Crisis Management for Nonprofits

In our headline-obsessed, gotcha culture, misconduct, cover-ups, and accusations of reputable nonprofits are dominating newsfeeds with an increasing – and alarming – frequency. Of course, the most responsible organizations have put in place safeguards, leadership structures, accountability measures, and dedicated teams to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place. But even the most well-prepared, best practice-driven, and finest mission-oriented nonprofits may find themselves in the unwelcome position of making the front page with a less-than-flattering – or worse, more-than-devastating – headline.

While you can’t plan for every possible scenario, strategic crisis response planning during your best day can bring structure and clarity on your worst. And responsible response planning requires the careful consideration of who is around the table during those moments as much as what is discussed.

Whatever the nature of the crisis, it will inevitability demand uncomfortable levels of attention, scrutiny, and involvement of leadership (assuming they are not themselves the headline) along with an elevator full of lawyers and public relations pros. Often overlooked, however, is the role of development leaders. The most astute organizations recognize that development leaders belong in every phase of crisis planning and response, including – especially – in the initial hours and days of triage. Your donors need to hear from you on your worst day. Because it is likely one of their worst, too. Waiting to speak with them is not an option.

Below are a few tips to keep in mind when developing – or implementing – crisis response, communications, and management strategies for your top donors.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Do it early, regularly, and often. In the first hours and days following a crisis, acknowledge the issue (and tackle it head on, see tip #2) to donors and share what the organization is doing to develop a response. Granting a glimpse of the work being done behind the scenes is a positive, valued first step.  

Tackle the issue head on.  Do not skirt around the issue or communicate with overly obtuse, formal, or legal language. Best to skip the hyperbole and euphemisms, too. Speak to the hearts of your donors in a way that shows your humanity, and they will respond with theirs.

Keep asking. Action is worth a thousand “official” statements. Any pause or delay in routine appeals conveys to your donor base that your mission is not worthy of their support. Assuming you believe that your organization’s mission still matters, continue with planned asks, incorporating context-appropriate messaging. Smaller appeals should continue as well.

Invite your community to the table. Your most ardent supporters will want to help. Harness this energy in ways that are most strategic for your crisis response plan. Can alumni make donations ending in their class year? Can Board members lend their names to bylines of editorial pieces?

Build avenues of collaboration. Larger organizations often have in-house public relations and crisis communications functions. Collaboration between them and development is always vital, but especially before a crisis happens. A weak relationship between vital branches of your organization pre-crisis means a non-existent one during a crisis. Grease the wheels between offices regularly so that when the stakes are at their highest, clear roles, consensus, and communication channels are already in place.

Continue to invest in fundraising. The only way to prevent incoming dollars from slowing down following a crisis is to further strengthen donor communications, engagement, and cultivation and solicitation. Cutting the budgets of fundraisers may prevent short-term cuts to programs but will only lead to more cuts across the board.

If you find yourself in the thick of a crisis, Godspeed, and remember, it does not automatically mean the end of a donor relationship. Stewarded properly, donors will emerge with you on the other side, perhaps even stronger, more loyal supporters than before. People are funny that way.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

It’s 2020 – so, who CARES? What the CARES Act means for nonprofits

At a time like this, when we live with so much uncertainty and under a new normal of isolation, it’s not a stretch to suggest that we are more aware today of our roles as members of society – our connectedness to something bigger than ourselves and our interdependence upon each other – than ever before. Often it is only when something is taken away that we realize how much we depend on it.

The $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in the Spring of 2020 presents an opportunity to embrace our interconnectedness at this trying time by ensuring that taxpayers can give to help others and that the nonprofits serving our communities can survive, even as many face economic hardship due to lost revenue.

For taxpayers, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – the CARES Act, as it is informally known – includes two legislative provisions designed to encourage charitable giving in 2020. The first allows for the deduction of up to $300 in giving per individual this year, whether that individual itemizes their taxes or not. The second lightens the load on those who itemize in 2020 by lifting the cap entirely for deductions relative to adjusted gross income.

