Comparing the first six months of 2020 to previous years will provide an indication of how effective various methods of fundraising have been. Event-driven fundraising is likely to show underperformance, while direct appeals may show a spike up in results. While recent results may be atypical, they could indicate a need to develop alternate sources of revenue. Similarly, direct appeal results may skew higher, but could indicate future potential or help identify new donors.

Data is only one part of the mix. Listening deeply to your donors remains key. In all likelihood, causes and initiatives that were important to donors before the crisis remain important. During the crisis many organizations did an admirable job of reaching out to donors simply to engage in a conversation, to check in with them during a period of forced isolation. What did your donors tell you about their feelings, passions, and hopes? What effect has the crisis had on how they think about their own giving? Have their priorities or passions shifted? How can we shape our fundraising strategy in response to these shifts? How can we communicate more effectively with donors?

Advancement teams should be sharing donor stories in facilitated “focused listening sessions” designed to identify common themes and insights. Capturing themes will help deepen your knowledge and understanding of donors and help guide your work in building a donor-centered culture of philanthropy. As Mark McCampbell, senior vice president at Advancement Resources puts it, “With donors, you never stop pursuing their passion.”

The crisis has brought into focus the urgent and critical need to be on top of your game at all times. While we as advancement professionals are convinced of the value of our work, it is critical to communicate to leaders, boards, and donors that a strong culture of philanthropy is integral to the success of the organizational mission. We know from their generous response that donors will step up when there is an urgent need. But donor-centered philanthropy remains the key to transformational contributions. Pursing those contributions requires dedicated commitment to the process of donor engagement.


Looking to strengthen the culture of philanthropy at your institution? Contact us today to explore how Advancement Resources can walk beside you as you work to build a robust culture of philanthropy at your organization. Or consider beginning your journey by building your skills at one of our public offerings.

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