What have we learned so far?

Over the past three weeks, we’ve learned just how quickly the world can change. In the short term, change may be the only constant as we begin to get a sense of just how long this crisis will last and how bad things will get. But few organizations can afford to “wait and see,” putting nonprofits in the difficult position of needing to lead, even when it’s not exactly clear what to say or what to ask people to do. In this challenging environment, organizations need to identify and articulate their role in the crisis. For some, that will mean directly supporting vulnerable communities during a time of great need. For others, it will be about confronting a new financial reality that threatens donors, supporters, and their interests. Ultimately, each nonprofit has a duty to make sure their organization can weather this storm and protect the ideals and the people that they represent. 

The early days of this pandemic have already taught us some things about what this new fundraising environment will look like; these learnings highlight both the challenges and opportunities that we believe nonprofits will face for the foreseeable future. 

Addressing an in-person shortfall

Unsurprisingly, the most immediate impact on nonprofit revenues has been felt in offline channels. Face-to-face fundraising programs have been halted and in-person events have been postponed indefinitely. For organizations where these programs are the primary drivers of revenue and supporter acquisition, this is an immediate and serious challenge. 

While replacing all of the revenue these programs generate will be a tall order, we have seen some initial success moving offline events to a virtual format. Just this past weekend, one of our disease-focused clients successfully turned a previously scheduled walk event into a virtual walk. Kick-off speakers provided inspiring videos to attendees and walkers shared videos and photos to generate engagement and build a sense of community. The virtual event significantly exceeded the chapter’s fundraising goals, and the organization is working on adapting this approach to a full chapter toolkit to roll out for all spring walks.

As you think about making a transition to virtual events, be sure to experiment with different formats. Evaluate what is most effective and share learnings across the entire organization. Look to potential partners like Mobilize who are making virtual event resources available to all 501(c)(3) organizations doing COVID-19-related relief work. They also offer robust resources to help guide your shift into virtual organizing. Over time, some nonprofits may even find that virtual events present a high-margin revenue stream that should be continued even after this immediate threat has passed.

Sorting out the mail

Another offline concern that has come up with a number of organizations is the risk of collection issues disrupting revenue coming in through direct mail programs. While nonprofits will have a variety of solutions to this challenge, consider how you can make up any direct mail shortfall through digital channels:

  • Instead of processing mail, could your donor services team spend some time reaching out to donors via Hustle or Facebook Messenger? 
  • Could your telemarketing firm ramp up efforts with Hustle outreach? 
  • Consider targeting your direct mail donors via email and paid social, being clear about the value of an online donation at this difficult time for direct mail. 

Once you have a better sense of the extent of the disruption you’ll face, make a determination about how your budget should shift and where else you can engage with your existing direct mail donors. For some organizations there may even be a bit of a silver lining as this crisis incentivizes closer coordination between online and offline teams.

Sharp decreases in major and mid-level giving

Many organizations are seeing dramatic shifts in revenue coming from major and mid-level donors over the course of just two weeks. Given the amount of uncertainty and the dramatic movement of the stock market, this is not surprising. With major donors in particular, the loss of special events and in-person meetings significantly reduces the opportunities for engagement and cultivation.

This doesn’t mean you can’t still communicate with major donors; in fact, making the effort to reach out in this moment could go a long way towards strengthening relationships:

  • Check in with your most valuable donors. Make sure they’re in a good spot healthwise and otherwise. Schedule a video call or reach out via SMS. Ask them to fill out a survey to better understand where they’re at.
  • Hold a virtual lunch fundraiser over Zoom (or similar service), with speakers and engaging content about what your organization is doing in this moment.
  • Develop interactive and rich experiences to tell your story — whether it’s need or donor impact or both. Individuals are spending a lot more time online, and the demand for more immersive content isn’t likely to slow down for a while. (Two potential added benefits to investing here: These materials can also be rolled out to your broader supporter base, and this type of interactive content has been shown to be critical in mass behavior change campaigns.)

Don’t stop communicating. Your most valuable donors are not immune to this crisis either and personal outreach means a lot in these times.

Decreasing performance of paid social

With some clients, we’ve seen a decline in the performance of their usual campaigns on paid social both in terms of total revenue and ROI. 

