Prioritizing What Matters: Annual Planning for You and for Us
February 3, 2021

Meetings and Events in the Time Between COVID and “Normal”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this transition time between the restrictions of COVID and “normal” and what it means for fundraising, especially to meetings and events.

I’ve gotten numerous emails from people looking for protocols and sample policies around going back to the office, visiting donors, and having events. Everyone wants to know what someone else is doing. No one seems to have answers.

Now, I’m not someone who has the answers either. I’m a fundraising team leader, not a human resources specialist.

But here’s what I do know. While we have done an amazing job in adapting to online work, we still need in-person interaction between our teams and with our donors to feed our human relationships.

Maybe not every day, and maybe not every job. But we are a sector that builds change through organizing people to give, volunteer, and take action. We need that human interaction to do our work: to inspire, collaborate, and empathize

Sure, we’ve all been able to build relationships online. But it’s really more that we’ve been able to maintain the relationships we’ve had and perhaps develop them into something deeper. But building new donor relationships is challenging on Zoom, and some relationships have been lost due in the lack of human contact.

We can’t really go on like this. We need to be able to build new relationships through human interaction to grow our impact.

So, how do we get there? How do we get through this time period that is not yet normal, but close to normal?

There was always going to be an “in-between” time where it isn’t clear what we should do about meetings and events. This is where we are now and here are the four buckets of questions I am considering as we navigate through it:

Meetings with each other: I’ve built a new team during COVID. Two of my team members have never worked in our office. We’ve spent a lot of time building the team culture online so that we all know and trust each other.

But when I recently met with one of my new team members for the first time in person, it made a difference for her and for me. There’s a spark of trust that moves the relationship forward when you can look each other in the eye. We understand each other better and our work relationship will be better for it.

Questions to consider: How are you planning to make the transition with team members? Have you had an open conversation with each team member to hear their hopes and concerns for their future work life? Are people on your team excited for in-person interaction with team members? Or nervous?

Meeting with other teams: From my point of view, this is the area where COVID has taken the biggest toll on professional work life. In most operations, cross-team collaboration (let’s say between the development operation and the communications team, for example) is absolutely necessary to move projects forward.

But when big groups meet on Zoom, it’s really, really hard to generate an environment where trust and creativity can grow. It’s hampered by the mute button and the difficulty of facilitating the group into a space where the energy of collaboration happens.

Questions to consider: Have you talked to other teams to gather their thoughts about meeting in person? Are there joint projects that you can use as a way to jump start in-person discussion and activity? Will joint meetings be optional? Will there be alternative ways to attend, like Zoom, even if the rest of the team is in person? How do you facilitate an “in-between” cross-team meeting?

Meetings with donors: We are starting to hear from donors who want to meet outside for lunch, go for a hike, or meet one-on-one in a socially distanced way. Our donors want to reconnect personally and we want to further these relationships, too. We have reached out to some about their level of comfort, and their responses have been all over the map.

I think the most important thing to consider here is honesty and transparency. We have to talk explicitly about our level of comfort with the meeting and how it takes place before we meet. That includes talking about where exactly the meeting will take place, who will be there, and determining how each party is feeling about things like vaccination status or eating indoors.

Questions to consider: Do you have a sense of where some of your closest supporters are in their thinking about social activity? Have you discussed their comfort level? Have your considered surveys or informal focus groups to get a sense of where they are?

Events: You know, I’ve never been a big gala fan, but I totally get people wanting to gather in a group after this long year of COVID. I hear of people planning summer house parties and fall galas. That would really make it seem “normal” again wouldn’t it?

But I think we should be very purposeful about re-starting these activities. First of all, not all galas made good fundraising sense. Before you start yours up again, take a moment to make sure that it was actually furthering your fundraising goals. Many galas are very expensive and don’t deliver the return on investment to justify that expense.

In our case, COVID gives us a chance to re-examine our (very large – 800 people!) gala and to think about how we could adjust the objectives and the cost structure to be more efficient and to more closely mirror our organizational values and priorities.

Also, more than ever, we don’t really know what the future brings. So, for the small house parties that we are contemplating in the summer, we are keeping things tentative and flexible. We are talking to our hosts about how to be transparent and open with their invitees. The message is: things could change and we will work it out together!

Questions to consider: Have you taken a good hard look at your events calendar to ensure that your events are in line with your fundraising objectives before you start them up again? Have you considered different scenarios for where we might be in terms of public health when your event is set to take place? And do you have contingency plans in place?

I’m sure you’ve been thinking about this a lot, too. Fundraising is all about personal interaction and we all are excited to gather. But before you plan that meeting or book that event space, consider your objectives, have honest conversations, and make some contingency plans.

And most of all, share your ideas and your learning with other fundraisers. We’re all looking for the same advice! We’d love to have your thoughts here in the comments. All ideas and resources welcome!

Image by Cindy Parks from Pixabay

1 Comment

  1. Elaine Klotz says:

    While we could not hold our big (yes, 800 people!) Empty Bowls event “in person” this year, we still got sponsors willing to help financially. Just as importantly, our partners at Crackpots were creative in how they made bowls available to people to paint for our fundraiser (take-home kits), then created a “pop-up shop” at their studio for people to buy bowls back with safety measures already in place. We also held an online-only auction with some of the bowls and other auction gifts. It was way more successful than we imagined, and we raised nearly as much as in a “normal” year! While we are excited to hopefully be back together next year, this was a great alternative, thanks to our supporters!
    I appreciate this article, Leslie!

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