Independent Learning

Philanthropic Engagement: Principles and Adjustments


The COVID-19 pandemic has required organizations to adapt quickly to serve their respective communities effectively. In a crisis, how can leaders resource the capital necessary to sustain their social enterprises and support both internal and external stakeholders? To answer this question, The Center for Social Impact Strategy (CSIS) and CCS Fundraising explored nine principles for fundraising in an effort to help impact leaders raise philanthropic capital in uncertain times. Presenters from the CCS team included Greg Hagin, Elizabeth Abel, Jordana Cohen, Casey May, Carolyn McLaughlin, and Chloe Singer, and Anna Dausman from CSIS moderated. What follows is a summary of what we learned from the knowledge and experience that they shared.


Learning Objectives:

  • Gain an understanding of the nine timeless fundraising principles 
  • Learn how to adapt each principle during a global or national crisis
  • Have concrete examples on how to employ each adapted principle 


Nine Timeless Fundraising Principles:

The timeless principles for fundraising encourage organizations to pivot their strategies and remain communicative to ensure transparency with internal and external stakeholders.

1. Increase Communication

During a national or global crisis it is important to keep stakeholders informed and engaged. In a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, donors remain interested in how organizations are impacted and the actions being taken to continue to advance their mission. There are two central kinds of stakeholders to increase communication with: Internal stakeholders, such as board members and staff, and external stakeholders, which could include current and past donors, members, and clients, and foundation and corporate partners.

Example: It is important to Increase communication even when unable to meet in person. Organizations should utilize targeted, tailored messaging through video calls, phone calls, email, text, and/or mail. 

2. Avoid Wholesale Cancellation of Fundraising Plans

Before considering cancellation think through what you can continue to do during a crisis. Evaluate if your organization can perform strategic pivots. It is important to adhere to your overall fundraising plan and strategies if they can be retained through reasonable adjustments, such as adapting day-to-day meetings, events, and activities, depending on your local circumstances. 


Donor Lunch (original event) → Donor Video or Phone Call (alternate option)

Weekly Team Meeting (original event) → Zoom Meeting, Shared Google Doc, Daily Phone Calls (alternate option)

Gala/Fundraising Event (original event) → Online fundraising page/silent auction, request to convert purchased tickets to donation, share creative and relevant content to registrants that demonstrates your organization’s mission through email and on website (alternate option)

3. Reaffirm Your Mission and Impact

Although a crisis changes the external environment, your organization’s mission remains critical to those you serve. Therefore, it is important to reaffirm your organization’s mission and continuously remind donors of the impact of your work in the current environment. 

Example: Tailor your organization’s messaging to demonstrate how your values, mission, and vision align with and are relevant to the current circumstances and convey how your organization will be relevant post-crisis. 

4. Develop a Short-Term Action Plan

During a national or global crisis it is critical to develop a plan of action in an effort to continue to raise capital. This strategy includes the development of  a short-term communication plan, featuring an outreach initiative of personal calls and emails to key donors and friends engaged. 

Example: Construct a communications/outreach plan for the next 30-60-90 days, demonstrating small pivots rather than large shifts and a focused commitment to strategic vision and mission. 

5. Leverage Technology

In the case of a crisis where your organization is unable to conduct activities in person, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to leverage tech to enhance and continue organizational functions. Consider using mainstream technology such as video conference platforms like Zoom, as well as mobile or email communication, to reach those who may have limited access to technology. 

Example: Incorporate video conferencing, podcasts, or virtual briefings that make meetings more dynamic and create personal experiences regardless of distance. Consider how social media or other virtual platforms can serve as temporary alternatives to in-person convenings (e.g. zoom).These virtual platforms can engage stakeholders and staff, creating personal experiences. 

6. Motivate Stakeholders

In times of crisis, organizations must motivate trustees, administrative leadership, and staff by reminding them of the resilience of philanthropy in difficult times. This motivation starts from the top down (Board→ Administrative Leadership→ Development Staff→ Organizations Constituents). 

Example: To motivate donors and promote engagement reach out to them asking how they and their family are doing during this time? This will let them know that you’re thinking empathetically and are genuinely concerned about their wellbeing, making donors more inclined to give to institutions, especially during times of crisis.

7. Share Philanthropic Information

When a national and or global crisis has changed the landscape of your organization’s field, it is critical to remain knowledgeable on the new innovations emerging to meet the needs of the sector. Therefore, it is important to share the latest philanthropic information to both motivate leadership and temper expectations. 

Example: Increase your organization’s value by contributing to, employing, or remaining up-to-date on innovations highlighted in updated sources such as: Chronicle of Philanthropy, Stanford Social Innovation Review, NonProfit Times, Nonprofit Quarterly, Philanthropy News Digest, CCS Fundraising Blog, CSIS Blog & Independent Learning Resources. 

