Without Big Events, a Ronald McDonald House Charity Learns to Reach New Donors Online
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by Emily Haynes
When Covid-19 first reached Chicago in March, some families deferred planned surgeries for their critically ill children to avoid travel and overloaded hospitals. "Those surgeries for sick kids can only be put off for so long," says Holly Buckendahl, chief executive of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, which provides free lodging for families whose children are receiving medical treatment in the Chicago area.
Now demand for its services remains high, but as the nonprofit adapts to life in a pandemic, raising the support to provide them has been a challenge.
As families continued to seek care at local hospitals for their sick children, the charity added new precautions to its guest houses and hospital family rooms. It bought personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and also began providing catered meals to replace those typically cooked by volunteers.
Typically, the charity's guest houses are familial and provide a sense of community to families enduring a challenging time. But to enhance social distancing, the houses no long offer shared meals and activities.
To date, the communal living hasn't discouraged many families from staying at the charity's houses, according to Buckendahl. And although the new safety measures may help families feel more comfortable in the guest houses, they also limit the charity's reach.
Unlike hotels, the houses are arranged family-style, with communal kitchens and living-room areas. While that once was a draw for families seeking comfort during a difficult period, that arrangement is challenging during a public health crisis. The charity has closed one of its five guest houses and begun hosting just half the number of guests each of the other houses typically accommodates. The charity also shut down all but one of the three family rooms it maintains inside local hospitals.
"We are turning families away, and that's unfortunate," says Buckendahl. When it doesn't have room for a family in need, the charity works with social workers at the hospital treating their child to find a nearby hotel room. The charity assumes the cost for some of these rooms, while others are paid for by the hospitals.
For those families who are currently staying in the charity's group houses, life there looks different than it did before the pandemic. Back then, teams of at least 15 volunteers would staff the houses, assisting residents, organizing activities, and cooking meals. The full volunteer force numbers in the thousands, according to Buckendahl. The charity sent all volunteers home in March and began welcoming back teams of two per house last month. Buckendahl hopes to safely expand the volunteer program if regional Covid cases don't spike.
"I think we've all recognized this now as a marathon," she says.
Shift to Digital
The nonprofit typically relies on big events to raise money from supporters who live in the area. But with glitzy galas off the table, fundraisers had to innovate quickly to reach donors where they were: at home.
In May, the charity hastily moved its annual gala online. That event typically raises over $1 million, but it brought in just $800,000 this year. And while revenue was lower, event expenses went down, too. The charity spent just $35,000 to put on the gala — which it redesigned as a monthlong online campaign, including live performances by local bands and a magic show by Ronald McDonald, culminating in a two-hour event streamed on Facebook Live. By comparison, the annual one-night gala usually cost about $300,000 to produce.
What's more, 132 donors made their first gift to the charity as part of the refigured gala. "If we had met in-person, our room would've been 700 people," Buckendahl says. Moving the event online widened the charity's reach, she says. "Our audience became endless."
While the focus on digital marketing has helped the group find new ways to stay in front of their donors during the pandemic, Buckendahl expects this year's fundraising revenue will be 25 percent below budget. The multimillion-dollar organization raised $10.5 million last year. But she says there has been one silver lining: "We are learning a whole lot about what we can do better in this digital space and the social space."
That learning curve has been steep. The 12-person fundraising and marketing team has had to master new tools like Zoom and Webex and pull off sophisticated events on Facebook Live. Buckendahl anticipates building on those lessons over the coming year.
"We have to go into 2021 thinking we may not have major events," she says. That's a major strategy shift for a charity that has long collected donations through an annual gala, golf tournament, and skeet-shooting events.
Existing relationships with big donors and businesses will likely be the foundation of any new strategies the charity tries next year. Already, those backers have proved their worth. iHeartRadio promoted the May online campaign for free on six radio stations, three companies gave the charity billboard space, and the marketing staff ramped up the nonprofit's activity on social media. The charity also hired a public-relations firm and received pro bono help from a local ad agency to promote its fundraising campaigns. While it has put more effort into multimedia marketing, Buckendahl says the nonprofit hasn't had to spend much to do it because of its corporate relationships.
"We're just trying to continue to create as many on-ramps for people to support us as we can," says Buckendahl. Before Covid-19 hit, the charity had planned to test a $20,000 summer fundraising campaign. It has far exceeded its goal, raising slightly more than $353,000. And while it's too soon to tell how many of those gifts came from donors who made their first contributions in May, those new donors did receive email appeals during the summer campaign.
As the last quarter of the year approaches, Buckendahl says fundraisers aren't taking their foot off the gas pedal.
While some of her colleagues at other nonprofits worry that donors will be tired of fundraising appeals by December if charities start asking for donations now, Buckendahl isn't concerned about that. Her charity is communicating frequently with supporters about how the pandemic is affecting its mission and what its financial needs are.
"Your big donors, your year-end donors, donors that give to you all year long — they need to know now, and they'll make their choices when they make their choices," she says. "We are just making sure our audience and our donor family understands where we're at and how we're doing."
The financial picture isn't rosy: The charity anticipates dipping into its reserves to make up for its fundraising shortfall this year. Fundraisers hope to find more times throughout the year — apart from typical year-end fundraising campaigns — to appeal for contributions. Recently, Buckendahl met with a donor who said he'd be willing to pay pledges on a multiyear gift earlier than planned so the charity could have more cash on hand.
"We have to keep those donor conversations going, and we shouldn't assume what those donors want to do," Buckendahl says. "We should continue our stewardship virtually, picking up the phone, sending notes, and making sure that we're really keeping our story in front of them to help them make what might be tough decisions — at year-end or during the month of September — about how their giving is going to happen."