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This piece was originally published in the Philanthropy News Digest.
There are people who thrive on uncertainty—people who enjoy the rush of facing challenges with limited information and even less planning. I am the other sort of person.
For those of us who prefer process over improvisation, and who like to base strategy on data and experience, this is an especially difficult moment. The COVID-19 crisis has upended just about every part of our work. Nonprofit staff suddenly have to figure out how to work remotely, donors are dealing with an extremely precarious economic environment, in-person events are canceled, and so much more. We are surrounded by uncertainty.
And yet, so much of what we’ve learned about sound strategy and effective direct response is just as relevant now as it always was. Our nonprofit partners are adapting to this moment in all sorts of creative ways, from virtual events to TikTok engagement to Zoom trainings for organizers. This kind of nimble adaptation is inspiring, but the most successful efforts share a few things in common.
For all the volatility and uncertainty in this moment, the latest edition of our annual Benchmarks Study identifies long-term trends that can ground our strategy and guide our decisions.
Let the data guide your response in this moment
Given the challenges of suddenly working remotely and the overwhelming nature of the current crisis, many nonprofits are scaling back on their communications. Don’t. Your cause still matters, even if it’s been pushed off the front page. And your supporters still need to hear from you, to know that you value them, and to provide guidance in stressful times.
If you are a social media manager, that means you should be posting more, not less. Consider starting a social media group to help supporters maintain a sense of community—anything from a weekly Zoom check-in to a What’s App group for your top donors. Do whatever it takes to stay connected: collect stories, bring joy, reach out to your influencers and ask them to do something meaningful. And there’s plenty they can do—the nonprofits in the recently-released M+R Benchmarks Study reported that Facebook accounted for 3.5% of all online revenue last year, and nearly 10% of all online giving for Health nonprofits.
If you are a fundraiser, by all means: fundraise! Be transparent about how COVID-19 is affecting your cause, your nonprofit, the people you serve. Be honest about your fears for the future, and about how much your donors matter. Consider going beyond simple mobile optimization and looking to tools that make mobile donating easier and more attractive, such as Apple Pay and PayPal. As the share of desktop users relative to mobile continues to decline, the average value of a mobile user increases. Users on mobile devices accounted for half of all nonprofit website traffic, and a third of all online donations, in 2019.
Before this crisis, the key to effective digital fundraising was to communicate timely, emotionally relevant appeals that motivate supporters to feel like they can make a difference. That hasn’t changed one bit. With many corporations scaling back on digital ads due to COVID-19 disruptions, there is even more space and opportunity for nonprofits to reach bigger audiences. Nonprofits invested 17% more in digital ads in 2019 than in 2018. That growth reflects a shift in priorities as well as the effectiveness of digital ads for lead generation, new donor prospecting, retention, and retargeting.
Find ways to take your offline efforts online. Your annual gala is canceled? You can postpone, or skip this year—or you can find creative ways to let donors mingle, celebrate, and be inspired from their own homes. Your canvass operation is temporarily derailed? Double down on peer-to-peer texting.
With many in-person events canceled and supporters looking for ways to do socially-distanced good, the Facebook Fundraisers peer-to-peer platform, which generated 97% of all Facebook revenue for nonprofits in 2019, could be just what you are looking for to supplement lost revenue. The May 5 #GivingTuesdayNow event is the perfect moment to experiment, but nonprofits should consider creating their own peer-to-peer moments. Just don’t forget that if you rely on Facebook Fundraisers, Facebook keeps most of the data, not you.
Remember that you know what your supporters respond to, you know why your cause matters, you know how to do good. Don’t let logistics and tech get in the way of applying that knowledge and experience.
Plan for a return to “normal”
This is where we worriers, we planners, we lovers of certainty can really shine. Because while we don’t know how much longer we have to endure until quarantine ends, we know that it will. Use this time to be ready for when that happens.
For many nonprofits, long-term planning is the hardest thing to do effectively. There’s always so much going on now that it’s nearly impossible to make a long-term plan, let alone stick to one. But with so many limits on what we can do, this is the perfect moment to articulate your vision, create your checklist, and commit to fundamental progress.
That may mean developing a testing roadmap to optimize your homepage for donor conversion. It may mean a shift toward a fundraising model that prioritizes monthly giving and long-term retention over short-term acquisition. Whatever the big, scary, complicated problem you’ve been waiting for a chance to take on might be—now is the time to get started.
None of us know what the future holds. Right now, most of us don’t even know what tomorrow holds. But we don’t have to give in to uncertainty. We have the power to leverage what we know, to inspire the people who are looking to us for hope and guidance and light, and to create certainty in this most uncertain time.
For more free resources to help give you a firm foundation, see the complete 2020 Benchmarks Study at mrbenchmarks.com.
Sarah DiJulio is Managing Partner at M+R. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.