Fundraising During COVID-19: What Your Nonprofit Needs to Know

February 7, 2022
14 minutes
A graph line spirals downward before picking back up again. It's being pelted by raindrops in a cloudy purple haze.

Remember the good old days, when we sat at home and sighed, “Two whole weeks at home, but then this pandemic will be over!”? Well, it’s been yeeeeears since then, and every nonprofit has been through a lot. These days it feels like we're living through the Wild West of life, and for that matter, fundraising. In-person events, visiting donors face-to-face, and traditional stewardship are all out the window due to COVID-19. We’ve pivoted left and right, changing up our strategies, work cultures, and goals. We’ve learned a lot, too, about how to adapt and how to stay resilient.   

While none of us know exactly what the future holds, we’re here to tell you that you can keep getting through this, just as you have for what feels like centuries of pandemic life. Read on for our complete guide to surviving (and maybe even thriving?) during COVID-19. 

Continue to meet your fundraising goals during the pandemic.

Your nonprofit is still addressing needs during the pandemic—maybe more needs than ever—so there's no way that you can slack on your charity's fundraising goals. Now is the time to set pandemic fundraising goals for your nonprofit and discover ways to make COVID work, despite its devastation.

Evaluate what's working in your fundraising program

When things go sideways, it can be tempting to overhaul everything and try to get as “creative” as possible. But chances are there are still strategies working for your organization that you should continue to use. If you already have a monthly review process to identify what's working and what's not, keep it up! If you don’t do a monthly review, now's a great time to start for benchmarking and comparison purposes.

Here are a few things to review inside your fundraising program on a monthly basis:

  • The number and amount of gifts you received each month as well as the channels for giving
  • The number of new donors and where they came from
  • The conversion rate on your donation page
  • Top traffic sources to your website, especially to your donation page
  • Response rates on direct mail appeals
  • Open rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates on email appeals
  • If you work in major gifts, a review of your portfolio including where all donors are at in the giving pipeline

Reviewing these pieces of your fundraising program will not only help you identify what’s working but will also give you clear actionable steps to improve what’s not working.

Then, build a contingency plan

You (hopefully) have a fundraising plan in place, but what you may not have are backup plans inside your fundraising plan. Having a plan B and even a plan C ready to go is smart fundraising. The truth is that the response to your fall campaign or even year-end campaign may be different when there’s a COVID surge or inflation is rising; however, these campaigns often last weeks, which means that you can try new things and drum up improved results on the fly. Having a list of ideas in the wings will help you pivot quicker in the midst of a campaign.

Your contingency plans can be as simple or elaborate as you decide. For instance, if your spring fundraiser usually involves a direct mail piece and an email, you could have in mind an extra email or secure a matching gift to use towards the end of your campaign.  

Keeping Your Donors Throughout COVID-19

Donors are just as freaked out by COVID as nonprofits are. Should they keep donating? Donate more? Less? Or find new charities and causes to donate to during the pandemic? The keys to keeping your donors through the pandemic are consistency, clarity, communication, and compassion.

Abstract illustration of windows with colorful blinds and curtains. An abstract gray face is looking out of the bottom right window

Once you’ve considered your overall fundraising strategy, it’s time to move on to the donors themselves. Because pandemic or not, your nonprofit likely loses some donors every year—yep, donor attrition is inevitable.

Nonprofits lose donors for a variety of reasons: expired credit cards, off-base communication or stewardship, economic hardship, or donors changing their philanthropic priorities. And with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits may be even more likely to lose donors due to economic hardships, which is understandable, given that the future of work for millions of people is already looking pretty different.

But losing donors doesn’t have to mean that you’ve lost the relationship forever—just because a donor stops giving doesn’t mean that your nonprofit shouldn't reach out to them ever again. Quite the opposite! Keep in touch and add value to donors’ lives so that when they're financially back on their feet, the relationship they have with your nonprofit still exists.

Here are a few tactics your nonprofit can use to keep the love alive.

Focus on consistent donor relations efforts

You may not be raising the kind of money you raised pre-2020, but that doesn’t mean you have to let your donor relationships fizzle. In fact, you want to keep in touch with donors who can’t give so that you continue to cultivate that relationship when the time is right for them to give again—take a cue from One Tail at A Time's COVID-19 donor outreach strategy. Now's a great time to audit your donor relations efforts to make sure certain donors or segments aren't falling through the cracks.

