3 Themes From the First-Ever AFP ICON VIRTUAL Conference

With our world upside down and events all around us being canceled, new opportunities to share and connect are emerging. 

Earlier this week, nearly 1,000 fundraisers gathered around their own respective viewing devices for the first-ever AFP ICON VIRTUAL Conference—including Danny Herzberg, Stelter Regional Account Representative. I sat down with Danny to hear his biggest takeaways from the conference. 

The focus for this virtual experience was made clear from the onset. During the welcome, Martha Schumacher, CFRE, ACFRE, MInstF (AD), and Chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, revealed three themes that set the tone for the entire conference. 

1. Flexibility

The staff and volunteers of AFP were able to transition their conference from Baltimore to online in a matter of weeks. This ability to adapt and adjust is nothing short of an incredibly impressive feat; and it’s something many of us are finding ourselves doing now, navigating our new normal.

So many resources were dedicated to hosting a conference in person and in a matter of weeks, AFP was able to shift those resources to offer attendees the best possible experience. From a technology standpoint, the conference was outstanding. There were zero glitches or missteps. They adapted to their situation seamlessly, which was so inspiring to see. 

This translates to fundraising, too, because organizations must be flexible with their donors, their internal teams and even their goals during this uncertain time. It’s time to pivot. (Yes, pivot—like that legendary episode of “Friends”.) Earlier this year I read an article entitled Fundraising 2020: Prepare to Pivot by Sophie Penney at Penn State University; however, if you read her article, this is not the type of pivot she anticipated, or any of us did.

Your organization’s campaigns and communications are likely in the midst of some type of change. In fact, Stelter recently completed a pulse survey with our clients, and 65% of them aren’t missing a beat and are continuing outreach—but are making some modifications to their messaging. Another 27% are pushing a soft pause as they assess the landscape, and plan to resume in the next 3-4 weeks. Either way, everyone is doing their best to navigate the new normal. 

In today’s fluid environment, flexibility in messaging is critical. Look at the language you’re using. Consider the mindset of your donor today. Before your messages go out, review them to ensure they are still appropriate for your recipient’s frame of mind right now—as some words and images have a different connotation now than they did a few weeks ago. (Here are some tricks to fine-tuning your marketing for today’s context.)

2. Persistence

Obviously, things are different now. For example, many conferences (in our industry and otherwise) have been canceled, which was an option for AFP. Yet, they persevered.

Throughout the conference, presenters talked a lot about continuing to work through these challenging times. Your donors are going through it—just like you, your organization and the world. How can we overcome this situation together?

Staying top-of-mind is critical during times like these. Adjust your messaging accordingly and show the right level of empathy, but also remind your donors of the vital impact that your organization is making and that the needs are still very much there. Your good work is more important and more necessary now than ever. So, be persistent and remain confident. 

Speaking of messaging, in her session, Laura Fredricks, J.D., covered the five steps for any ask. Her secret formula: 2 sentences + 1 question. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 1st sentence: Thank them and show them that you appreciate them and their time. 
  • 2nd sentence: Highlight your mission and the impact that your nonprofit is having on that mission.
  • Question: A month ago or so, your question may have been something along the lines of, “Would you like to have a conversation about how you can be an instrumental leader in the advancement of our mission?” Now, tailor that to today. Ask them how they’re doing. If appropriate, ask them if you can share the various ways they can help right now, whether that may be time, services, money or even a deferred gift.

3. Community

In addition to the conference itself, AFP ICON Virtual also hosted a phone app. The app was a place for resources and a forum for people to interact. Users shared their thoughts, questions and photos of their set-up, some featuring dogs/cats running over their keyboard. (There was even a “Tiger King” meme posted.) It was a wonderful community of people, there to learn more and navigate this trying time together. 

From an organizational standpoint, building and strengthening your community is especially important during this time. In his session, Wayne Olson, J.D., divulged the seven things every donor wished we knew. The premise: Most donors want to build a relationship and have a connection with you.

Right now is an opportunity to support those who have supported you and your organization. Having a 15-minute exchange with someone is a perfect way to plant or nurture a relationship. Donors need to hear from the organizations they care about; even if it’s just small talk or asking how they are. Let them talk to you and just listen.

During the closing keynote, Chef José Andrés told the story of how he donated 1 million meals to Hurricane Dorian survivors in the Bahamas. It was empowering to hear about people coming together during times of crisis, getting to work with boots on the ground. Showing this kind of work, using imagery, emphasizes the need and impact so much more than words can. Highlighting the challenges you’re facing today can be a very powerful message.

Overarching the conference was a continual conversation about how to best communicate with your donors today. The conclusion: Showcasing your impact is essential. Your donors, while they may start to restrict how many organizations they give to, who really cared about your mission two months ago, still care today. That passion—of which you, your nonprofit and your donors have for your mission—is what you need to harness for success.

Were you watching this year’s conference from the comfort of your couch? Share your favorite takeaways with us below!


If you tried to register for our webinar, COVID-19 + CARES Act = A CHANGE IN YOUR VISION FOR 2020, and found it was full, you’re in luck! Due to high demand (1,000 registered!), we have scheduled a second webinar so more can have the opportunity to be part of this presentation.

In this unprecedented time, the world is changing daily. Stelter wants to keep you aware of developments critical to your organization’s ability to survive and thrive.

In our complimentary one-hour webinar, we will tackle two topics: the CARES Act and marketing during COVID-19. Industry expert Lynn M. Gaumer, J.D., Stelter’s senior gift planning consultant, will teach you how the recently signed CARES Act impacts your donors and your organization. Then, I will discuss the subtle art of adjusting your planned giving messaging in light of the new act, COVID-19 and the economic downturn.

Attend this webinar to learn:

  • The details of the new CARES Act
  • How to adjust your messaging as a result of the CARES Act and COVID-19

Plus, get your questions answered in a 25-minute Q&A session with our panel of experts! Register now here.


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