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National nonprofits and the struggle for relevance

One of the biggest trends that has stood out during the COVID-19 pandemic is the tremendous difference in how it has affected diverse groups and organizations.

We see it at the personal level—those who have lost their jobs or a family member to this novel coronavirus vs. those who suddenly have more money thanks to reduced spending. We see it at the professional level—entire industries like travel, sports and entertainment that are barely surviving vs. those like grocery, fitness and e-commerce that are thriving.

And we even see it among nonprofit organizations across North America.

According to a recent report by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, charitable giving has shifted in 2020. People are focusing on helping their local communities, even through “buying local” at businesses.

The numbers bear this out.

When we analyzed the first-half stats for 78 of our regional food bank partners, we found a 233% lift in revenue as gifts came pouring in during the early months of COVID. Local hospitals have seen similar support from donors.

But many other nonprofit organizations are struggling to make ends meet.

National nonprofits, in particular, have been fighting for their survival during COVID. Some have projected multimillion-dollar losses in revenue and pandemic-fueled job losses.

Their missions are still incredibly impactful—cancer, for example, doesn’t stop during a pandemic and neither does the need to find a cure—but they’re not top of mind for many donors today.

How can national nonprofits remain relevant and connect with donors? We’re here to provide a few tips to help:

1. Meet people where they are

Stress to donors why your mandate is still important. Explain to them why you still need their help.

If your focus is research, for example, talk about all the progress you’ve made so far. Tell donors you don’t want to slow down and lose out on those gains due to lack of funding.

Connect donors directly to your mission. Help them understand the impact they can make.

2. Lead nationally, think locally

Speaking of impact, find ways to localize it.

Supplement urgent appeals with micro-campaigns that have a regional focus. In the course of 4-6 weeks, you can show how grants have helped a local community or how certain funding has been used at a hospital or research center nearby.

Then, in your appeal, you can state, “We need $25,000 in the next two weeks to continue this amazing work in your community.”

3. Lean into virtual events

The cancellation of in-person events has dramatically affected revenue at national charities. Whether it’s charity runs or high-end galas, these events act as the front door to the organization at the local level.

With virtual events, you can broadcast a big national show and widen your audience by bringing in people from across the world. At the local level, you can organize rooms or chats for people to interact with like-minded individuals from their community.

Think of it like watching an awards show or sporting event while chatting with your friends about it.

4. Create a forum for donors

Go beyond the chat room of the virtual event and create a complete online forum for your constituents. This allows people to continue their conversations and connect with one another at a deeper level—all thanks to your organization.

There are plenty of options you can choose here, but it’s important to let your audience guide the discussions and engage with one another. Don’t use this as an opportunity to blast out your communications and appeals.

We know that connection is a strong driver of charitable giving, especially when it comes to retention.

This is a difficult time for organizations of all shapes and sizes. These four tactics will help build a better connection with donors to keep your organization top of mind when it’s time to donate.

Chris Thomas

As Vice President, Client Strategy, at RKD Group, Chris Thomas brings more than 25 years of fundraising experience working for both agencies and nonprofit organizations, including some of Canada’s most notable NGOs. He served eight years as a Director with World Vision Canada, overseeing areas such as direct mail acquisition and cultivation, child sponsorship broadcast acquisition, Artists & Associates, Chinese Ministries and others.

After World Vision, Chris served as Vice President, Fundraising and Communications, for CARE Canada, where he was responsible for developing and managing brand and generating private-sector revenue from direct response and major gift programs. He previously provided senior fundraising leadership to organizations including Leukemia Research Fund of Canada, Toronto Rehabilitation Hospital and the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. His background covers a wide range of expertise, including brand management and development, donor cultivation and acquisition, major-gift and legacy programs and new-product development.

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