In general, it’s good to make sure you're communicating with donors at least once per quarter. If you primarily use your email list for communications and donor relations, weekly or bi-weekly communication is more likely to keep your email list engaged and reduce the number of contacts who become inactive. Sharing stories, video content, popular social posts, and meaningful informational updates are a few examples of what to fill your communications calendar with.

Segment your donor communications

Segmentation is always a good idea—it allows you to recognize the type of relationship you've got with your donors. Use segmentation to convey specific messages or content to lapsed donors.

Need some ideas of what to send to your lapsed donors?

  • Send your lapsed donors a copy of your annual report with a special personalized cover letter.
  • Use your organization’s expertise to add value to your donors’ lives. Send out a standalone email with a few relevant tips or create a shareable infographic.
  • Send a newsletter with content specific to lapsed donors. You don’t need to overhaul the entire thing to make this work! Consider changing one or two pieces of content to make it more relevant to the audience you're targeting.

Send a satisfaction survey 

Donor surveys are a powerful tool for gaining insight into donor relationships. Even if a donor's lapsed, you can send them a satisfaction survey with the goal of understanding why they lapsed and how you can (hopefully) win them back.

Here are some survey questions you’ll want to include:

  • What part of our mission most appeals to you?
  • How would you rate your experience as a donor?
  • “I felt thanked and appreciated after my last gift.” Agree or disagree?
  • What was the biggest factor in your decision not to make a gift this year?

Include an optional field on your survey for donors to include their name; some will choose anonymity and that’s okay! When you review your survey results, look for trends to see if you can pinpoint what has impacted lapsed donor relationships. From there, begin to rethink parts of your fundraising strategy to improve your donor retention. 

Pick up the phone (or start the Zoom call)

Even if we weren’t living in a COVID-19 world, connecting with donors via phone or video is a good idea. COVID-19 has made it an especially good idea because we all need to be cared about and humanized. As Drew Freidrich of CBN told us, his org's communication with its longtime donors saved the day in a big way. Due to COVID-19, they were wildly short on program funding and had a donor offer a matching grant that got them almost to their goal.

During a video call with their donor base, these supporters raised the final amount in short order. Additionally, these donors asked to be kept updated with any other urgent needs. They looked at their donations and support as investments in the nonprofit and were deeply committed to keeping the good works alive.

If your fundraising work hasn’t included a lot of one-on-one time with donors, fear not! Calling them “just because” doesn’t have to be awkward. In fact, before you make any phone calls, develop a loose script to help you feel more confident. Jot down a few talking points or a conversation starter, or go for full-on scripting until you get the hang of it.

Your talking points for your call could include:

  • A short anecdote from one of your programs
  • A quick update about a program
  • How your nonprofit has been handling the impact of COVID-19

Speak from the heart and be interested in your donors’ lives, too. Not every donor's gonna wanna chit chat, but you’ll find a few who do.

Ask… at some point

Yep, asking is a part of keeping your donor relationships alive! As you know, fundraiser, receiving an ask is the biggest driver for people’s giving. Asking prompts them to take action that otherwise might not have been on their radar. If you’ve kept in touch with your lapsed donors, at some point you’ll want to get an ask in front of them again. Ideally, this should happen sometime between 6 to 12 months after their last gift, but with an ongoing economic crisis, keeping an eye on what's happening is gonna be key.

Will you be able to win back every single lapsed donor? Probably not, but you'll regain some. For lapsed donors who don’t give, continue to keep in touch and make another ask down the road. You never know when circumstances will change and donors will reactivate their giving.

How to Handle COVID-19 Donor Messaging

A big part of retaining donors and cultivating donor relationships has to do with your messaging. While you don’t want every email to cry “COVID”, it’s important to acknowledge the truth of the situation. Have you continued to share how you're pivoting or stabilizing your programs?

Your organization has a unique and vital role to play in the response to and recovery from the current crisis. Do your donors see that role? Use the messaging points and outline below to share your response to COVID-19's most urgent needs and thank your donors who have made your response possible.

COVID-19 response messaging tips

Your normal donor messaging may not work in this pandemic, but your brand and mission will. As you communicate with your donors during this time, keep the focus on your clients and how their needs are being met. Show your donors that your organization has a plan and is solidly delivering impact, whether it's something you would normally be doing or a brand-new avenue.