8. Consider Special Briefings

When faced with a rapid and ever evolving environment, your organization must remain transparent; convey to your stakeholders current opportunities, progress, and or future changes in relation to the organization. This information can be relayed through a series of briefings updating stakeholders on issues pertinent to the current situation. 

Example: Special Briefing Topics

Operations: Provide updates on general operations, such as schedule or location changes.

Events: Share detailed information on event cancellations or postponements.

Giving: Ensure that donors are aware of giving opportunities and changes to policies or deadlines.

Employees: Provide insight on how your organization is accommodating employees

Plans: Provide insight on how your organization is accommodating employees.        

9. Show Empathy and Concern

During a national crisis, it is important to take time to acknowledge the span of its impact. Giving is a two-way street, and donors want to know that you value them and are concerned about their wellbeing. Offer any resources that might be helpful to your stakeholders and remain rooted in empathy.

Example: Dr. Brené Brown’s four steps to showing empathy. 

  1. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes;
  2. Staying out of judgement and listening;
  3. Recognizing emotion in another person that you have maybe felt before; and
  4. Communicating that you can recognize that emotion.



In times of crisis, social impact leaders must remain steadfast in advancing the mission of their organization. The Timeless Principles for Fundraising offer organizations the opportunity to reflect on their current environment and pivot to meet the needs of stakeholders. After exploring each principle CCS closed with an insightful period of Q & A. For additional reflections and examples, explore the highlights from the Q & A, as well as the additional resource list. Let us continue to advance our missions; during times of crisis our communities and the world at large depend on our adaptability and compassion.


Q & A: CCS Team and Audience

Q: What are best practices and recommendations for approaching conversations asking donors to switch prior gifts or funds from restricted to unrestricted?

A (CCS): It is important to lead with your mission and reaffirm your impact. If you’re truly opening with empathy and caring concern (e.g. How is your family doing? How’s your business doing, how are these times for you?) you allow a donor on a case by case basis to express what is happening in their world and in their lives. Oftentimes that invites a response from them asking about you as leaders and fundraisers of the organization; what are your finances like? Are you losing money? How has this impacted your employees? How can I help? Leading with a genuine concern creates a dynamic conducive to understanding and empathy, and is therefore important when approaching these conversations .

Q: How can an organization turn a planned fundraiser into a virtual one when so many of the participants are themselves experiencing economic hardship?

A (CCS): It is important to ensure events are not insincere given the current environment. How do we make an event relevant? Can COVID-19 funding opportunities be woven into an event? As you answer these questions it is important to lead with empathy and concern. Organizations must acknowledge the impact the pandemic is having worldwide and speak to the larger issue at hand. Remain genuine, as giving is a two-way street; donors want to know that you value them and are concerned about their wellbeing.

Q: The cost savings from switching from in person training to virtual training is huge and saving organizations thousands of dollars. However, they still need to raise money. Any suggestions on approaching fundraising when the program costs have actually gone down during this time?

A (CCS): The world moving forward is going to be a blend of the old and new. I would make the pitch for patient and or flexible capital. Ideally you want unrestricted or operating dollars to survive the pandemic and thrive on the other side of the global crisis. At the end of the day mission and organizational leadership matter most. For instance, if your organization was in the middle of a capital campaign there are more than likely significant asks to donors. How do we navigate those asks given the pandemic? You can either pivot to steward those donors or provide sufficient reasoning why their investment will still make an impact generally or greater given the current environment. It is a three pronged approach: (1) make sure that the donor recognizes that they’re investing in your organization because they care about your mission, (2) they value your leadership, and (3) convey the impact of their gift broadly and also tie it back to the current environment. It is okay to stay in front of your donors and remind them that they are (and will probably remain) passionate about your mission. 

Q: Are there any standout developments in funding or philanthropy that aim at structural issues that might have been exacerbated or worsened in the effects of the pandemic?

A (CCS): This pandemic has laid bare the inequities in society and they have been exacerbated. In terms of system thinking solutions. I think some of the best examples are collaborative initiatives. For instance, the PHL COVID-19 Fund a collaboration between The Philadelphia Foundation, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and the City of Philadelphia. The idea of cross sector collaboration is critical in crises because not any one sector has all the solutions. The role of philanthropy is to connect civil society organizations, the public sector, and the private sector. Philanthropy is the risk capital to address those gaps and to pull things together.


Additional Resources List

Based on the Instruction of : Greg Hagin, Elizabeth Abel, Jordana Cohen, Chloe Singer, Casey May, Carolyn McLaughlin, and Anna Dausman, during the webinar Timeless Principles for Fundraising on April 29, 2020. 

With contributions by CSIS team members: Ariel Schwartz, Julia DaSilva, Eliza Halpin