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COVID at 6 months: Where is nonprofit fundraising heading?

Can you believe it has been six months?

Half a year has gone by since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and our lives changed forever. In the weeks that followed, we saw a cascade of closures, lockdowns, social distancing, mask mandates and more.

As the virus began to make its impact back in March, I shared some guidance on how nonprofit organizations should handle fundraising during these unprecedented times. Smart strategies and adaptations – not rash decisions – were necessary to meet the crisis at hand.

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect on these remarkable events, let’s take a closer look at the changes we’re seeing in charitable giving and where our industry is heading in response.

1. UNBELIEVABLE GENEROSITY

Let’s start by highlighting the truly remarkable.

In the early days of the pandemic, we were all concerned about our health and safety, our families and friends as well as our careers. Yet, in the face of such uncertainty, the selfless spirit of humanity shined.

Donations came pouring in for any charitable organization that was connected to the pandemic’s frontline response – from homeless shelters to food banks to hospitals and so many more.

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It’s truly inspiring to see such kindness from folks who want to make the world more humane, just and compassionate. There are even tangible benefits for donors – research shows generosity can make us live longer.

2. THE CHALLENGES OF SUSTAINABILITY

Unfortunately, not everything is rosy for charities.

Those not directly connected to the COVID response have struggled for attention – and survival. Despite the early surge, giving has even slowed down for those organizations on the front lines.

Yet their missions continue because the need persists.

Animals still need safe homes. Children still need food and education. Cancer patients still need a cure.

The cancellation of in-person events has put an additional strain on already-tight budgets, leaving many nonprofit organizations struggling to stay alive. Some industry experts predict a wave of nonprofit closures on the horizon.

That’s tough news for an industry that accounts for more than 10 percent of private-sector jobs in the U.S.

3. DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

In order to survive, nonprofits must adapt to the changing environment.

The pandemic has showed us firsthand how companies like Zoom, Netflix and Peloton are thriving by taking experiences and transforming them digitally. Nonprofits must do the same for donors.

Organizations that leaned into their digital marketing during the early days of the pandemic showed the potential these channels have.

As businesses shut down and more people faced hunger, food banks saw record-breaking numbers in online donations. Here are just a few highlights from March 12 through May:

  • Food Bank for New York City: 3,256% increase in digital revenue
  • Houston Food Bank: 1,979% increase in digital revenue
  • North Texas Food Bank: 1,870% increase in digital revenue

Absolutely amazing.

St. Labre Indian School is another great example. Due to shelter-in-place orders, a backlog of donor mail began accumulating on their campus. Unable to access these much-needed funds, the school chose to send an automated text message to 200,000 offline donors, asking them to give online. It worked.

A digital strategy goes beyond sending companion emails and making a few social media posts. Organizations must optimize their digital channels and experiment with new technology so they have the flexibility to move quickly when needed and the sophistication to execute properly.

4. A NEW APPROACH TO EVENTS

Social distancing measures have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus by eliminating large gatherings of people. From music to sports to travel, entire industries have suffered as a result.

Nonprofits have felt the impact in the cancellation of events. Many organizations depend on the revenue from donors who attend these social affairs.

Once again, quick thinking and adaptation have saved the day.

We’ve seen organizations pivot to hosting virtual events to engage with their mission-focused donors. It’s not quite the same as meeting in person, but some have pulled off really impressive virtual events.

However, it takes more than putting on a good show to bring in donations.

Most organizations know why they should jump into virtual events, but they don’t know how to get started.

5. INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE

We don’t know when, but life will return to normal at some point. When the pandemic comes to an end and the economy bounces back, nonprofits must be ready to hit the ground running.

It’s clear that the pandemic has catapulted us into a new era of fundraising and marketing. These recent months have been categorized by pivots (short-term adjustments) and transformations (long-term, fundamental shifts).

Both are rooted in a trend that was building pre-COVID, and that is using data to drive strategy.

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Data allows nonprofits to enhance the donor journey through segmentation, personalization and automation. That boils down to delivering the right message to the right donor at the right time – across channels.

Thanks to Amazon, Google and Facebook, donors have come to expect this complex level of communication from every organization.

Thus, we find ourselves at an inflection point.

These are challenging times, with no clear end in sight, yet a sustainable future requires an investment in the midst of a global pandemic.

From 9/11 to the Great Recession, previous national crises have showed us that there will be winners and losers when it comes to market share. Some organizations will see growth in the next few years, while others shrink or fold.

Tomorrow’s success depends upon the decisions made today. Let us all rise to the occasion.

Tim Kersten

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top direct response fundraising, strategic and creative talents, Tim Kersten brings more than 40 years of experience to his role as CEO of RKD Group. Prior to joining RKD, he served as Chief Creative Officer and Executive Creative Director at two national advertising agencies and ran his own successful direct response fundraising consultancy for nearly 25 years.

Some of the nation’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations that have benefited from Tim’s insightful and persuasive communication strategies include the Smithsonian Institution, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, National Park Foundation, Covenant House, and dozens of others. Tim’s work has been recognized by his receipt of four Direct Marketing Association Echo Awards (gold, leader and two silver from 1986 to 2010) and a prestigious International Caples Award (2010).

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