2021 continues to uphold 2020’s legacy of pushing us to meet adversity with innovation. We’ve been asked to reshape the ways in which we conduct business, connect with one another, and construct our daily lives. Challenges that used to set us back have become opportunities to adapt and adopt unique methods of staying in touch.
With fundraisers relying on social events such as galas, startup conferences, and marathons to inspire others, ‘what does fundraising look like in today’s virtual world?’ and how can we continue the hard work of building meaningful relationships and resilient partnerships to propel impact beyond our computer screens? While we may not be dancing together in a crowded ballroom or cheering each other across the marathon finish line -- we can still foster a sense of interconnectedness and community in our new virtual landscape.
In this guide, Hannah Wheatley, Acumen’s Head of Business Development in Europe, and Abdul Mohamed, Acumen’s East Africa Portfolio Manager, shed light on how you can make the most of today’s virtual sphere to unearth leads and scale funding. You’ll learn how social innovators across the globe are wielding tools of moral leadership and expanding their reach through moral imagination.
SO, WHAT’S CHANGED?
When thinking through how to navigate the fundraising landscape, it’s crucial to remember that many people's lives look different right now. Putting yourself in your funder’s shoes and understanding their new reality offers an opportunity for genuine engagement and realistic expectation.
Here’s a glimpse at some of these changes:
People are hungry for connection.
We’ve become open to new ways of redefining human connection. As a result, people are looking to connect in ways they may not have thought to in the past, and often in unlikely places.
Acumen Fellows Suleiman Shifaw and Zahara Legesse Kauffman are the founders of Felek Notebooks, a social enterprise which produces high-quality artisan notebooks using ancient Ethiopian bookbinding techniques. When COVID-19 hit, Suleiman and Zahara repurposed Felek’s manufacturing machinery to produce masks in place of notebooks, but struggled to scale the accessibility of masks across the country.
Suleiman and Zahara connected with other Acumen Accelerator teams who could help. Blayne Tesfaye, at TruLuv Granola, was one such connection. Blayne put Felek in contact with the right people to stock masks at large stores and pharmacies – following TruLuv Granola’s own successes supplying their product in Ethiopian supermarkets.
You can cast a wider net.
According to Hannah Wheatley, Acumen’s Head of Business Development in Europe, “your audience is much, much larger than it ever would have been.” Questions that once dominated our thoughts when planning a fundraising event, such as “how many people should I invite?” or “which table will I strategically place this person at?” now seem trivial when we all have a seat at the same virtual table.
Networks once out of reach are now attainable.
“Instead of flying to another country to potentially rub elbows with somebody from a certain foundation, webinars and conferences have removed many degrees of separation,” explains Acumen’s East Africa Portfolio Manager, Abdul Mohamed. This is especially valuable to social innovators who are still in the process of building their network of supporters and partners.
In light of these new dynamics, below are some practical strategies you can implement to make the most of your virtual fundraising journey.
MAKE YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE KNOWN
For any nonprofit fundraiser or social innovator seeking funding, developing your online presence is crucial, and LinkedIn and Facebook are the vehicles to get you there. Here are a few actions you can implement right away to grow your network of loyal followers.
1. Build Your Digital Profiles
As you add more details about yourself and your work, you’ll gain exposure to second and third-degree connections previously unknown to you. A strong profile also enhances your visibility, giving people a greater opportunity to find you and connect with you directly.
“You should have a strong presence on digital platforms, because a potential donor will always search on Google, LinkedIn, or Facebook to get a glimpse of what you do” said Acumen Fellow Ashish Shrivastava, the founder of Shiksharth. Although Shiksharth’s Facebook page has relatively few followers, the nonprofit frequently updates the page with photos and videos to highlight their achievements.
2. Position Yourself as an Expert
As a social innovator working to tackle the world’s toughest problems, few people know more about what’s at stake than you do. To position yourself as an expert in your field, be sure to frequently share content surrounding your organization’s mission, areas of impact, big wins, and even the small ones.
Be proactive in reaching out to organizations and platforms that might be able to put you in the right places or connect you to the right people. Search LinkedIn or Facebook for advertisements about conferences in your area and introduce yourself as a potential panelist. If you can land a spot as a panelist, it will help you gain credibility as a thought-leader.
