The Success of “Leaning In” to a Campaign in the Pandemic

We’ve seen hurricanes, floods, elections and recessions impact our campaign work with CapDev clients over the past nearly 40 years. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, it was unchartered territory for our world, for nonprofits, and for us as a firm.

What does a major campaign do when a pandemic hits? In June 2020, we wrote about putting our experience from past natural and economic disasters to work to influence recommendations for current campaigns. And we talked about what it means to “lean in” to a campaign in the midst of a pandemic.

We shared the a case study example of a client at that time: National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, VA, and are reflecting now on how well they did to “lean in” to their campaign.

“The more we leaned in, the more people have been willing to give.”

– Brandon P. Gregory, former Director of Development


The National D-Day Memorial Foundation has a mission “to preserve the lessons and legacy of D-Day.” The Foundation maintains and operates the National D-Day Memorial in direct support of that educational mission.

A Little History

On June 6, 1944 United States and allied soldiers, in one of the most pivotal battles of World War II, invaded the French coastline in order to propel German soldiers out of Western Europe and lead the way for victory against the tyrants of that era. Dedicated on June 6, 2001 by President George W. Bush, the National D-Day Memorial was constructed in honor of those who died that day, fighting in one of the most significant battles in our nation’s history.

Bedford, Virginia provided a company of soldiers (Company A) to the 29th Infantry Division. By day’s end, 19 of the company’s Bedford soldiers were dead. Proportionally this community suffered the nation’s severest D-Day losses. Recognizing Bedford as emblematic of all communities, large and small, whose citizen-soldiers served on D-Day, Congress warranted the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

The 2020 Experience:

After initiating campaign planning with CapDev, the National D-Day Memorial Foundation developed a case for support, recruited a campaign cabinet, built up its internal campaign infrastructure, and started cultivating donors. The 75th D-Day observance events were held successfully on June 6, 2019.

Having no major gifts program in place outside of annual funding for its robust memorial and educational programs, the foundation had launched cultivation activity and had several successful gift requests underway when the pandemic hit.

Despite the uncertainty about the future direction of museums at this time, then director of development, Brandon Gregory said, the foundation leaders knew they could not wait and see. “There is no playbook for this,” he said.

With the average age of donors at 72-years-old, most of the foundation’s supporters are retired. The staff started making regular update/stewardship calls to their donor base to thank them and to share the impact of their gifts. Donors were most appreciative of these calls.

“The biggest thing for us was that in preparing for the campaign, it prepared our major donors – we just got a lot closer to them. It prepared us to make those calls on Day 1 [of the pandemic],” said Gregory. As museums everywhere were closing, the foundation was poised to jump into action.

Those early calls were well-received and gifts started coming in as a result of their efforts. Many donors said, “There’s more if you need it; call us back.” And the foundation knew it could need those major donors to return later in the year in case of a shortfall.

The Pandemic Response:

“We leaned into fundraising as soon as shutdowns were announced,” said Gregory. “Within a few days we wrote a coronavirus fundraising plan and sought board approval.”

Here are the ways the foundation “leaned in” to their fundraising charge:

  1. The foundation sent personal emails to each of their top 30 donors, explaining plans for the site and for the campaign and overall fundraising. This effort prompted gifts, calls and online meetings from many supporters, including a $50,000 gift that week (that donor’s largest gift to them).
  2. They began strategizing their lead donor’s solicitation process, maintaining weekly calls from the Memorial’s president to this donor, and took time to work out an updated budget. Many other significant gifts were made during this early response time.
  3. They applied for and received a PPP loan and a CARES Act grant through Virginia Humanities (money received from NEH) as the maximum award of $10,000.

The Strategy for Recovery:

Under the advice of Senior Counsel, Kevin Jacques, and the CapDev leadership team, the National D-Day Memorial Foundation strategized next steps and enacted its intentional planning:

  • Donor cultivation of potential major donors continued
  • Leaders considered campaign phases to maximize the impact of funds raised
  • Outreach to current donors continued and new donors were cultivated
  • A virtual Memorial Day celebration was held
  • A new direct mail campaign was planned for 2020

Memorial Day:

The D-Day 76th Annual Commemoration was held virtually using a very well-planned and produced video that was been viewed over 35,000 times.

“Donors were ecstatic about what we produced and we’ve seen lots of great notes and gifts in the aftermath,” said Gregory.

Direct Mail:

In addition to a two-page appeal to current D-Day Society members ($1,000+ donors) which raised about $25,000, another appeal targeted prospective D-Day Society members asking them to meet the giving threshold and had positive results as well.

A newsletter mailing netted $30,000 on the heels of the D-Day Society letters. And a membership appeal a month later raised another $30,000 in its first week’s response.

The result: numbers of donors and amounts of gifts increased. And as Gregory says, “Donor retention is top of mind.” Weekly thank-you calls were placed to all donors giving $500 or more in the prior week, and $250 or more for new donors.

Creative New Plans:

In July 2020 a direct mail campaign built on the image of the poppies seen at D-Day sites in Normandy, France. For the 75th anniversary of VJ Day that September, a poppy garden was planned on the National D-Day Memorial site, and for $25/poppy, supporters supported veterans or frontline workers with poppies for the garden.

Virtual Town Hall:

In early June 2020 all D-Day Society members were invited to an exclusive Virtual Town Hall with the president, April Cheek-Messier, sharing insights about the reopening plans and how their “philanthropy has made such an impact on the Memorial’s mission.”

Reflecting on Rebuilding:

“The D-Day Memorial Foundation was resilient in their mission and outreach through the COVID-19 crisis,” said Senior Counsel, Kevin Jacques.

Key factors in their positive response to the pandemic were:

  • increased direct mail marketing
  • thank you calls
  • regular virtual online outreach to D-Day Society members ($1,000 and above donors)

As a result of these effort, giving has risen substantially both during the pandemic and continuing on since. The data in their 990 filings backs this up:

2020: increase 220% over previous year and 280% over previous 3-year running average

2021: increase 180% over 2019

2022: increase 150% over 2019

“National D-Day Memorial Foundation’s exemplary actions are ones other clients and nonprofits could follow,” said CapDev President Allan Burrows.  “Their swift move into deeper active communication and relationship building with their donors during the toughest times increased interest in the foundation’s memorial and education activities. The foundation team capitalized on this heightened appreciation to convert these relationships into generous support for the mission. We at CapDev are honored to partner with the National D-Day Memorial Foundation and salute their response – recovery – and rebuild strategies, a model for any nonprofit.”