Online Fundraising as We Move Toward a Post-Pandemic World
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As we continue to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, so many aspects of our lives have gone virtual. We're working on virtual teams, getting together with friends and family in virtual meeting rooms and, for those of us who work in nonprofit development, fundraising virtually, too. Of course, online fundraising was an important aspect of most development teams' strategies long before the pandemic hit, but for the last 12 months, online fundraising hasn't just been part of our strategies; it has been the only option available to us.
So what comes next? As more Americans continue to receive COVID-19 vaccines and we begin the slow, careful process of returning to more in-person interaction, what role should online fundraising play at our organizations? How can we continue to innovate and keep our online fundraising creative and fresh?
To find out, I took a look at three organizations that are winning at online fundraising during this strange time of transition. As a full disclosure, Volunteers of America Illinois and Boys & Girls Clubs of America are clients of Prosper Strategies, where I serve as co-founder and president. Here's what these organizations are doing right.
Volunteers of America Illinois
What this nonprofit is doing right: Leveraging Facebook for donor acquisition.
As the organization prepared for a capital campaign and expansion of its services in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, Volunteers of America Illinois realized that it needed to expand its donor base if it wanted to reach its ambitious $2 milllion fundraising goal. VOA Illinois was already implementing more traditional donor acquisition strategies, such as peer-to-peer campaigns, but it was interested in acquiring more potential donor contacts with a less manual effort. The organization also wanted to prioritize digital donor acquisition because the pandemic had created conditions where many of its donor relationships would need to be cultivated virtually. VOA Illinois turned to Facebook and implemented a creative donor acquisition campaign using digital content and Facebook's lead generation ads.
First, VOA Illinois created a downloadable ebook called "5 Steps to Finding a Chicago Nonprofit to Support," which it housed behind a form on a landing page on its site. Rather than simply promoting VOA Illinois, the ebook got at the heart of a topic a potential VOA Illinois donor was likely to care about: giving back to their community and making a local impact. Then, VOA Illinois purchased Facebook lead generation ads targeted at Facebook users who matched the demographic profile of its existing donor base.
Those Facebook users were then served ads on Facebook (desktop and mobile) encouraging them to provide their email address in exchange for a download of the ebook. VOA Illinois then put the contacts it acquired through the Facebook ads into an email campaign with a series of messages intended to educate donors about the organization's mission and warm them up to the idea of making a donation. VOA Illinois is just beginning to implement the campaign now and have added dozens of potential new donor names to its database as a result.
United Service Organization
What this nonprofit is doing right: Using virtual fireside chats to forge intimate connections with donors.
The United Service Organization, a nonprofit that works to strengthen military families, has long relied on personal connections with its major donors, many of whom are current or past service members. However, when the pandemic hit, the organization knew it needed to find creative ways to keep its connections strong without the opportunity for in-person events or any other type of face-to-face contact. It began experimenting with small virtual events for its major donors, which it billed as casual fireside chats. During these events, USO showcased its work around the world in a dynamic way that wasn't always possible at in-person events. It was also able to bring in special guests who may not have been able to make it to in-person donor events, but had no problem joining virtually, such as author Lila Holley. Leaders at USO say they plan to continue hosting virtual fireside chats even after the pandemic.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America
What this nonprofit is doing right: Evolving fundraising messaging to be more strength-based and equity-focused.
Like many nonprofits, Boys & Girls Clubs of America has historically defaulted to discussing the challenges faced by the youth it serves in its communication to donors. Think messages like "Without a positive influence in their lives and mentorship, it is so easy for kids to make poor decisions and get on the wrong path."
While this approach was at times an effective way to garner support, inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and this summer's racial justice uprising caused BGCA to take a hard look at this sort of messaging and evaluate whether it was really aligned with its commitment to equity. BGCA leadership realized it was ultimately counterproductive and counter to their mission to use language that perpetuated stereotypes about the youth they work with or stories that focused on the challenges those young people faced (need-based communication) rather than their limitless potential (strength-based communication).
In response, BGCA went to work developing a guide to strength-based communication for the organization. The guide, which was developed in collaboration with a diverse range of BGCA stakeholders, includes messaging dos and don'ts; examples of ways to reframe common needs-based BGCA messages in order to make them strength-based; guidance for use of language related to race and ethnicity; recommendations on the use of photos, imagery and youth stories; and a glossary of shared definitions for relevant terms, such as diversity, lived experience and coded language. Upon completion of the strength-based communication guide, BGCA trained its entire staff, from its senior leadership to its field-facing employees, on the use of strength-based communication.
Now, the field staff are beginning to provide similar training to local clubs across the country. As a result, the organization's online fundraising is already beginning to take a more strength-based, equity-focused approach, and that approach will soon flow into its traditional fundraising channels as well.
Will the way we fundraise be forever changed by the fallout from COVID-19? It just might. Yes, in-person interaction will become part of the fundraising game again, hopefully sooner than later. But when it does, I hope we can all keep examples like these in mind and continue innovating our approach to online fundraising. Just imagine how much good we could do for the people and communities we serve with a fully optimized online fundraising engine and real-life human contact.