PARTICIPATE IN VIRTUAL EVENTS
If you’re a social innovator trying to pitch your product or idea to investors, then connections need to translate into conversations.
Abdul says the proliferation of online conferences and webinars has “bridged the access barrier” for social innovators to gain solid footing with potential investors. He recommends joining webinars and using the chat feature to reach out to people during the event or through LinkedIn afterwards.
In this guide, Adbul outlines how to think like an investor, stand out from the crowd, and secure funding to launch and sustain your social venture.
HOST VIRTUAL EVENTS
“If we know that people are currently hungry to connect, then…how can you marry up the virtual world with something that feels a bit more personal?,” adds Hannah.
Informing your audience about your organization's impact and current needs is key, but creating an experience that allows them to visualize and understand those needs is crucial. “Because people have been living online, it's actually become even more powerful to get a handwritten note or something that feels more tangible.” If you have a relationship with your donors whereby you already have their addresses, this can be a meaningful way to tie them into your virtual event. “Because they've received something that they're going to be referring to or using when they actually come and meet you virtually,” this builds a deeper connection and reinforces their commitment to showing up.
Another stand-out way to fundraise virtually is launching an online activity or challenge that holds funders’ attention over a period of time. In the absence of large marathons or charity sporting events, designing a way to engage supporters in friendly competition can help to raise awareness and expand your network.
Similarly, you can organize a virtual auction with proceeds going to your organization. Asking your supporters to donate virtual experiences such as online music performances or interesting talks as part of the auction is another way to get donors involved and boost your revenue.
You want to communicate with your funders in ways that are going to interest them, whether that’s through regular email blasts or quarterly phone calls. The key is to tailor your communication to fit their interests, which you can learn more about in our Nonprofit Fundraising Guide.
You should also take this time to be creative with your communication in ways that push people to gather more knowledge about your work. Hannah adds, “something that feels quite universal for all different donors is short and powerful videos that demonstrate the impact of your work.”
Digital reports are also a powerful way for donors to visualize your impact. Khan Academy is a nonprofit that provides free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere and their digital annual report immediately inspires visitors to think, ‘What if you could change lives?’
Be sure to also ask yourself if your website is easily accessible and user-friendly. Komaza is a nonprofit that revolutionizes African forestry by connecting small-scale farmers with industrial wood markets to unlock their potential. Upon landing on their website, visitors see: “These are the stories of Komaza and the people we serve.” Komaza effectively leverages the power of storytelling by confronting users with videos upon entry.
“Storytelling is the most effective way of communicating and keeping people interested,” adds Hannah. If you’re struggling to leverage the tools to tell your story, you’ll want to check this guide out: how to tell stories that matter. If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, don’t hesitate to enroll in this Storytelling for Change course to sharpen your storytelling techniques and receive valuable feedback on your presentation or pitch.
RIDE THE MEDIA WAVE
Remember that you’re a thought-leader in your field and people look to you for relevant and timely information about events affecting your work or the people you serve. “Make sure you send your donors and prospects your point of view and give them the kind of reality and the insight below the headlines,” says Hannah. This will enhance your credibility and allow your audience to connect more deeply with your work.
Abdul says the key to pitching to funders effectively is to give them an “aha moment.” One good way to do this during the pandemic is to share fascinating pieces of information that supporters may not know about your work. This will hold their interest and propel them to share with their network.
Yuliya Tarasava is an Acumen Global Fellow and co-founder of CNote, a fintech startup which helps institutions invest capital into underserved communities at scale. She says the events of last year helped define CNote’s purpose and mission. “People were becoming aware of the disparity we’ve had in society for very long and (our) impact became much more interesting to investors and people’s interest.” These new realities helped CNote position itself as a solution to the problems of economic and racial inequality by making it easy for institutions and individuals to invest in women and people of color in underserved communities across America, “bringing the resources where you need it most.”
Yuliya TarasavaYulilya was "made in USSR" which explains my accent that I embrace and my shyness that I hide. She grew up on a farm so nature is her sanctuary. At school she l...
