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Year-End Fundraising Results Were Mixed. Digital Outreach Was Critical.

Posted: 2/13/2021

Click here to read on Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Marine Mammal Center, in Sausalito, Calif., had an exceptionally strong year-end fundraising season.

The nonprofit raised 59 percent of its fiscal year 2021 goal from October to December to support its mission advancing conservation through the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, scientific research, and education. That's a significant jump from the 49 percent it raised during the same months the previous year.

"Those percentages raised in the last quarter of the calendar year really allow us to have a little bit more breathing room for the uncertainty that continues to exist," says John Warner, chief development and communications officer. The bulk of the group's $15 million operating budget comes from private philanthropy.

Other charities that had similar successes are working to build on them in the year ahead. But these nonprofits are in a privileged position — many others struggled to meet their year-end goals.

In a January survey of 1,040 nonprofits conducted by the consultancy CCS Fundraising, 39 percent of nonprofit respondents reported an increase in support in 2020, while 44 percent reported a decline. Looking ahead, 43 percent said they expect fundraising revenues to decrease in 2021, and 27 percent said they expect to raise more money.

Groups that were unable to meet their revenue needs continue to look for ways to sustain themselves despite the pandemic's constraints.

The pandemic forced many charities to tackle what were previously seen as nice-to-have items on their to-do lists. Putting more resources into digital technology and outreach has allowed people across broader geographies to engage with nonprofits' work and make donations to support them.

Boost of Positivity

Warner attributes his group's fundraising success to its emphasis on storytelling and consistent outreach to supporters.

"Our donors have loved that we send them good news at a time when they're flooded with a lot of negativity," Warner says. "There's a real openness to hearing more about the impact of the work."

For example, the nonprofit mailed cards featuring the stories of patients like Lucinda — a harbor seal pup who was cared for by veterinarians and volunteers at the center after becoming entangled in fishhooks — to midlevel donors along with an impact report at the end of the year. Donors said they put them up on their refrigerators or passed them along to a friend or relative who needed a boost of positivity.

The pandemic has reinforced the power of tried and true fundraising tactics, Warner says. "Donor engagement, donor stewardship, storytelling — some of the things that we're always told in our careers are the fundamentals — it's really reinforced that those are so true regardless of whether you're in a pandemic or not."

But it also demonstrated that using tech-savvy methods to disseminate information and strengthen relationships can pay off.

Before the pandemic, much of the Marine Mammal Center's public-engagement efforts were geared toward in-person activities. Zoom science talks and webinars have helped the center reach a broader audience of potential supporters, with more donors coming from places other than the West Coast.

The organization plans to double down on those efforts, Warner says. "The pandemic has really helped move us forward in a way we knew we needed to but hadn't gotten to yet."

The Struggle to Stay Afloat

Like many small performing-arts groups, the Manoa Valley Theatre depends largely on earned income. But that revenue dried up completely when the Honolulu venue shut its doors to the public in March.

Last Friday, the theater premiered its first entirely virtual production — a zeitgeisty play called Waiting for the Host, about a rector of a small church who, during a modern-day plague, gathers his parishioners by videoconference for a theatrical reading of the story of Jesus's suffering.

The performance was a bright spot for the small theater and its staff.

"We want to be with our audience now so that they're with us when we come out of this on the other side," says Kip Wilborn, the theater's executive director.

Adapting to the times was critical. "The digital facet of live theater is now permanent," Wilborn says. "That paradigm has shifted, and you will see theaters all over the place also accompanying what they do live with either live streaming or recorded to stream."

But digital programing and online streaming are difficult to monetize, "particularly when you've got everybody in the world, like Hamilton or the Metropolitan Opera, putting digital content out," he says.

"You have all these different things that are super high quality with huge budgets. And then you have the small guys that are trying to pivot to deliver theater to their audience in a time when they can't have them in their theater. You try to sell a ticket, and a lot of people are saying, 'Well, maybe not.' It's a real challenge," Wilborn says. "I never intended to be in charge of a television station."

The theater, now in its 51st year, is fortunate to have reserve funds. The organization tapped into those to stay afloat in 2020. About half of the theater's nearly $1 million annual budget comes from philanthropy, Wilborn says.

The theater's development director recently left for a new job. Until that position is filled, Wilborn says he's focused on staying in touch with donors who have continued to support the theater.

Some funding sources the group has relied on in the past are no longer guaranteed. Arts grants have become more competitive, for example. "Many of the private and corporate funds have shifted their focus to social services, which makes total sense," he says.

In an ideal world, the theater's fundraising goal for 2021 is the same as it was last year, he says. "I'm not sure if we're going to get there."

He went without a salary for a while and had to furlough staff. But now they're all back. Loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loans program, among other government support, helped the theater weather 2020. And Wilborn plans to apply for the SBA's Shuttered Venue Operators Grant as soon as the application opens.

"If we were to get that, that would be a game changer," he says.

