Raising Donations in a Crisis, Part 3: Q&A With Karen Brooks Hopkins

Recently, Jim chatted with fundraising expert Karen Brooks Hopkins to see what live events organizations can do to raise funds when they can’t produce in-person events. You can watch the full conversation here, or read on for an excerpt of their conversation (which we’ll post in three parts — click here for Part 1 and Part 2).

First, a little about Karen: The Brooklyn Academy of Music President Emerita has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising and is the author of Successful Fundraising for Arts & Cultural Organizations. She served as President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1999 until her retirement in 2015 and was an employee of the institution since 1979.

Selling Out: You talked about pledges or donors whose contributions were maybe not secured yet. I assume you’re also advocating for research and outreach to those folks too? 

Karen Brooks Hopkins: That’s the front line. Because you’re already in conversation with those donors. So you want to lock in the donation. Even if you can’t get the full donation you want to lock in part. If you’re not going to get part then you defer. You keep breaking it down and you get what you can get. Some people will do more and some people will do less, and that is why you have to work every donor that you can possibly work. 

It’s never time to be coy about the ask, if you’re fundraising, you’re fundraising. 

You want to come out of this situation as close as you possibly can be to your donors and audience and supporters. 

But you can’t send people 500 emails. There’s a thin line between being persistent and being aggressive, I know because I’ve crossed it myself many times. So you want to keep an eye on that. And you want to be sensitive to the fact that this is a health emergency, you want to wish that everyone is staying healthy and staying safe, and in the worst of times it’s a great time to think about arts and culture. 

SO: Could you share some strategies or tips about how you pitch donation campaigns to the media? 

KBH: You want to be very careful about the optics around any layoffs. So you have to be careful, for example, if you’re a wealthy organization with a healthy endowment, you want to keep a lower profile, unless there’s something to gain from a very specific campaign. 

I think if you have a special story worth telling, then it makes sense to reach out to the press. 

Just raising money isn’t an interesting story. It’s really important to find stories that touch people in times of crisis and show a sense of community. Partnering, working together, trying to be smart in the field. 

Selling Out: Do you think hard copy, paper appeals are appropriate at this time? 

KBH: We want to communicate in the way that will get the best results. So if this is an older audience, and they prefer the snail mail, then give them the snail mail. 

And I think whenever you know the person, I would write a handwritten sentence or two. That stuff shows respect for donors. Everyone knows what it feels like when someone shows them respect. 

But I’m not an epidemiologist, I don’t know what the social distancing rules are, I only know the fundraising rules are. 

Selling Out: What advice do you have for organizations moving their galas online or hosting online auctions?

KBH: Don’t be surprised if you see way less return on your gala than you normally do. It’s not going to be the same, no matter what you do. 

For auctions, if you can go to a wider audience since you’re doing it online, that might open up some of that money. But I think your time would be better spent reaching out to donors individually. 

There is one thing to be said for these online events. A lot of people started having cocktails with their friends online, and that could be something you do with groups of donors. That could be fun. Set up some different topics and ask your audience if they’d like to join in the conversation. It’s an interactive way to engage, build relationships and fundraise. 

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