Some organizations have been able to address this dip by leaning into tangible giving. For organizations that can translate their mission into specific items or services that a donation will fund, tangible asks have proven to be a particularly effective method of driving donations. In the face of today’s crisis, donors want to feel like they are making a real impact with their gift tangible asks are a great way of tapping into this sentiment.

One organization in the international aid space is working to get 200,000 rapid diagnostic test kits into the health systems they support. Over the past two weeks, they have used this objective as a very practical means of raising money from their supporter base. Each kit costs only $5 and they have been very strong drivers of one-time donations on both email and paid media. On paid media specifically, the campaign has generated a $5.10 return on ad spend (ROAS) to date.

If your organization cannot make credible claims about how a supporter’s gift will help people dealing with this crisis, consider scaling back paid social campaigns and evaluating that decision weekly based on shifts in the ROI of the campaigns that you do continue to run. 

Pay attention to the bright spots and pursue them

Most recent news has been bad and it’s easy to get caught up in all of the things that aren’t going to plan. Still, there have been some bright spots that all nonprofits should take into account. 

First, you have an audience of people who are looking for connection and stimulation. Over the past two weeks many clients have seen engagement rates on email and SMS that are consistently 30 to 40 percent above average. In fact, multiple clients have set records for both open and click-through rates with their active list since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Some of this may be because more people are working remotely and are more technologically connected. But it may also be because they are delivering relevant information, and people are actively seeking news and updates from the organizations they trust.

A second bright spot has been successful fundraising emails that either have a soft ask or no ask at all. For organizations that are struggling with how appropriate it is to fundraise in this moment, this can be a nice way of splitting the difference. A few example of the more successful appeals:

  • A disease-related organization sent a COVID-19 update with no fundraising ask where the $/1,000 emails sent was 3x above average.
  • An international aid organization sent a COVID-19 explainer with a soft ask at the bottom that had a donation rate and revenue totals on par with their most effective emergency sends. It also reactivated a significant number of inactive subscribers.
  • An organization that protects at risk youth sent an update with no ask that had one of the five highest donation rates they’ve ever seen.

The biggest takeaway here is that there is a lot of upside to communicating. If you aren’t comfortable with asking for money, don’t do it, but that doesn’t mean your community shouldn’t hear from you. When you share information with your supporters, adding a donate button (or any other call-to-action) in the footer of your email template gives them a chance to take action on their own accord. People want to do what they can to support others in these trying times, even if you’re not directly asking them to.

Growing (!) recurring revenue programs

One tactic that has proven to be surprisingly effective in this outbreak is asking supporters to make a recurring donation. While such a high-barrier ask may seem counterintuitive in such uncertain times, in some ways the COVID-19 pandemic lends itself well to a recurring ask: the crisis is sustained and requires an ongoing response and, if they weren’t already, everyone is now painfully aware of just how meaningful sustained revenue is. 

One organization in particular has used three soft monthly asks to drive new recurring donors. Of all the recurring donors acquired via email since July 2019, almost one-third signed up just in the past two weeks. This means that those soft asks have increased the number of new recurring donors sourced to email by 46 percent. 

Depending on your mission, this may not be the right moment to fundraise at all — let alone ask supporters to make a recurring gift. But as the situation continues to evolve and you start to think about your next fundraising campaign, consider how you might frame a recurring ask. You might be surprised by the results.

Guidance for the weeks ahead

Between what we’ve learned over the past three weeks and our own planning process for the weeks and months to come, we’ve compiled a list of important principles nonprofits should keep in mind as they try to chart their own path forward. This list is by no means comprehensive, and of course no two nonprofits will find themselves in identical situations, but we do believe it can serve as a useful framework for making difficult decisions in unprecedented times.

Recalibrate, but don’t stop 

Depending on your mission you will have a very different approach to this current moment. The reality is, cause-driven organizations of all kinds are going to see unexpected funding challenges because of this pandemic.

If your work is mission affected by COVID-19, you should be actively and aggressively fundraising to help mitigate the crisis. Double your planned sends if people are responding. At the same time, be sure to balance this sense of urgency with the gravity of the moment. Be transparent about if the funding will be restricted to coronavirus relief or be part of the organization’s overall unrestricted funds. Be clear and honest with supporters — they need to trust you, now, more than ever.

