Can We Collect Unpaid Pledges Right Now?

by Barbara Barron | Posted April 23rd, 2020

This article is the first cousin to one I wrote a few weeks ago: “How Can We Think of Money in a Time Like This?

I hope I made the case that not only can you raise money during the Covid-19 crisis, you really ought to.

I’ll start by telling you what you already know. Your donors care deeply about your organization. They want to see it survive. Even thrive.

Sure, not every donor is capable or comfortable with making new, larger, or additional gifts right now. But it is our job to ask them to support the fine schools we represent. Our duty.

So what of unpaid pledges? You likely have many on the books. Some are Annual Fund pledges made back in the fall. Some may be an installment payment on a larger campaign or major gift commitment. All were made in good faith, ideally fueled by the joy of supporting a worthy and inspiring place and/or an important initiative. Remember that part.

We have given our donors the option of telling us when the most convenient time will be for them to pay their pledge. Many choose the spring for any number of excellent reasons. (Including, “none of your dang business!”)

So, there they are. And, because they represent some real percentage of your total money raised, you need to try to collect them. But how to do so when everyone is so worried-scared-sensitive right now?

I’ve had multiple conversations with my client schools about this topic, this week. And I understand the concern. The last thing we want to do ever, and especially now, is to make anyone uncomfortable. We don’t want to put anyone on the spot and force them to reveal personal circumstances they are not ready to share. We don’t want to risk damaging our relationships with our donors. Or our families.

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But as I’ve written before, true relationships require honesty. And some degree of vulnerability. I’m talking about our vulnerability. I’m talking about our willingness to take a deep breath, and be real with someone.

Let’s reverse roles for a moment. Imagine you are the donor who made a very generous and joyful pledge to your school’s Annual Fund back in October. Believing, as you did, that your gift was going to be used wisely and well to support the beloved the teachers, enhance the program, and make it possible for students from a broad range of backgrounds to attend the school. Felt great!

Now it’s late April. And the world is on fire. Your children are still receiving an outstanding – albeit very different – kind of education, via remote learning. In fact, as you think about it, those beloved teachers are pretty much your heroes and heroines these days. (Pro Tip: if there ever was a time for the theme of The Year of the Teacher, 2020 is it!)

While other parts of your life may be messy, what you know in your heart is that your commitment to your child’s school is rock solid.

With that in mind, I say it’s time for us, as advancement professionals, to make the call. And I do suggest a phone call rather than taking the easy way out by sending yet another email. Call your donors. Ask how they are doing.  Tell them you are checking in about the beautiful pledge they made back in October. Thank them again. Tell how grateful the school is for their ongoing support. Maybe share a recent story of a teaching moment that exemplifies the level of dedication and talent of your teachers. Then ask how and when they plan to take care of that pledge. And then stop and listen.

For many, it will likely be a welcome reminder and they will arrange payment then or tell you when to expect it. Here’s another opportunity to thank them. For those who need more time, they’ll tell you! And you can offer to follow up again, later, if helpful. Thank them for their honesty.

A select few will confess they are not able to pay some or all the pledged amount. Perfectly understandable.

This is a moment where a deeper kind of relationship can be built. This very moment you fostered by picking up the phone today. And you, dear reader, are the person who gets to be with them in their embarrassment-fear-sadness, whatever it is. You can listen. You can remind them how grateful you are that they are part of the community. You will tell them you’ll hold a good thought for them during this difficult time. Whatever is the right thing to say, you will say it. And then you will thank them for telling you. This is your superpower.

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Even without this conversation, you were going to have to write off that pledge, come July. But now you know it’s not coming in, and can adjust your projections. You can inform the business office, so they can adjust theirs.

It’s always better to know, even if it hurts a little to know it.

And that donor? They will likely feel some sense of relief for having been open and honest with you. When things get better, that donor is far more likely to give again because the relationship has been strengthened by you. You were there in a time of crisis. You understood. You listened.

One more point. Do it now. Having these conversations in early June will be far, far harder. And way more awkward for everyone. Those are the moments when we as advancement professionals feel like bill collectors. And it’s arguably one of the things we like least about our jobs. So, don’t let that happen. Dive in now. Consider it the act of stewardship it is.

Good luck! And do share stories of successful conversations you have – regardless of the outcome. Emailing me is always the fastest way, but you can also reach out to me on Linkedin. Thank you for all you’re doing.

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal SpringsPresidio Knolls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.