The CARES Act also includes provisions that reach nonprofits and their employees directly.  It makes Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans accessible to nonprofits through the second quarter of 2020, providing expedited eligibility determinations, fee and credit requirement waivers, interest rate caps, and increased government loan guarantees. It also expands eligibility for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) grants to include nonprofits, loosening eligibility requirements and providing expedited advance funding of loans due to COVID-19. Finally, the CARES Act provides funding to states for emergency reimbursement of unemployment expenses incurred in 2020 for nonprofits forced to lay off employees.

For taxpayers, the CARES Act encourages and incentivizes giving to ensure a strong philanthropic response on the part of all Americans during this unprecedented time. For nonprofits, it seeks to mitigate losses and shore up organizations, helping both nonprofit employees and the communities they serve by making financial support accessible and the process for receiving it faster and easier than before.

The net result: opportunity. If there is one silver lining to come out of the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps it’s this: recognition of our connectedness and concern for others may finally make a comeback.  It has always been there, even when its level voice has been eclipsed by the noise of vitriol to which we have all become so accustomed in our daily lives.

We are being called to respond. It’s time to listen.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

How to Fundraise During Uncertainty

Four truths to consider before your nonprofit stops fundraising during COVID-19

As fundraisers, we thrive on asking the BIG questions. Amid COVID-19, however, we find ourselves on the receiving end of questions equally significant. What may be the effects of the pandemic, the upcoming election, and market fluctuations on the nonprofit sector and the communities we serve? How do we continue to approach donors during this time? And, perhaps most glaring, should we approach donors at all?

These are the right questions to ask. It is our job as fundraisers to consider the concerns, needs, and perspectives of donors and to shape our asks accordingly. It is equally our responsibility to frame our response with the appropriate level of sensitivity, transparency, and boldness that cultivates trust and nurtures relationships.

Four fundraising truths inform this most important work of deepening connection and honoring mission during times of uncertainty.

  1. We have been here before. In addition to concerns for health and safety, part of current speculation is the potential effect of a pandemic on the global economy, and as a result, on philanthropic giving. Albeit with a quite different cause, our industry faced and emerged from this threat during the Great Recession just over a decade ago. Historically, while significant market downturns do impact philanthropic giving to some extent, the losses in philanthropic dollars are never as dramatic as the market downturns that drive them. For instance, the recession of 2008 resulted in a decrease in giving of 7%, considerably less than the 38% decrease the S&P experienced that same year. And yet, though giving did decline, experience tells us that the decline was at least in part due to a pause in asks. Had fundraisers continued to ask with the confidence and clarity with which they were asking before the market downturn, the nonprofit sector would have seen even less of a decline in giving.
  2. Our missions do not pause. No matter the external forces at play, need does not cease during times of uncertainty. If anything, the needs of those served by the 1.5 million hospitals, universities, schools, social service organizations, and religious communities nationwide only intensify during times of crisis. When the national mood oscillates between the unpredictable at best and the frenzied at worst, nonprofits continue to serve. The richness of the nonprofit sector in the U.S. knows no day off. In fact, humanity depends on it.
  3. Humans are wired to give. Even during the status quo, individuals pursue the gratification of giving. Numerous studies demonstrate the positive and compelling effects of gifting one’s time or resources. Scientists describe the “helper’s high” and the “giver’s glow” as the neurological response, visible on brain scans, that accompanies making a gift of self. In such studies, the “glow” results regardless of the impact of the gift, or the level of need. Imagine the multiplier of a gift tied to impact, especially when beloved missions face an external threat. This impulse towards goodwill must not be ignored.
  4. Our words matter. Donors want to give, and it is our responsibility as fundraisers to keep asking. As with any crisis, however, tailored and targeted donor communications are integral to our response. Proper stewardship demands as much, and it need not occur in person. Moving forward requires a refined approach that speaks to the concerns and needs of our donors and leverages the use of technology to replace face-to-face communication if needed. Regardless of setting, address anticipated questions head on, invite donors into a conversation, and execute asks from the heart. Donors will respond with theirs.

