Raising Money When the Stock Market is Tanking: A Few Words of Wisdom

Imagine this scenario:

You're in a coffee shop sitting across from a donor. Just as you're about to invite her to make a gift, you glance over at the empty table next to you and see the headline on the Wall Street Journal: "Stock Market Plunges Again." The Wall Street Journal is not helpful. You're already nervous about how the news of tightening asset portfolios might affect your fundraising.

You've shared your program updates, and just before you begin talking about a contribution, the donor says, "I want to give, but my portfolio is taking a beating in this market. I'm not sure now is the right time for me to make a gift."

What do you say in response? Let's start with what you don't say. 

Response 1: 

"We absolutely understand this. This is a tough time, for sure. Our clients are also feeling this almost two times as much and we need to step up for them."

Why this is not ideal: Although this may be accurate, it's one-sided. It screams, "This isn't a partnership or a values-based relationship. We need your check."

Response 2: 

"I've heard that the market will rebound and this is just a lull."

Why this is not ideal: You laugh, but I was actually in a meeting once after September 11, 2001 in which someone said this. It may be true, but it's not true today. And if you knew for a certainty the market would rebound, it's likely you'd be sought after by the SEC.

Response 3:

"We completely understand. Crossing our fingers that the market bounces back."

Why this is not ideal: This is the best of the three responses above, taking into account the donor's lived reality. But it fails in advancing the conversation to the next step.

What, then, do you say in response?

First and foremost, remember your purpose: 

  • Your job is to focus on the relationship that is making mission fulfillment possible;
  • Your opportunity is to see the person behind the portfolio;
  • Your role is to see the potential beyond today and focus on the future you can build together 

With that in mind, I recommend this response:

"I get that completely. This is a hard time. Many of our supporters have shared the same with me. I'd love to do with you what I did with them. Let's table the gift conversation. That piece always works itself out. What I'd love to hear is what you are thinking about the updates I sharedquestions, concerns, enthusiasm, anything. I'd then love to map our future—where we're going and what we think it will take to get there. How does that sound?"

You have to be in this with donors. They are partners. If a valued intern came to you and said, "I don't have as much time as I had before to volunteer," I'm guessing you wouldn't throw a bouquet of flowers at him, give him a hug, write a recommendation letter and wish him well. I'm guessing you'd say, "OK, let's look at what can happen and how to best apply your time and talents." In fact, you might even discover more efficient and effective ways to work with him and yield better results than before. Why? Because changes in circumstances open the door for new conversations, new dialogues. And I don't know about you, but the most successful undertakings in my work have all begun with a great conversation.

Pull back from talking about money. Have a great conversation. Without the stress of "the ask" dangling there, you will likely be more at ease, able to have a highly successful conversation. You'll listen differently. You'll respond, not react. You'll hear more than you've heard before. You will likely get some ideas from the donor you hadn't thought of. And most importantly, you will have averted a stalled conversation and instead created an aspirational conversation about social change.

Even when the economy isn't struggling, I recommend this approach. The 2014 U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy found that "knowledgeable and engaged donors give more and achieve greater fulfillment." Those donors who feel they have reached a level of expertise about the organization's mission and programs "give a significantly higher amount to charity versus those who describe themselves as "knowledgeable." If you focus on increasing the donor's expertise in your good work, you will be investing in a long-term relationship that goes beyond a 12-month calendar year. Go into a meeting with an open mind and an open heart—and the skills to advance the conversation—and you will achieve results for both your organization and the donor. 

Here's why I know this approach works: I have raised more money during the toughest economic periods of the last 20 years because I have focused on donor empowerment and engagement, rather than how much money I can raise today.

You are there in support of a great mission. The donor is there in support of a great mission. Focus on the mission, the future, and your shared values and the money will follow. 

Kathy LeMay is Co-President and CEO at Raising ChangeKathy has raised $175 million from individual philanthropists for global social change.