Right now, every fundraising program is preparing for what could be the most disruptive year end… ever.

But with the trauma and tragedy of 2020, how can we make sure we’re understanding our audience’s needs and responding as intelligently, efficiently, and empathetically as possible? If this year has taught us anything, it’s that “tried and true” tactics may no longer be, well, true.

This year has forced fundraising innovation through changing social rules, norms, and economic realities. It’s challenged us to be more thoughtful and intentional around the relationships we’re cultivating with our supporters and the experiences that we’re creating for them. 

In a conversation with fundraising leaders from charity: water, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, we took a deep dive into their plans and strategic adjustments as we move into the final, most crucial fundraising months of the year.

Here are a few of the key takeaways:

1. Generosity hasn’t gone anywhere

The good news: People are still prioritizing the causes they care about. Total donations are up year over year — with some organizations raising significant funds despite of (or indeed because of) the pandemic. While some organizations — particularly those that rely heavily on events, in-person meetings, or major gifts — have struggled, the majority of our clients have weathered the pandemic well. 

A chart of total giving from one of our clients 2019 vs 2020. Trend shows that giving is up in 2020.
2019 vs. 2020 giving for one of our clients.

Across the world right now, there is a heavy feeling of powerlessness. Nonprofit organizations that are positioning themselves as a conduit for enacting change — to build the world people want to be in — are succeeding. Audiences are craving these moments to make an impact, to take control, and to do some good. 

2. Empathy has a leading role to play

Donors have experienced grief and hardship far before this year, and will continue to experience it far after. But this year has been uniquely difficult for almost everyone. 

Showing your supporters that they really matter makes all the difference. Take a look at this recent email from Democratic Senate candidate Jamie Harrison: His campaign recognized that people were facing personal and financial hardship, and offered supporters the chance to opt out of emails for a few weeks, even during a critical fundraising moment. It shows that the campaign understands the world their supporters are living in and that they are putting their people first.

An email from Jamie Harrison's campaign. At the top of the message, they let supporters know that they can choose to "opt out of emails for the next two weeks."
An email from Jamie Harrison’s campaign. At the top of the message, they let supporters know that they can choose to “opt out of emails for the next two weeks.”

It’s also important to remember that people are receiving multiple asks from multiple organizations. You aren’t the only nonprofit speaking to “your” donors. That means that comparisons will happen and, in this moment of sensitivity, conclusions drawn. So when you are crafting your work, ask two questions: (1) why would someone do this right now? and (2) how will this make our audience feel?

3. Hope > Guilt

We all know that guilting someone into caring about your cause or campaign works, but it doesn’t make that person feel invested. It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem — and a fundraising strategy with a low ceiling. 

Whether you’re bringing clean water to millions of people around the globe, fighting for women’s rights, or working to bring transparent and articulate news to the masses, you’re promoting a feeling and the opportunity to build a better world. We have to remind people that good is happening all around us, especially now. People are searching for hope and optimism after being inundated with a steady stream of bad news.

By reframing urgency and need for your causes in an empowering way, you create longer-lasting and stronger relationships with your donors.

Use generosity to inspire generosity, resiliency to inspire resiliency.”

Tyler Riewer, charity: water

4. Prepare for…every possible scenario

It’s no secret that many grassroots fundraising programs were not prepared for the election outcome in 2016. 

Organizations like NPR have created comprehensive election toolkits with detailed messaging and creative to ensure that their stations project a confident and unified voice. Planned Parenthood has developed messaging frameworks and crisis management plans to guide their response to every possible scenario. 

Regardless of what happens this year, you have to reassure your audience that your organization will continue to provide much-needed services, no matter the outcome.  

5. Nimble is the name of the game

With the election just a few days away, many organizations will have to adapt their messaging at a rapid pace. Relevance is crucial for organizations that will be directly impacted by the electoral outcome. If faced with a choice between complexity and timeliness, we suggest the latter — as capturing the tidal wave of energy and emotion will likely drive the highest return in this moment.

Cutting down on complexity and focusing on the highest-value segments will put your organization in a steady spot for whatever happens November 3rd (and the weeks to follow). 

Put in place the mechanisms that can do some of the year-end heavy lifting and ease the burden on your team. For example, develop and deploy automated streams of content that work with a more tactical execution — like an abandoned shopping cart series. This way, your team can have more capacity and mental bandwidth to address the outcome of the election.

And be aware that, just as your program is adapting, so are your donors. They may show up for your cause in other ways over the next months — so make space for that to happen. These experiences don’t have to have a monetary focus either; think about how such journeys can cultivate your donors or activate them in a non-direct financial ask. 

We have supporters showing up for us in other ways than monetary giving. You have to still recognize that and include that in your messaging.”

Stephanie Lauf, Planned Parenthood

6. It’s OK to not have everything figured out

What happened this year will forever be a part of our new normal. We’re all learning what this means together — but the important element is being transparent about what this means to your donors and taking them with you as you make adjustments along the way.

Pulling back the curtain to show your supporters the struggles, challenges, and opportunities you’re facing can be valuable in the short term and engender loyalty and affinity in the longer term. Your supporters are with you because they believe in your mission, and it’s vital to establish that new normal together. So, ask for their feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Ask for their ideas. And then embed their insights into your plans moving forward.

Now is the time to listen, reflect, and make space for the communities you serve. And, be brave enough to make a few mistakes along the way. 

While we have been forced to create in this scary time, the upside is that we’ve found new ways to engage with our donors that might elevate our relationships and also elevate giving.”

Loren Pritchett, NPR

You can watch our full webinar discussion with leaders from charity: water, NPR, and Planned Parenthood here.