If your work is not directly impacted by COVID-19, consider your next steps carefully. Fundraising appeals for non-coronavirus response could risk appearing tone-deaf and out of touch with where your supporters are. If you are in a non-mission affected space you should consider pausing campaigns, testing different approaches, and continually reassessing what to do next.

Explain to your supporters why and how your work must continue. It’s likely that when a “new normal” is established and people become more familiar with the social changes we’ve seen recently, those who have historically supported your organization will still support you and care about your cause. 

For now, no matter what type of organization you are, take a step back and evaluate all of your plans based on where we are today. Determine what message supporters need to hear from you and keep communicating with them. Be patient. Don’t stop fundraising; just recalibrate your fundraising.

Make an authentic and transparent pitch

Be transparent about changes to your organization’s plans while reassuring your base that you will do everything in your power to carry out your mission. If decisions or services change, tell your supporters. If you need to reshape plans and shift budgets, be honest and open about those shifts. If your hotlines are overwhelmed with demand, tell your supporters, ask for patience and, if relevant, ask them for support to train more staff and volunteers to help handle demand. Make an authentic pitch for their contributions, but don’t be opportunistic; a misplaced ask could do serious reputational harm.

People need reasons to be hopeful

These are unsettling times, and while you should acknowledge the general mood and the gravity of the situation, people are also looking for glimmers of hope. How can your organization spread hope and goodness when people are feeling isolated and scared? Be sure to weave appreciation for your donors into your fundraising asks. Highlight acts of kindness and support. Tell stories about the individuals putting themselves on the front lines to keep services running. Deliver any other content that can give audiences a moment to reflect and appreciate the community they are part of.

When in doubt, test it

This situation is rapidly evolving and so will your donors’ response. When in doubt, test and refine. Messaging that often performs well for you can still deliver results, but when possible, it’s worth testing it side by side with a COVID-19 message variation to maximize your chances of success. 

You can even test into difficult decisions about when to return to fundraising. Start by sending a fundraising ask to 15 to 20 percent of your active list or running a paid media campaign targeted at a very small audience. Track results carefully and if you see success, great — open the floodgates! If not, you’ve minimized the number of people who have seen the ask and you have valuable insight into your audience’s current mood. As you test, remember that in today’s quickly changing landscape, what worked today may not work next week — and what failed today may be perfect for your next campaign.

Remember, your existing recurring donors are your heroes

While we’ve already touched on the potential to acquire new recurring donors in this moment, let’s not forget about the supporters who are already making a recurring gift. Nonprofits have spent a lot of time focused on increasing recurring revenue over the last couple of years. Moments like this are when that strategy will really pay off.

Even in times of crisis, recurring revenue can be expected to be far less volatile than one-time giving and can help to mitigate the gap between actual revenue and what you had projected in headier days. Organizations should carefully monitor gift cancelations and expect to see some increase in the rate of cancelations, but overall we expect recurring revenue to hold relatively steady. 

To help shore up donor retention, be sure to acknowledge how much recurring donors mean to your organization in these uncertain times. Now is the time to ensure that sustainers know how exactly significant their gift is and fully understand the services their ongoing contributions enable you to provide. 

Enlist your partners and ambassadors

Do you have corporate partners or celebrities who may be willing to do more for you at this time? (Celebs will be as bored as us civilians!) Consider organizing celebrity experiences or interactions that can happen remotely and incentivize supporters to donate by entering them to win that experience. 

You could also ask your ambassadors to do a “virtual show” for your supporters and ask for online donations while they’re tuned in. Consider leveraging existing partnerships for matched funding. Many existing partners may be willing to match a COVID-19 appeal up to a certain amount, or will want to help fill in any gaps in your revenue with a matched gift. Setting up a “Partnership Match Fund” where organizations can pledge their support by matching any funds received for emergency appeals may be one way large partners can show their support. (And we all know how effective matches are in increasing response rates and average gift.)

Final thoughts

While there is no time-tested playbook for today’s circumstances, we hope these thoughts and recommendations will help those who need them most. Ultimately, we are all figuring things out as we go and hoping for the best together. As we learn more about what is working and what is not, we will continue to share those insights with the broader nonprofit community.

At times like this, it is especially important that like-minded organizations work together and look out for one another. If we can help answer any questions — about the content of this post, any results, activities, or best practices which will no doubt emerge in the coming days and weeks — please do not hesitate to get in touch.


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