During windows of uncertainty, nonprofits’ missions are as relevant as ever and fundraising must continue to be a priority. Without the critical work of nonprofits, not only does the world we envision slip further into the distance, but the world as we know it ceases to exist – such is the interdependent nature of our world. When viewed in this light, the answer to the weighty questions we face becomes immediately clear.

Standing still is not an option.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton

Thinking BIG: The Collegium Way

Collegium’s mission is to be a trusted source for problem-solving whose work results in a meaningful impact on society.

Collegium partners are grounded in the belief that our communities, colleagues, and client partners want a world where our children have a better future than ours. We are equally passionate and ambitious about addressing this vision through our collective expertise in philanthropy, brand reputation, communication arts, and business management.

Collegium isn’t organized for shareholders nor for Wall Street. As a sophisticated system of independent firms, it is organized for providing critical solutions to our clients’ most pressing needs. The University whose planned enrollment suddenly plummeted by 73% due to the pandemic. The grassroots racial justice nonprofit unexpectedly receiving an influx of donations that it is unprepared to process. The health system trying to balance patient safety and satisfaction with increased productivity – alongside severe budget cuts. The city, broken by a cycle of poverty, lifted by the combined efforts of its two professional sports teams to provide academic resources for at-risk youth.  

Collegium’s work is enabled by a dedication to what we call BIG thinking – that is, solutions that are Bold, Interdependent, and Generative. Our aim is something bigger, more transformative, more impactful than what can be achieved by a single entity. We align our people and systems in a mutually supportive way that brings results and clear value not just to our clients, but to the world around us. And yes, even ourselves.

Simply put, it’s The Collegium Way. And it’s big.


Pushing beyond the status quo.

Go big or go home.  As you learned in the school of hard knocks, “good enough” is not good enough. If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing, right? Bold requires a leap of faith. Conviction. Tenacity. Perseverance. Bold thinking, bold solutions, and all-in commitment are how big ideas are realized.


Sharing and optimizing what we have.

We celebrate our independence every day, but we take greater pride in our interdependence. The dependent rely upon others. The independent can go it alone. But the interdependent create synergy. This propels the interrelated and combined efforts of multiple partners to achieve big results – exponentially larger than the sum of what’s possible going solo.


Creating new ideas and opportunities for others while creating value for ourselves.

We know we don’t have all the answers. Nor have we cornered the market on wisdom. Corporations and nonprofits alike understand they can’t do it all. The challenges and the needs are just too great. People, opinions, and ideas are diverse and – when channeled purposefully – are powerful. The numerical representation of generative?  1+1=3.

That’s big.

A pain in the ask

How to make big asks less painful

Have you ever found yourself in the position of asking someone for 50 million dollars? Five million? Five thousand? However big a “big” ask typically is for you, chances are that you don’t relish the task. In fact, an entirely unscientific study suggests that most people would rather have a root canal performed by a first-year dental student than ask someone for a significant amount of money.

For fundraising professionals, making big asks is an important and necessary part of their jobs. But executive directors and board members – often without formal fundraising experience or training – also find themselves with the unwelcome responsibility of asking an influential prospect for a large sum of money.

But there’s a distinct difference between making a big ask and making a BIG ask. A big ask is asking someone with a boatload of money for a boatload of money simply because they have a boat and you need the money. If it feels icky it’s because it is.

By contrast, a BIG ask is one that is Bold, Interdependent, and Generative. A BIG ask is not defined by the number of zeros, but rather by the relative impact the gift has on the organization and its community, as well as on the donor. A BIG ask recognizes that we are, cliché as it sounds, all in this together. Whatever, exactly, “this” may be.


If your mission is a worthy one, be bold and confident in your ask. It’s the only way to push beyond the status quo. But remember, there is a difference between boldness and carelessness. Your position to be bold is directly tied to your due diligence and attentiveness; if you’ve done the appropriate research on your donor, you can afford to be bold because you’ll know not only what they can afford but what motivates them to give. Being bold tells a donor that you’ve done your research, you’re confident in your organization’s worthiness, and you value their commitment.