Additionally, avoid crisis messaging. True, the reality is that COVID has been extremely stressful for everyone and every organization. But turning to crisis messaging and emergency solicitations isn't a great option nor is it particularly inspiring. And on top of that, it's not meant to be a long-term strategy—you can't always be shouting that you're on the brink.

Donors want hope, optimism, and a picture of a brighter future, so find it somewhere, even if it's difficult for you to see the sun through the clouds yourself. Use the messaging in your appeals to show them how your nonprofit is going to make a real difference during these tough times. 

Finally, make sure to thank the supporters who donated before the crisis began as well as the ones who have donated during the crisis—your entire donor base has had a hand in building a strong organization that can withstand a crisis as deep and wide-ranging as COVID-19.

COVID-19 response outline

Address these points as you update your supporters on your organization's response to COVID-19. Please note: the strategy below may not apply to your organization—if you want to talk specific strategy for your audience, reach out to a Funraise representative.

Tell your donors:

  • Here’s how COVID-19 is affecting our clients.
  • Here are some of the stories from our clients.
  • Here’s how we’ve responded quickly to our clients’ greatest needs.
  • Your donation has helped build an organization that’s able to quickly respond to our community’s needs.
  • Thank you for making this organization strong; you’re making our response possible.
  • We can do more to increase our response. If you can, donate so we can take it further.

To further support Funraise customers, we've added a Campaign Site template with COVID-19-driven language and imagery in Funraise's platform. If you don't have a campaign running right now, consider this template as your starting point; just configure the images and content to fit your response and go!

Pivoting Programs as a COVID Fundraising Strategy

Pivoting your nonprofit's programs for the pandemic isn't the whole of the strategy. You also need to make sure that all parties—everyone from your constituents to your nonprofit's board of directors to your staff to your funders and donors—know how and why you're making pandemic program pivots.

An autumnal landscape with hills in the background and a road with a sharp turn and a road sign in the foreground

One of the COVID-19 fundraising strategies a few organizations have tested out is pivoting their programs to make the ask more relevant to our current circumstances. While this may not be a strategy every organization can try out, it’s an interesting one because it addresses two challenges—how to keep operating your programs and how to keep raising money. Let’s look at a few examples of this in action.

WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre

WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre has operated in-person support services for survivors of sexualized violence for over 25 years. Due to the pandemic, in-person counseling is no longer feasible. While WAVAW operates a crisis phone line, they knew that they needed to find more ways to support survivors.

This summer they launched WAVAW Connect—an online text and chat service for survivors of sexualized violence. Here’s the announcement email.

An email from WAVAW introducing their covid programming

Check out this key part of their email:

“We know that due to COVID-19 many survivors are experiencing additional violence in their homes, and privacy has become more scarce. We understand that survivors can’t always reach out for support over the phone, and we want to offer additional ways for survivors to have access to support.”

This paragraph showcases a perfect case for supporting this service and makes it easier to fundraise. WAVAW connects the current circumstances (COVID-19), the impact it has on their clients (being at home more, potentially experiencing more violence), and how they can help (WAVAW Connect). This is a very well-constructed argument perfect for future fundraising opportunities.

Variety BC

Variety BC has been helping special needs kids and their families for 54 years. They provide grants to families so that they can afford mobility equipment, specialized therapies, and more. While they are not the direct service providers, they knew that some of what they provide to kids would no longer be possible during the pandemic. Additionally, they wanted to find a more relevant fundraising ask to keep fundraising.

The result was their COVID-19 Heart of Variety Fund campaign. In this campaign, they pivoted the ask to focus on virtual therapies that kids could still access, such as counseling and tutoring. Variety BC made this ask even more powerful by giving donors the compelling reason that virtual therapies help kids maintain the progress they’ve worked hard to achieve. Even better, this ask doesn’t stop at virtual therapies. Instead, they add an emotional component to the ask by referencing the kids’ progress.

An email from Variety BC announcing their Heart of Variety fundraising campaign

Your takeaways from these examples

One of the nonprofit-applicable qualities shown in both of these examples is that the organizations created an ask that very clearly draws a line between the pandemic, its impact on their clients, and ways their nonprofit can help. This is essential for a relevant, timely fundraising ask.

In general, when you construct an ask, you're essentially building an argument for donating. Ideally, you want that argument to be as unobjectionable as possible. When you're able to make the argument (and therefore the ask) unobjectionable, you’ve provided your donors with clear, compelling reasons to give.

As your nonprofit continues to navigate fundraising during COVID-19, remember that relevance is a key component of urgency. The more relevant you can make your ask to the current circumstances, the better.