Donor-Fatigue Worries

At the beginning of the pandemic, workers in the Vocational Guidance Service's sewing program were producing face masks for Cleveland Clinic health-care workers. "That was a great story for us to tell," says April Walker, chief development officer at the nonprofit, which provides services, job training, and day programs for people with intellectual and physical disabilities in Northeast Ohio. "We raised quite a bit in those first few weeks because people wanted to support that effort."

Most of the group's budget comes from Medicaid reimbursements and other contracts with employers to provide jobs to people with disabilities. But Walker and her team are responsible for raising about $1 million from the annual fund, board members, volunteers, foundations, and special events.

As time has gone on, the messages to donors have changed. After shutting down for a few months, all of the nonprofit's facilities reopened in July and are slowly scaling back up. Virtual services are still a focus. Day programs are more spaced out and structured, with participants assigned to specific classrooms, not mingling like the before times.

"We're still pressing ahead, but it's more about how we're surviving at a reduced capacity, how we're having to adapt what we're doing to stay safe," Walker says, of how fundraisers talk about the charity's work.

That strategy appears to be working. Donors stepped up their support at year end. In December alone, Vocational Guidance Services raised $220,510, bringing the total 2020 haul to $1.4 million. Online giving has been a major growth area — the group received 353 percent more from online donations in 2020 than in 2019 — and Walker is encouraged by those email and social-media efforts.

She's focusing on individual donors and foundations, many of which doubled their support in 2020.

Many individual donors gave twice in 2020. Walker says she's concerned about potential donor fatigue in the year ahead. "I don't want to exhaust our very generous donor base."

Move to Digital

Bellwether drives like the Salvation Army's Red Kettle campaign also have digital efforts to thank for their 2020 success.

The charity went into the year-end season anticipating roughly a 50 percent decline in support because of a decrease in kettle locations and people staying home or not carrying cash when they do venture out. Bell ringers started as early as September in some locations.

But the Salvation Army raised more money than expected. The group is still tallying donations that came in through the mail but currently estimates revenue was down just under 20 percent from the $126.1 million given to last year's Red Kettle Campaign.

"We considered that to be a tremendous result," says Kenneth Hodder, national commander of the Salvation Army.

Contributions were put to use right away as the charity responded to a sharp increase in demand for many of its programs, he says.

"We had an increase in our shelter work. We had an increase in our food-box distributions. All of the numbers that you would expect to go up went up significantly and indeed will remain high as we go into this year," he says. "It was a terrific Christmas, but we also anticipate that this need is going to continue."

Looking ahead, the Kettle campaign will become increasingly digital, Hodder says. The Salvation Army introduced a cashless donation effort last year that let donors scan a sign near the kettle to make a donation through their cellphones. Online contributions were 97 percent higher than in 2019. When donors give digitally, the charity is better able to keep them informed about their work throughout the year, he says.

"The challenge for us will be to ensure that that personal dimension that has always been associated with someone walking up to a kettle and putting money into the kettle is preserved," Hodder says. "That's something that we want to hold onto and will be one of the key points of discussion for us in the coming year."

New Ways to Connect

Other fundraisers who anticipate high demand for services in 2021 are keeping their foot on the gas pedal.

The United Service Organizations, a nonprofit that provides entertainment and other programs to military service members and their families, ended 2020 pretty close to budget and steady with what the group raised in 2019. And it's not reducing fundraising goals for 2021.

"Our services are needed more now than ever before. So we really felt like we couldn't pull back on the budget," says Lisa Turner Anastasi, chief development and marketing officer. "I see opportunities where those larger fundraising goals are doable."

The USO's Combat Covid-19 effort raised more than $10 million for immediate relief in 2020. Fundraisers are preparing to launch phase two of the drive, which will focus on recovery and resilience, supporting a wide variety of efforts, like food assistance, mental-health support, and helping military families find work.

"We help service members when they're transitioning out of the military back into their communities. We have programs that help them find jobs and get the education they need, the housing they need as they make their way back into the new community," Anastasi says. The economic environment and high unemployment make that work even more essential, she says.

Virtual events and an investment in gaming have helped bring the USO's mission to new audiences, leading to an increase in donor acquisition.

During a 24-hour streamathon in October, service members were joined by gamers, athletes, and other celebrities. Friends and relatives could watch them play games while learning more about the USO. At one point after midnight, more than 16,000 people were watching, Anastasi says. The USO plans to host more gaming events this year.

The group is also exploring other ways to connect people with the USO's work. Fundraisers and other staff started to produce virtual tours or stewardship videos that help donors understand the experience of a service member in a remote area. Staff are looking to develop more immersive virtual-reality experiences in the year ahead.

The USO also experimented with small virtual events for major donors, like fireside chats, which provided an opportunity to showcase the charity's work all around the world. "That was an opportunity that we had never had before for our major donors," Anastasi says. "While it was difficult, and it forced us to try something new, that new thing that we tried is something that we're going to keep doing."

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