Fighting the turtles

The data are in.  So far, mail results are generally ranging from steady to up in the current crisis per caging results from Aegis.  Digital results are upDRTV results are up.  Many nonprofits are still hurting with an unholy combination of disruptions to service models, greater service demands (or, in the case of organizations like museums, no active engagement), and loss of significant channels like events, canvassing, and face-to-face major gift fundraising.  But direct response fundraising has been a light in a dark place.

So what is the next step for nonprofits?  If you listen to Harvard Business School’s recent advice, it’s “hoard your cash” in their piece Nonprofits Hurt by COVID-19 Must Hoard Cash to Hold On.

To be clear, the sin in this article is largely in the title, as there’s some wise advice therein.  And it’s clear that Harvard Business School doesn’t even believe its own advice, as it is currently hiring in its development department.

But the temptation to withdraw into our protective shell and hope that we won’t be hurt is all too common in the nonprofit world.  This conservativism is a cousin to the anti-overhead mania that periodically ripples through and against the sector like a fart in a crowded room.

The idea of curling into a ball is seductive.  Almost all nonprofit missions will not be accomplished in 2020.  Thus, there is a deep need for our organizations to continue beyond the deep valley that has begun and has yet not stopped going down.  So there’s no question that we need to survive.

But is mere survival enough?  Should we starve ourselves for the future, trying to transcend lean and mean until we are emaciated and ticked off?

We should not.  We will have to be at our fighting weights in the current crisis, in the aftermath, and beyond.

To do that means ducking and covering isn’t a strategy.  Reserves were built for a rainy day.  And it’s raining. 

So our reserves should not be in a bank or a mattress where they help neither our organizations nor the people we aim to serve. 

Let’s keep investing where we can not just survive but thrive.  Let’s put that money into getting donors, keeping their loyalty, and increasing their value.  The return is better than any bank.  And, as we talked about at the outset, there are realms — mail, digital, DRTV, PSAs, and other direct marketing forms — where that investment is paying off better than ever before.

If we fail to cultivate our donor resources — in either acquiring or retaining our donors — we will come out of the current unpleasantness not only starved for resources but without the base to get more.  But if we do, we can not only survive but thrive.

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