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Coronavirus event postponements mean nonprofits must adapt

COVID-19 has arrived in America. This novel coronavirus has sparked a global panic and is already affecting nearly all aspects of our lives – travel, healthcare, business, politics, and even nonprofit fundraising.

We’ve been talking to our clients and many other nonprofit organizations to get a feel for how the world of charitable giving is reacting to the coronavirus.

The biggest impact we’re seeing right now is on event fundraising. Out of an abundance of caution, some nonprofits have exhibited tremendous courage  in postponing or canceling upcoming fundraising events for their mid-major donors.

The World Health Organization has officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, so this could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes the effect on fundraising. In fact, we recommend nonprofits shore up their reserves in preparation for the months to come.

But let’s also discuss how nonprofits can adapt as this impact trickles down to mission delivery and connection with donors.


That’s where many nonprofits find themselves right now.

Organizations go through an intense process to make decisions on whether to postpone an event, and they consider all possible outcomes before determining their course of action.

If they choose to keep their fundraising event as scheduled, they’re getting a large group of people together in a room and potentially allowing the virus to spread. They might also face backlash from those involved, who could view it as a selfish decision.

If they choose the more responsible route of canceling or postponing, they could run into another host of issues. The biggest of those is the loss of much-needed revenue.

While nonprofits are missing out on donations, they also may not even get their deposits back for the event. The Global Healthy Living Foundation just discovered this when a New York hotel refused to refund their money after they canceled their conference.

(Related: Get the latest coronavirus updates for upcoming nonprofit conferences.)

Many large, national organizations have already secured much of their mid-major donor revenue prior to an event, but smaller, regional and local groups are counting on receiving these gifts at the event itself. The loss of this revenue directly impacts mission delivery, which ultimately impacts the lives of those served by the nonprofit.

People dealing with hunger won’t get the food they need. People suffering from diseases will see delays in getting the life-saving therapies they need. People struggling with addiction and homelessness won’t get the help and care they need.


We’ve seen this situation before with huge hits to fundraising events after the 9/11 tragedy (2001), the H1N1 flu epidemic (2009) and the Ebola scare (2014).

Nonprofits always find a way to get through it. The key is to be strategic and creative while relying on the relationships you’ve built with donors. If handled correctly, it can actually increase revenue and deepen relationships.

What can nonprofits do this time around?

First, turn off the TV news and don’t panic. It’s important to be prepared and have a plan, but that requires a clear head and focus.

Once you’ve done that, here are some steps you can implement:

  1. Make your donors the heroes. Reinforce your message to donors that they are the solution to serving the underserved and keeping your mission moving forward.
  2. If you’ve made the difficult decision to postpone an event, now is the time to rely on your most loyal and committed donors to fill the gap. Relationship-driven fundraising is more critical than ever, and mid/major donors will be key.
  3. Lean into your direct-response marketing program. Increase your meaningful digital campaigns, including social media. Increase your phone support and telemarketing. As always, make a clear case for support that demonstrates impact within your messaging.
  4. Communicate with your donors. Post video updates to your social media pages to keep people informed about the coronavirus and its effect on your organization. Include thank-you messages to donors for helping you through this trying time.

Our biggest piece of advice: Hang in there! Your organization will survive this challenge brought on by the coronavirus and emerge stronger on the other side.

Karla Baldelli

Karla is an elite nonprofit fundraising executive with a 25-year career in mid-level and distinguished donor fundraising, engagement and stewardship for major nonprofits. Her experience includes transformational roles with JDRF, Coast Guard Foundation, American Heart Association, Arthritis Foundation, The Salvation Army and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. While at the American Heart Association, Karla built the first-ever mega-donor event, Honored Guest Day.  She designed the campaign architecture for the $100 million Mission Lifeline Campaign and conceived the AHA’s National Giving Society, Cor Vitae.

Karla brings strong leadership and strategic counsel for thoughtful, year-round donor experience strategies integrated throughout campaigns and giving channels. Her expertise is changing the culture of major donor programs, including educating staff with her proprietary training, the Power of the Donor Experience.  Since coming to RKD, she has implemented a holistic program - leading with data insights and centered on the donor experience and organizational execution - that results in more inspired giving and increased revenue.   

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