CoronaVirus and Fundraising – Scenario Planning

CoronaVirus and Fundraising – Scenario Planning


12 May 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


At a macro-scale, land trust mission statements and core strategies shouldn’t change much. Acquire land or rights to it. Manage land. Monitor easements. All in perpetuity. Acquire more land or rights to it. And so on.

So, what changes from one Strategic Plan to the next are gradual increases in vision and responses to changing environmental factors.

Like a global pandemic, for example.


I’ve been writing for several weeks about how we are not likely to return from this disruption anytime soon. Certainly not this year and perhaps not until there is a widely reliable vaccine a year from now and perhaps longer.

The news on that front is getting more and more bleak. Even as we re-open the country, people may not automatically feel comfortable traveling and gathering. By the time a vaccine is available the virus may have mutated beyond its reach. The 1918 pandemic died back in the summer and re-emerged in the Fall – with even more devastating results. The past is prologue? And now at least one prognosticator (Laurie Garrett) is saying we won’t return to much in less than 36 months.

It might be time to reconsider that Strategic Plan. More specifically, it might be time to revisit our assumptions about fundraising.


One approach to reconsideration is scenario planning. Scenario Planning has a formally defined process that comes from military campaigns – that’s not precisely what I am talking about.

I’m talking about challenging organizational assumptions related to life before COVID. Many organizations are not canceling fundraising events as much as they are postponing them. They are assuming that life will get more or less back to normal by the Fall, or even by mid-summer. Without scenario planning, this amounts to wishin’ anda hopin’.

OK – fine. Plan to return to normal with a fundraising event in the Fall. But what would that actually look like? Will you need a space for 800 to host an event for 200? What if the 200 don’t feel safe gathering, even if the Governor and President say it’s OK? What if they don’t feel safe in 2021 either?

Is there a Plan B? Have you identified a trigger point – that external condition at which you abandon Plan A altogether?


There are other assumptions we should at least question. For example:

Assumption: the foundation or government funding you’ve enjoyed for the last several years will continue. But what if it doesn’t? What if the market plunges and foundation support plunges with it? What if the government program furloughs its workers?

Is there a Plan B? Have you identified a trigger point?

Assumption: sending mail (recruitment, appeals, renewals) risks appearing tone-deaf to those who support us, not to mention the expense. For how long? And what is the alternative?

Is there a Plan B? Have you identified a trigger point?

Assumption: trimming the fundraising budget is a necessary part of trimming all expenses in the face of an uncertain financial future.

Is there a Plan B?


I have seen all these assumptions in the last few months. I have also seen the Plan Bs start rolling out.

  • actively looking for major gift prospects to help cover their projected NET return from their fundraising event, even while laying in plans to conduct the events virtually.
  • using stories of work done out on the land to prepare Board members for the potential need to quickly replace grant funding. (Now is a great time for Board members to accept the possibility that they will soon need to help raise money.)
  • seeing opportunity in the increased preserve visitation – deploying staff and volunteers to recruit new members from parking lots.
  • increasing the number and frequency of mail and email communications (including appeal letters) that contain up-to-date information about the organization and its mission as the pandemic and economic conditions continue to evolve on the ground.


The fundamentals of fundraising haven’t changed: human-to-human relationships matter, frequent communication is critical because donors need the connection, and asking is necessary.

And so far, at least, donors seem to be responding:

  • Arizona Gives Day (April 7) raised 170% of its 2019 total – upwards of $6.1MM from $3.6MM.
  • A donor in Wisconsin, in the middle of her capital campaign pledge period, released her 2020 pledge payment from restrictions to allow the land trust to use the money to help sustain operations.
  • A donor in New York increased his gift to $5,000, even after being furloughed.


Ergo – Scenario Planning

I’m advocating that you do some scenario planning NOW and get out in front of this work instead of waiting for more favorable conditions to return. It’s hard because it requires us to let go of some of our sacred cow assumptions.

Consequently, don’t do this alone. Bring in some outside voices. Recruit wisdom, optimism, and creativity. And consider doing it more than once.

Here are the steps:

  • Name your assumptions – write them all down, and then sift and winnow until the most important or consequential three or four are left.
  • One by one, imagine a future in which each assumption is invalid to some degree.
  • In each case, spitball ideas for what could be done instead. Don’t give up too easily on this one.
  • Identify a couple of ideas that seem worth exploring further. What would you need to do prepare? What would you need to do first?
  • Identify a trigger point for each scenario – that external condition at which you abandon the assumption and greenlight your Plan B.


Now is NOT a time to withdraw – wishin’ anda hopin’. Contraction may be an economic reality for the country and world in the coming months. But contraction is dangerous for fundraising.

Scenario Planning may help. It is also an antidote to anxiety.


Cheers, and have a great week!




Photo by Linda72 courtesy



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  • David Lillard
    Posted at 10:19h, 12 May

    Thanks for this! It provides expert voice to informal conversations many are “trying to have” with boards of directors. It really is time, as the old Apple motto said, to think different.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:47h, 12 May

      Indeed. Thank you for the comment!