How Human Service Nonprofits are Responding to COVID-19

Posted April 22, 2020

Read our latest Coffee Talk, a virtual series where we gather small groups of close friends of the firm practicing in the same sector to share advice and stories about how they’re responding to the pandemic.

This week, we sat down with heads of fundraising at an array of human service organizations to discuss donor communications, engagement strategies, and events planning. Read on to discover what they had to say…

Understandably, most human service organizations have been highly focused on emergency funding – and are seeing great success! But six months to a year from now, how do we sustain fundraising?

Our participants all agreed that messaging would be key to continued and heightened support. Keep in mind:

  1. Your response to the pandemic is an engaging story worth telling. So many human service organizations have been able to rapidly and successfully pivot to support their communities in new and unprecedented ways. And, donors are responding with emergency and expanded  operating support. Make sure to highlight this in donor communications and help them understand the impact they are having on the people you serve. This leads to point #2…
  2. We are entering a new reality, where your services will be more necessary than ever. The number of people who have lost income and are lacking permanent shelter, food, and other essentials is rising. One of our participants pointed out that the pandemic is revealing gaps in our social fabric and safety network. It is likely that human service organizations will be called upon to fill these gaps in the new reality. Continue to emphasize to donors the increased significance of the work you are doing – and the critical importance of their support.

And remember, consistency of messaging is as important as quality. Keep your constituents informed – they want to know how your organization is doing and what they can do to help.

On that note, how can we keep donors engaged when we’re unable to visit them in person?

In recent years, digital fundraising has played an increasingly important role, and that only feels truer today. Our participants shared a number of tactics that have been working for them:

  1. Dedicated communications to new donors
    Several participants said that over the past month they have benefited from thousands of new donors. To capitalize on the opportunity these donors present, one participant’s organization has instituted a new policy to immediately qualify the donors and assign a relationship manager to all donors who gift $1,000 or more. The manager is then calling these donors in a timely manner to thank them for their gift and gauge the possibility of continued support.
  2. Group Zoom calls with major donors
    One participant shared their organization has been hosting a Zoom call with major donors every 2-3 weeks to thank them for their support, share updates on current operations and how they’re continuing to shift, and answer questions via Zoom’s chat feature. They have received an incredible response – 175 donors signed up for the most recent call.
  3. Digital capabilities
    Take advantage of all that digital has to offer. One participant said in order to ensure all new donors received communications from the organization frequently and consistently, her team had created an automated onboarding series – a set of emails that recipients automatically receive over the course of a couple weeks. Such a series helps keep new donors informed and engaged, especially when your development team has a full to-do list and may not have the chance to reach out personally right away.

How should we handle upcoming events? And should we reconsider planning for next year, too?

If your philanthropic program relies heavily on events-driven revenue, and if events are beloved by your constituents, consider transitioning your event to be virtual. Many nonprofits are hosting galas, luncheons, etc. on Zoom to great success. If you go this route, prepare digital content, such as pictures and videos of the communities you serve and the work you are doing, to share with your virtual attendees.

If a virtual event doesn’t feel appropriate or possible for your organization, then be sure to speak with each major donor individually to inform them of the event’s cancellation. Our human service participants echoed what was shared during our Arts Coffee Talk – by offering donors an opportunity to gift the event donation or ticket price or to apply it to next year’s event, in addition to the option of requesting a refund, you increase the probability of sustained support.

All of our participants agreed that the pandemic is likely to permanently alter events fundraising. When planning for events this fall or next year, consider small dinners and gatherings as opposed to larger affairs. It’s very possible that even if it is safe to gather, many people will not feel entirely comfortable doing so. Ultimately, donors are looking for an opportunity to support your mission – an event, no matter its format or size, simply provides an opportunity to do that.

All of us here at Development Guild recognize the critical role our friends and clients are playing in supporting the most vulnerable among us during this crisis. As we face these uncertain times together, it is our top priority to support you. Visit our COVID-19 Resources page for useful information and insights.

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