To be clear, being bold is never an excuse for being insensitive or arrogant. You should always be professional, courteous, and humble when interacting with prospects and donors (or anybody, for that matter). It might sound counterintuitive to be simultaneously bold and humble, but the late and honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg has proven it not only possible, but deeply powerful.


If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all connected. That, and how to make sourdough bread. But while independence is often celebrated as the pinnacle of success, interdependence is in fact the mark of the most mature, advanced organization. As organizational guru Stephen Covey observes, interdependent organizations “have access to the vast resources and potential of [others]. Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don’t have the character to do it…”

As you strategize your ask, position your organization as an independent and autonomous one, rather than one dependent upon your donor. When you openly share that combining your efforts with that of a donor will achieve greater success than you could achieve on your own, you project humility – a virtuous characteristic becoming of any cause. (And especially powerful when paired with being bold, but we’ve already covered that.)

Your organization can’t achieve its worthy mission alone. Wealthy individuals can’t save the world alone. But, together, you can be truly generative, which is what puts the “G” in BIG.


To be generative means creating new ideas and opportunities for others while simultaneously creating value for yourself. It’s about activity that yields more than it consumes. The challenges of our day are too complex, too intertwined – interdependence is a double-edged sword, after all – for any one entity to tackle on its own.

Connect the dots of your collective potential for a donor. Start with the end and paint a picture of what is possible. It’s ok if it’s ambitious and lofty. Bold. In fact, it’s better if it is. 

When you’re faced with making a big ask, be upfront with your donor. Acknowledge that it’s a BIG ask and explain how that is different from a big ask. Tell them that they are worthy of such a BIG ask. Break BIG down for them: an opportunity to be bold. To play a meaningful role in an interconnected system. To generate something that couldn’t exist but for their contribution.

Approaching a big ask as a BIG ask can profoundly change a person’s willingness to make one. A fundraiser’s willingness to make an ask and a donor’s willingness to make a gift.

Together, that’s BIG.  

Collegium Holdings Acquires Stake in ‘Purpose-Driven Growth’ Firm, Lowand B. Hold, LLC

Collegium Holdings, Inc. has acquired a minority stake in Lowand B. Hold, LLC, an international business consultancy specializing in purpose-driven growth. Lowand B. Hold (LbH) provides services that complement those offered within Collegium, a global holding company and broad system of best-in-class professional services firms exclusively serving nonprofits. The deal was announced today by Craig J. Leach, Founder and CEO of Collegium Holdings, Inc.

Under terms of the agreement, LbH will offer strategic growth and brand reputation counsel to the Collegium portfolio of companies as well as serve as a specialty resource to Collegium clients.  LbH was founded by Jon Higgins, former Senior Partner/CEO International at the global public relations firm Ketchum.

Lowand B. Hold’s own purpose, ‘Helping businesses grow for good’, conveys a dual meaning. “It speaks proudly to our role in partnering with clients as agents for enduring societal good,” said Higgins. “A workforce deeply committed to its purpose is the key to sustainable growth. We see great synergies with our philosophy and Collegium’s commitment to serving nonprofits with the highest degree of professionalism.”

“I’ve followed Jon Higgins’ stellar career for many years,” Leach said. “From communications and public relations to international business development to mergers and acquisitions, Jon has been a world-class practitioner, executive, and advisor to business leaders around the globe. His deep expertise in strategic growth is an exciting and welcome addition to the Collegium family.”

Collegium Holdings, Inc. is a broad system of best-in-class professional services firms exclusively serving nonprofits. As a privately held parent company, Collegium operates an organization of people, firms, and resources that deliver professional services to meet the diverse needs of nonprofits. All companies within Collegium maintain their distinct brand identity and are recognized leaders in their respective fields.

“Collegium is designed to bring strong business acumen and professionalism to nonprofits,” said Leach. “LbH’s analytical approach to organizational growth through purposeful engagement will enhance our commitment to building this system of go-to services for a traditionally underserved industry.”

About Lowand B. Hold, LLC

Lowand B. Hold is an international full-service brand reputation consulting firm specializing in strategic growth through applied analytics and the purposeful engagement of stakeholders. The LbH team has decades of combined experience serving both agencies and clients in a wide range of business sectors across all worldwide geographies.

