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Retaining Donors Who Give In Times of Crisis

For nonprofit organizations, times of national distress — and in the case of COVID-19, international distress — come with the added difficulty of understanding how to deliver on your mission and raise the funds you need. 

But these times also often come with an outpouring of gifts from some donors, who are ready to stand behind their communities, the causes they’re hearing about from friends and family, and organizations they might not think of otherwise. In the case of COVID-19, we are likely to see some sectors, such as hunger relief and supportive housing groups, experience this distinctly. 

Historically, these “emergency” donors can be difficult to retain in future years, which often makes many organizations shy to invest in efforts to keep them, despite their appreciation for their donations. With diligence and data, we have a few thoughts on how to demonstrate your thanks and give retention your best shot at success.


Welcome These Donors Properly and Upgrade Them. Quickly.

What this means: It’s important to thank donors, address the reasons they likely came on board in a customized way, and encourage them to give monthly to help your organization consistently.

What this doesn’t mean: That your system has to be perfect — you’ve got enough on your plate during times of stress. If you have the technology to stand up a monthly donation lightbox, now is the time to do that so you ideally bring in sustainer gifts instead of one-time gifts right away.

Don’t get rid of the welcome series you tested into and you’ve had in place for the past two-plus years. Keep that running, and in addition, segment your list of new donors and drop them an email of special thanks with an explanation of why monthly donations are critical, ideally no later than 48 hours after the first wave of upped giving hits. (And then do it again if you’re seeing subsequent waves.) Yes, this is manual, but it will save you from having a multitude of customized welcome series to keep track of in future years. 

While we recommend moving quickly, don’t assume that you’ve missed your window if you can’t get a message approved immediately. Even if you’re a few days late, there’s nothing more important you can do with these donors than illustrate the bigger picture of how you help the cause to which they’ve just donated year-round, not just during times of crisis, to strengthen the chances you’ll be able to deepen their commitment. 


Follow the Thread

First things first: Make sure you’ve cleanly sourced donors who are giving in your CRM so that you know who they are and can drop them other touchpoints related to their first action. 

While your priority at the beginning of your relationship should be helping donors understand the bigger picture work you do so they’re bought in at a broader level, client results tell us that there’s nothing more important than cultivation over the long haul. Send a note within a few weeks to remind donors of the good their gift did and segment this group during year-end or other key moments with a special ask — via ads, email, or both, depending on their first-gift source — that addresses the crisis that brought them in the door.


Know Who These Donors Are. Quickly. 

Within the first weeks after seeing a large wave of gifts, send an extra email touchpoint that drives to an experience that encourages recipients to fill in form fields that give you more information about them. Ideally, this would look like asking your list to take a specific action, like signing a pledge. It doesn’t have to be partisan (and in the case of responding to COVID-19, it shouldn’t be partisan), it just has to give them a reason to want to give you more information to deepen the relationship. 

While behavior-based pledges aren’t great for bringing in new leads, they are great for cultivation after donors are already familiar with you. For hunger relief groups, consider creating a space where respondents can pledge to host or donate to a canned food drive to help replenish your food kitchens’ supply, for example. 

In the spirit of standing up short forms to encourage completion, prioritize getting birthdate, zip code, and telephone number on-file to lead you on the path of having good data that you can compare against the rest of your donor group to identify trends.

Monthly Upsell Lightbox

Like we mentioned earlier, don’t under-estimate the ‘moment’ of a donor responding to an emergency as an opportunity to make an ask for a monthly gift. If you have the technical resources available (psst, we can help here), consider deploying a monthly upsell lightbox that appears after someone clicks ‘donate’ on a one-time gift. The inspiration for someone’s generosity might be fleeting and so this moment is a great opportunity to affect retention.


Consider Cross-Channel

Once you’ve had a moment to compile your data, isolate for donors who are new (indicating they’re not as likely to be people who are only going to give during times of emergency) and that match the characteristics of the rest of your file. Then, consider delivering a unique touchpoint. While these new donors could easily forget that they even gave — especially if they gave in the spur of the moment triggered by peer encouragement via social media — they’re less likely to forget the follow-up phone call thanking them for that gift, because it’s out of the ordinary. Segment carefully to avoid high costs on risky donors here.

2020 is likely to be a difficult one for nonprofits to catch potential donors’ attention in the midst of financial strain, economic downturn, and an election to boot. Be clear about what you need from donors, now and throughout the year. 


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