As fundraisers, we’re working months ahead. We write Christmas letters in June. Mother’s Day appeals get drafted in November. We have spring renewals on the brain in the dead of winter.

Working this far in advance lets us develop mindful, donor-centric touchpoints throughout the year. But sometimes, the year takes a different turn than what we’d anticipated, and something happens that’s entirely out of your control.

When a crisis or tragedy strikes, how should you handle it? Unfortunately, it’s a question we’ve been asked and asking a lot in 2016. For many, it’s hard to know how to respond – or if you even should.

If that’s something you and your organization have been struggling with, ask yourself one question:

Does this impact the cause?

Whether you work with living beings, physical spaces, or something less tangible like arts or culture – has the heart of your cause been compromised in some way by what’s happened? If there’s been a loss of life, do the people lost belong to a group that you’re involved with? Does the event clearly contradict the message and vision of your organization? Can you imagine that your donors might feel ignored, overlooked, or even betrayed by your silence on the matter?

If you’ve said yes to any of these, then you might want to think about speaking up.


You don’t need to go into a deep analysis of what’s happened. It can be enough to acknowledge it, to sympathize with those who are suffering, and to stand together with your donors and supporters. Be sensitive, and be honest. Provide solutions and resources where applicable and appropriate, but don’t take the opportunity to self-promote.

Email is a great tool for this type of message. It’s easier to change an email at the last minute than it is to change a letter, so your message will be timelier. You can add to an email that’s already scheduled if it’s topical, or create a new one that’s dedicated to the issue at hand.

This kind of language will need to be created carefully. You’ll want a few pairs of eyes to look at it – ideally folks from the impacted community, if you can. But if you want your donors to believe you’re really in the trenches, making a difference on the ground, it’s also imperative.


A common barrier I hear is: “We don’t want donors thinking we’re taking advantage of this.” That’s an entirely valid concern. But if you’ve answered YES to the questions above, I’d suggest you think about it long and hard. Speaking to a tragedy is a challenge, but by ignoring it, you might be showing your donors that when the going gets tough, you’re not really there. It can be critical to your credibility as an organization that actually understands the issues and creates real change, and to the authenticity of your connection with the communities you are working in. One way to avoid seeming too opportunistic is to avoid including an ask in your message – make it all about the cause, the donor, and the empathy.

“It’s too controversial” is another objection. And it’s true that these kinds of events can be highly divisive. You’ll need to use your better judgment here, but I would recommend that you look to your organization’s mission and vision to guide you. No matter which route you go, be prepared for some donors to complain – and take it as an opportunity to connect with them further.

It can be really useful to take the time before you’re in crisis mode to brainstorm about how you’d want to handle a tragedy as an organization. It can be a big help to be as prepared as you can, and to have policies to follow, especially in highly emotional and volatile times. It’s not pleasant to think about, and it can’t be planned for, but a crisis is a prime moment to show your donors that you’re serious about the work you’re doing together.