For more information, visit

Collegium Acquires Averill Fundraising Solutions

Collegium Holdings, Inc., the parent company to leading professional services firms serving the nonprofit and social impact space, has acquired Averill Fundraising Solutions, LLC, adding to its portfolio of companies dedicated to serving the expansive nonprofit sector.

Averill Fundraising Solutions is a full-service fundraising consulting firm founded by company president, Robert C. Happy, Jr., who along with his team has partnered with clients in raising more than $3.25 billion across all sectors. Averill provides strategic fundraising counsel as well as embedded, onsite management staffing as part of its comprehensive offerings, which also include: campaign planning and direction; leadership learning; and executive search.

Happy, a recognized leader in the nonprofit management consulting industry for decades, has counseled countless nonprofit CEOs and trustees through transformational capital and endowment campaigns over the span of his career.

Craig Leach, Collegium’s Founder and CEO, is energized by the acquisition. “Averill brings to Collegium a superb record of client results and an approach to service delivery that adds tremendous firepower to our stellar group of portfolio firms,” Leach said. “Bob Happy’s body of work in our industry is nothing short of legendary,” Leach continued. “For more than 30 years, Bob has been among just a handful of professionals who have helped define the industry as we know it today. Bob is an entrepreneur and we know the Averill team will help create shareholder value for the entire Collegium partnership.”

“We are delighted to become part of the Collegium family,” Happy said. “Craig Leach has a vision that we believe is already transforming the marketplace. Collegium and its portfolio companies will provide nonprofit organizations with a significant competitive advantage.”

About Averill Fundraising Solutions

Averill Fundraising Solutions is a full-service fundraising consulting firm. The Averill team has decades of combined experience serving secondary and higher education, hospitals and medical centers, academic medicine, faith-based organizations, global health organizations, human service organizations, professional and membership societies, arts and cultural organizations, and civic and social groups.

For more information, visit

Collegium Holdings Acquires Fundraising and Philanthropic Management Firm, Ruotolo Associates Inc.

Collegium Holdings, Inc. has acquired the fundraising consulting firm Ruotolo Associates, Inc. Ruotolo provides services which complement those offered within Collegium, a rapidly growing global holding company of professional services firms that are dedicated to advancing the nonprofit and the social-impact sectors.  Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Ruotolo Associates, a recognized leader in the fundraising field for nearly 40 years, was founded in 1979 by George C. Ruotolo. Ruotolo will remain as Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the company. “The decision to join Collegium signifies the next chapter of our growth. This partnership will enable us to expand both the depth and breadth of the services we bring to our clients,” said Ruotolo. “Like all professions, fundraising continues to face rapid change and unprecedented challenges. Collegium is an innovative enterprise that will provide unparalleled support to nonprofits, which are themselves facing extraordinary times.”

Collegium is the first holding company of its kind focused on the nonprofit services sector. Each company within Collegium operates independently from one another, and collectively they provide a wide range of complementary and integrated services.  Key focus areas include: management, fundraising, digital & tech, communications, branding & marketing, social media, research & data analytics, corporate social responsibility, and talent management expertise – all delivered across the entire nonprofit landscape.  They serve all sector verticals, including healthcare, education, professional and trade associations, faith-based institutions, the arts,  environmental groups, as well as corporate social responsibility clients.

“Ruotolo brings a stellar reputation to Collegium, and everyone stands to benefit from this acquisition,” said Rob Scalea, who leads Collegium’s innovation and integration efforts. “Like all Collegium companies, Ruotolo will retain its own brand and culture, but now has the ability to tap into other best-in-class professional services firms that will allow it to stretch and expand into new sectors. It’s a win-win-win: for Ruotolo, for Collegium, and for the nonprofit organizations that stand to benefit from Ruotolo’s services. That’s what Collegium is all about.”

About Ruotolo Associates, Inc.

Since 1979, Ruotolo Associates has provided professional fundraising and public relations counsel to 1,000 nonprofit institutions and organizations throughout the United States and abroad. With headquarters in the greater New York area, Ruotolo Associates serves a wide range of clients in the fields of education, religion, healthcare, social services, the arts, and politics.

