The Nonprofit Hard Times Survival Guide

Is Your Charity Ready to Ride Out Any Economic or Political Storm?

Is your nonprofit suffering from economic forces beyond your control? It could be sudden political change threatening the charitable tax deduction, a recession, or just a downturn that affects your best donors.  Don't duck for cover, though!  Reach for your stormy times backup plan instead.

Weathering tough times should not send your nonprofit skittering to the bunkers, but it should sharpen your focus and improve your efficiencies. Here are several suggestions to consider for the inevitable economic bad times or political headwinds. 

Don't pull back on fundraising.

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Just as companies need to continue advertising during a downturn to keep their names before the public, nonprofits will gain nothing by retreating. Not only should you not retreat, but you should also become even more focused. Look at your donor lists again, sharpen your case for support, get more personal, and cultivate your donors without apologies.

Let your donors know that those you help are in more need than ever.

Group of volunteers joining hands.
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No matter how donors may be hurt by an economic downturn or how the political winds shift toward your particular cause, remember that those you serve will be damaged far more and have less opportunity to recover. Be upfront with donors and let them know that the demand for your services increases during times of economic or political uncertainty.

Find the stories that will touch the hearts of your donors.

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Now, more than ever, search out the personal testimonies of your clients and let them speak to your donors in their own words. Don't sink into begging, but show the shared humanity between donors and those served.

Even if you are working with clients that have sensitive issues, there are ways to tell their stories without jeopardizing their confidentiality. Stories always win over sheer data. Use facts strategically, but lead with stories. More

Stay in touch with people who have stopped giving.

Brainstorming session.
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It is much better to keep in touch with lapsed donors. Keeping up communications will help those donors resume giving when they can, once again, afford it. They will feel close to those nonprofits with which they have an unbroken relationship.

Find new donors by looking in unexpected places.

Young people serving on a nonprofit board.
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For instance, recessions don't affect everyone. Some businesses are relatively recession-proof. Look for money where other organizations are not. Keep up with the business press to spot those companies that are still doing well.

Don't write off donors that you think won't resonate with your cause. Generous people come in all political and religious persuasions. Fight the temptation to segregate your appeals to only the types of people you know. At times of economic or political upheaval, broaden your base.

Take the opportunity to lower fundraising costs.

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Forget your expensive fundraising events and go directly to your donors for their help. For instance try wrapping a simple, low-cost mailing around the fact that you are lowering overhead by skipping the event, and ask for a direct gift that will put more services and money into your clients' lives.

Also, ask donors to help you devote more of their donor dollars to direct service by signing up for online delivery of your communications such as newsletters. Double down on your online monthly giving appeals and brush up on how to retain donors. Steady income will be a blessing.

Cut costs - sensibly

Woman looking through receipts for her taxes.
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In tough times, it can be just as important to cut costs as to raise revenue. But don't reduce costs in a way that will impair your organization's long-term health or ability to achieve its core mission.

Take a look at what is working well and what isn't; what is essential to the mission and what isn't. Cut the extraneous, the unfocused, the inefficient.

Take a new look at projects you intended to raise money for.

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If a project is not "essential," perhaps it should be postponed. A new building project, while desirable, might not be the best project right now.

Think, rather, about services that go on in spite of the economy or that even intensify. Focus your fundraising efforts on those. Perhaps scholarships would be easier for donors to support or medical research in a significant health area.

Books for children in underserved areas and playgrounds in the inner city seem more worthwhile than building an endowment fund in uncertain economic times.

Don't worry about changing course. Let your donors know, and explain why. If your reasoning is sound and heartfelt, your donors will come along with you. You will not only do more good but keep donors engaged until better times arrive.

Look for partners

Charities working together on a project.
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There are a lot of charities competing with one another. When times get tough, not all of those charities can survive.

There may be safety in numbers. Instead of competing, think about partnering instead.  Consider teaming up for a grant proposal. Foundations welcome this kind of cooperation. A memorandum of agreement with a neighboring group could strengthen your proposal and even make your services more efficient and meaningful.

Look for opportunities to cooperate with fundraising. A raffle, for instance, could be for two or three organizations, creating a bigger prize and a larger pool of donors. Teaming up with another charity could create an impressive appeal for corporate funds.

Hard times calls for thinking outside the box.