Nonprofit Resources for Remote Work During COVID-19 

Can your nonprofit's work be done from home? If so, lean into it. Don't put your staff in danger for no reason; save money on office space, internet, and operating expenses where you can. Conversely, make sure that you're taking care of employee needs like childcare, mental health, and technology.

Tonal blue shapes on a blue background with a photo of a person in a tan sweater typing on a laptop

Once you’ve taken care of your clients, programs, strategy, donors, and messaging, there’s one more important area to consider: your staff. After two years of pandemic life, you’ve likely learned the ropes of remote work. If not—or if you just need a refresher—here are some remote-work resources to help you on your way. Most of them are free or low-cost, plus they should require little external support from IT. 

And hey, even when things have returned to a new normal (famous last words), you might find you’ve grown accustomed to a new way of working.

Remote work communication solutions

Provided your organization operates with cloud-based nonprofit-based email, you may be in a good position to work remotely already. Both Office 365 Nonprofit and Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) for Nonprofits have great collaboration and communication features. You may only need to activate additional features to be able to offer remote working as an option.

If you use Office 365

Business and Enterprise licenses for Office 365 will generally include Teams. This can be used to collaborate on documents, share files, chat, and host meetings.

If you use Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) for Nonprofits

For those who are already making use of the Google Workspace for Nonprofits, a free plan includes email, chat functionality, and 100-participant video meetings. From there, you can upgrade to have up to 250 participants, as well as attendance tracking, in-domain livestreaming, and more.

Other tools

Video and conferencing platform application Zoom enables both basic online meetings as well as group messaging. Staff participation can be done using a desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. Bonus, with Zoom becoming so ubiquitous during the pandemic, there are tips and tricks aplenty to get you up and running quickly. 

Facebook’s (er, make that, Meta’s) product, Workplace, is a free product for nonprofits. Think of this product as similar to an internal office Facebook for your employees and volunteers. It is a separate application from personal Facebook accounts. 

Workplace was developed to help teams with sharing, communications, and making decisions as a group in an online secure, private space.

Another popular communication tool is Slack. It helps organizations stay connected through direct messages and group messaging. Slack includes channels to be used when there is a need to centralize discussions regarding specific topics. Slack offers a free plan for nonprofits with less than 250 employees.

TeamViewer can also be used for distributed staff in an organization. Your IT department can use this application to manage the devices used (laptops, desktops, etc.) or by the nonprofit staff for collaboration, using online video and collab features.

Remote work collaboration and document management

Remote working often involves not just communications but also having the ability to share and co-edit documents easily. It would be even better if this can be done in realtime to meet critical deadlines (projects and grant proposals included). 

For those who currently use Office 365 or Google Workspace for Nonprofits, collaboration and document storage are already included. You just need to activate them to get going.

If you use Office 365

You will have a variety of options in using cloud-based storage. Microsoft itself comes with its own folder system for storage online called OneDrive. This helps get you up and running quickly, using Office 365’s own integrated tools.

If you use Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) for Nonprofits

For current Google Workspace users, Google Workspace for Nonprofits includes 

30 GB of cloud storage per user. You get access to Google Drive, allowing your team to set permissions for sharing and access. It works with any platform, including Office 365, and is a great cloud-based repository. If you have the budget to upgrade, you’ll get more storage and enhanced support.

Box for clients

Small organizations of ten or fewer licenses (users) can look to Box to move and store documents quickly to a cloud-based storage location. It is very easy to set up, as Box Coaching Corps assists in helping small organizations get up and running.

Permissions when accessing folders and files

Regardless of any online collaboration and storage, take time to consider who will have access and adjust permissions accordingly on your folders, especially when dealing with donor information and any documents that require compliance. 

Fundraising friend, we know these are wild, uncertain times. With a little extra planning and strategy, you can do your very best to get through them.

COVID-19 and Nonprofits: Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced nonprofits around the world to rework their strategies and cultures, slash their budgets, and confront systemic and racial injustices.
  • It’s important to keep fundraising and keep communicating during a crisis like COVID-19.
  • While many nonprofits have struggled over the past two years, others have raised more money than ever before through new grant opportunities and innovation.
  • To retain donors without in-person meetings, pick up the phone, schedule a video call, or write a letter.
  • There are a variety of resources to help your nonprofit through this challenging time, including grants and relief funds. Check out your local business association and state nonprofit group to get started.
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