Tips for fundraising amid crisis and preparing for the next disruption

The unexpected onset of the pandemic in early 2020 sent nonprofit organizations everywhere into crisis mode. Economic challenges forced fundraisers to press pause on many of their campaigns and launch new ones to adjust to their new realities and meet the needs of the moment. 

The pandemic might have been one of the largest crises of our lifetimes, but by no means will it be the only one. More disruptions are surely coming — even if they aren’t as disruptive as a global pandemic. Though these challenges might come unexpectedly, there are still strategies that development professionals can implement now to better respond to crises later. 

At the Lenfest News Philanthropy Summit, Theresa Leinker, senior consultant at Schultz and Williams and director of ElevateNP, discussed the fundraising lessons learned during the pandemic and how organizations that rely on philanthropic giving can better prepare for and navigate crises. 

The full presentation, and all other panels from the Summit, can be found here

1. Messaging is critical during crisis 

During the pandemic, nonprofits learned to target their messaging to communicate to donors the importance of their work, especially during tumultuous times. Organizations can use the moment of emergency to position themselves as trusted, longtime experts in their field. For news organizations, emphasizing their own track record of delivering accurate and crucial information can help donors understand the importance of funding this work. 

In times of crisis, the work news organizations provide is more necessary than ever, and demands for their work increases significantly — nearly all publishers, for example, saw their audience grow during the early days of the pandemic. News organizations should work to highlight the need their work is fulfilling and the impact they are having on the community they serve in order to help secure funding. 

For more on messaging, check out the recording of the Summit session on ethical storytelling for strategies on how to successfully tell your story while respecting the autonomy of your community. 

2. Donors fluctuate — and that’s okay

In 2020, despite pandemic-induced economic challenges, giving increased by 16.6% and was higher than the past five years across all nonprofit sectors, according to the 2021 Q1 Fundraising Report from Fundraising Effectiveness Project. The highest increase came from small dollar annual fund donors which jumped by 15.3%. 

Although giving was high, donor retention rates dropped in 2020, down by 4.1% compared to 2019. New donor retention dropped by 9.2 percent in 2020. For 2021, new donor retention rates are also projected to decrease, with organizations retaining new donors by 14.2% compared to the average 22, according to the report. 

“It’s a good reality check for us as fundraisers to understand that despite our absolute best efforts, the fact is that new donors who came to our organizations for the first time in 2020 may not stay with the organization,” Leinker said. “That doesn’t mean all is lost… but it is indicative that this is a very unusual time for philanthropy.” 

3. Deepening engagement can help retain donors

There are key values organizations can highlight to better attract and retain donors, including mission, impact, personal connection, and  trust in the organization. During the pandemic, donors recognized the heightened need for philanthropy in alignment with these values, but it is important to note that this need has not gone away even as people begin to return to some pre-pandemic normalcy. 

“For new donors, those first-time donors gave differently because they wanted to meet that extraordinary need when it was heightened, but that need still exists,” Leinker said. “And you are the best and most experienced organization who can make an impact in this area. That’s what they want to know.”  

Internal data is also a vital engagement tool, starting with RFM, or “recency, frequency, and monetary value” data. Donors who provided gifts fairly recently, more than once, and even increased their donation are much stronger prospects for future giving. Organizations can also conduct external wealth and affinity screenings to help sort through prospective donors, especially when there is an influx of new donors. 

Lastly, organizations can monitor target donors who recently gave gifts. Even though it seems surprising, Leinker said donors are more likely to give additional gifts soon after the first. This can be done through including a second ask in the thank you letter, or having frequent solicitations. 

“If you stop asking for money, donors are left to draw their own conclusions, both about your need and your impact, and the organizational status,” Leinker said. “We don’t want them to be thinking anything like that. We want them to really feel engaged.”

4. Organizations should do more to better prepare for future disruptions

The pandemic showed just how quickly things can take a turn, but there are lessons to be learned for future crises. Organizations can start by building a cross-functional team to manage fundraising efforts during times of crisis and identifying different audiences, such as existing donors, board members, or the broader community. The team should consist of people who can speak to these stakeholders best in order to increase communication. 

From there, fundraisers should define their goals for crisis communications. These goals can range from prioritizing transparency in communications or explaining the disruptions the crisis will have on the organization. Organizations should also be able to effectively communicate their planned response to the crisis at hand. 

Having a clear messaging plan goes hand-in-hand with goal setting, as organizations should quickly be able to identify who they want to communicate to, what those audiences needs to know, and when they need to know it. 

“At the heart of every crisis communications plan is ‘Tell the truth and tell it fast,’” Leinker said. “Sometimes there’s no fault in the truth and sometimes there is, but it’s best to really get it out there and control the message.” 

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