For more information, visit

New Owners for an Agency That Markets for a Cause

David Fenton, second from left, is selling Fenton to new owners, Craig Leach, left, and James Marcus, right. Mr. Fenton will become chairman as Bill Werde, third from left, becomes chief.

One of the first agencies devoted to handling communications efforts for causes, nonprofit organizations, charities, foundations and activists seeking social change — a specialty that is now thriving — is being sold by its founder and longtime leader, David Fenton, to investors who are forming a holding group for agencies of that kind.

The agency, named Fenton, is getting new leadership along with its new ownership; the changes are to be announced on Wednesday. Mr. Fenton, who was chief executive, is taking a different role, as chairman, and he plans to devote more time to working on efforts to counter global climate change. To succeed Mr. Fenton as chief executive, the agency is hiring Bill Werde, who was most recently editorial director of the music trade publication Billboard.

The new owners of Fenton are Craig J. Leach and James Marcus, who are the principals of Collegium, a holding group specializing in agencies in the category known by terms like cause marketing, cause-related marketing, prosocial marketing and purpose marketing. Such agencies provide services like advertising, public relations, fund-raising, digital media, event marketing, mobile ads and social media.

When Mr. Fenton opened the agency in 1982, as Fenton Communications, “everyone said I was nuts, and I was,” Mr. Fenton, 62, said during a recent interview.

“At that time, environmental organizations, human rights organizations, health groups didn’t even have press secretaries,” Mr. Fenton recalled. “The biggest change to me over the years is that there is now a market for what we do, a whole big industry in this. And it’s only going to continue to grow.”

Fenton has 60 employees who work at a headquarters in New York and offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington. Current and recent clients include the Corporation for Battery Recycling, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Save the Children, the Sierra Club and the Wikimedia Foundation.

Around 20 percent of the agency’s work, by Mr. Fenton’s estimate, is for clients that are for-profit marketers, helping them in realms like corporate social responsibility and sustainability; examples of those clients are Johnson & Johnson and Unilever.

Mr. Marcus, 48, whose title at Collegium is partner, has served as an adviser to Fenton for more than a decade and led a Fenton division, Fenton Studios, that produces video content for clients. Mr. Leach, 55, whose titles at Collegium are partner and chief executive, is also chief executive of a unit of Collegium, Graham-Pelton Consulting, which helps universities, hospitals, social service agencies and environmental organizations with fund-raising and management tasks.

Financial terms of the deal by which Collegium is acquiring Fenton are not being disclosed. The purchase price in many such transactions is the equivalent of a year’s revenue; Fenton has revenue of about $11 million. Mr. Fenton has agreed to remain at Fenton for five years.

It was Mr. Marcus who brought Mr. Leach and Mr. Fenton together. “We at Fenton wanted someone who had an appreciation for the company, a little company but a company that’s had an impact,” Mr. Marcus said.

“Fenton is well known, but there are still a lot of people who don’t know about it,” he added. “We’re going to take what’s right about Fenton and join more battles on the good side.”

Mr. Werde, 41, said he initially met with Mr. Fenton “because I wanted to build a platform that could make sustainability a little more accessible to the consumer.” The music industry’s environmental policies was a subject he followed while directing editorial coverage at Billboard. Asked how that turned into Mr. Werde joining Fenton, he replied, “I went to David and gave him my pitch, and he said: ‘I love it. Now can I tell you what I need?’ ”

“I’m hoping my music background may have particular relevance to the cause space,” Mr. Werde said. “Outside of a few stalwarts like Bruce Springsteen, and some younger artists such as John Legend and J. Cole, music has somewhat abdicated the throne of political relevancy. It’s really time for that to evolve again.”

It is also “crucial that underfunded cause organizations and activists have access to the same sophisticated communications and media approaches as well-funded opposing forces,” Mr. Werde said. That echoed an earlier remark of his about how, in his first meeting with Mr. Fenton, “David told me he had started the firm because the bad guys always had publicists and the good guys never did.”