Additionally, as a female founder, Yuliya’s marketing team has been encouraging her to connect with investors who are trying to fund women-owned businesses. At first, Yuliya’s feelings were, “Why should I care that I’m a woman, or an immigrant? I’m just a person that wants to do a good thing.”
But over the course of this past year Yuliya says “this is something we grew into.” She says, “This year I became more comfortable saying ‘I’m a woman founder…yes, I’m an immigrant, but I’m trying to do something for this country.’”
YOUR PIVOT IS YOUR STORY
As a social innovator, you should take this time to reflect on how the tidal wave of the pandemic has had a ripple effect on your work, influenced your strategies, and inspired you to pivot. This allows funders to follow your journey and understand how their support can help.
Vivek Kumar is the founder of Kshamtalaya Foundation, a nonprofit working to transform the public education system in Delhi, Udaipu, and rural parts of India. His mission is to “increase the demand for better education.”
Vivek KumarVivek is Co-founder and CEO of Kshamtalaya Foundation, an organization supporting communities to revive the spirit of learning in and outside of schools. Core t...
Vivek says that when the pandemic hit, “Our existing funders wanted to know: ‘Do you really need money right now?’ Schools were closed. Why couldn't we use the funding for COVID or release it later on?” But Vivek says his team was “clear that we should not compromise our core work by shifting money to COVID relief,” and they set out to find a solution.
Kshamtalaya Foundation used moral imagination to reimagine their education programs and lay the groundwork for deeper impact over time. “We asked an important question: How can we be true to our core intervention and design a solution that is useful beyond COVID?”
They turned to audio lessons as an immediate and long-term solution. “We were not an audio production house,” Vivek says, but “now we're creating five hours of radio content for students every day. As “we pivoted to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and engagement of our program,” Vivek says, “we needed editing, production, and scripting skills,” and this was how funders could play a pivotal role.
A piece of advice Hannah offers to social impact leaders like Vivek who are trying to keep funders connected to their work is to “make sure you tell them your view.” She says, “given that COVID has affected all of us in so many different ways, you should share things that donors may not know about your area or your work.”
For Kshamtalaya Foundation, Vivek says, “we explained that COVID would cause the learning crisis to deepen. Hunger and learning poverty were interconnected. The country would be at risk of losing the hard-earned gains from the last decade.”
Allowing people to understand the impact that COVID has had on the communities you serve is one way to stay real in your work and build honesty and trust with your existing funders.
Building trust is critical to scalable fundraising, but fostering trustworthy, long-term relationships in a virtual environment can be challenging.
When asked what qualities CNote looks for in investors, Yuliya says feeling out an investor and building trust is a top priority, even during the pandemic. “Your goal is still to create a community that is like yours,” and “to create a network of people who are like you.”
In a pandemic world, Yuliya says efficiency has improved. Previously, founders typically traveled solo to meet with potential funders -- now, teams on both sides can actively build relationships before they begin working together.
But cultivating these relationships will just take more time. According to Yuliya, “instead of having one in-person meeting, we had to have six one-hour Zoom calls because we really wanted to get into it and have a feel.”
Overall, Yuliya says the most important thing is getting clear on expectations before deciding to work together. “The last thing you want is to realize after you sign that you can’t build that trust.”
In the end, the name of the game is still the same. Funders have their own goals in mind and your job is to leverage the virtual tools at your disposal to figure out which funders share your same vision of the future.
Keeping composure throughout your engagements with potential partners is key to fostering healthy relationships.
According to Yuliya, although you might feel more removed while on video, “it’s important to be conscious of your gestures because investors are perceiving you. Your interactions with your team, for example, are still getting picked up, so being self-aware of how you communicate and compose yourself on video is still really important. This is especially something to keep in mind if you’re newer to working online.”
From observing virtual body language to picking up on new social cues, Abdul admits, “I think we’re all sort of learning on the fly.”
Yuliya reminds us “we just have to remember to be humble and kind to each other…things happen.” In the end, we’re all navigating through uncharted waters together and if we extend gratitude and patience to one another in times of struggle, we will emerge with partnerships that can weather any future challenge rolling our way.