We find ourselves in times that are not only challenging, but rapidly changing. New realities present themselves daily. Business as usual is impossible to consider, and any sort of new normal seems months or years away. As a result, the organizations our direct response team serves are asking themselves—and all of us here at S&W—new questions every day about how they should and should not be reaching out to donors and prospects.
There are no easy answers to these questions, at least none that apply to every nonprofit. There are, however, solid starting points I believe any organization would be well-served to keep in mind.
#1) Be Out There
When the pandemic first upended all our lives, some of our clients doubted whether the time was right to continue their direct response efforts. Suddenly their message may have seemed out of sync with the situation. Asking for support seemed insensitive. It seemed to ignore the uncertainty and stress everyone was facing.
However, I can assure you that the worst thing your nonprofit can do at this moment is to disappear. You need to stay connected to the stakeholders who are essential to your future. You need to remember that they support you because you matter to them.
You may be unsure how you should be communicating, but let there be no doubt that you should be communicating.
#2) Be Sensitive
It’s true—sending out the same solicitations you had planned before anyone anticipated COVID would be a mistake. You would sound tone deaf or out-of-touch.
This is a time to express your concern for the people who support you and to answer their concerns. The dimensions of this crisis are sweeping and complex, making it hard for people to guess the ways your organization and the people you serve have been impacted. So let them know.
As you craft your communications, the right tone is essential. However, that does not mean it’s difficult. Write to your donors just as you write to other people you care about. If it doesn’t feel true and authentic, don’t say it.
#3) Express Your Relevance
If your mission matters now more than ever, if the need for the work you do has been amplified by the crisis, you have to make that clear. In fact, it should be the core of your message to donors. Your relevance at this moment is the reason to support you at this moment.
How should you develop this message? With the same tools that always make for effective direct response marketing: Clear, bold statements that sum up the heart of your case. Well-chosen facts and stats that drive home the need. Moving stories of impact.
#4) Never Stop Stewarding
Even if you decide the time is not right for a direct ask, it is still vitally important that you continue active stewardship efforts.
Just as in more ordinary times, that means planning regular points of contact and thinking about a balance of mail, email, and phone calls to let your donors know they are appreciated and to maintain top-of-mind awareness for your cause. It also means using your channels of communication to connect donors and prospects more strongly with your mission.
An environmental conservation nonprofit that S&W works with has developed a series of uplifting audio and video segments they share each week via email—serene, beautiful glimpses into the natural world. Theaters have pulled and posted videos of past productions. Museums are working to provide virtual access to their collections.
These ideas are exciting and on-target because they reflect the individual identity of each organization. In fact, they represent ways not only of promoting their missions, but also of delivering on them—fostering a love and appreciation of wildlife, engaging audiences in moving performances, bringing art into people’s lives.
That means these forms of outreach may turn into more than crisis communications; they could become powerful forms of stewardship and program delivery going forward.
#5) Plan and Prioritize
The recent weeks have been hectic ones for our direct response team at S&W and for every client we support. The reason is that moving nimbly to respond to an all-new situation takes a lot of fast thought and action. In the midst of the rush, however, I urge you to keep an eye on the longer term.
If financial constraints are pressuring you to cut back on elements of your direct marketing, do so with a clear understanding of the implications. For instance, if you decide not to invest in acquisitions right now, know that this will likely mean a greater investment six or nine months from now and a delay before you see the return.
And, if you do need to cut back, prioritize carefully. For instance, recognize that renewals are vital to your future and should never be ignored. So are monthly donors. If you find that some are cancelling their commitments, reach out resourcefully with counter offers. Maybe they would consider suspending their support only temporarily. Maybe they would be willing to continue at a lower level. Now is not the time to lose the loyal and committed donors you’ve worked so long to secure.
In offering these five guidelines, I’ve tried to frame my advice in a way that is clear and easy-to-follow. But please understand that I realize there is nothing about this situation that is easy. We are all working hard in the face of enormous uncertainty, many of us facing tremendous challenges.
My hope is that at least many organizations will emerge from this crisis in some way stronger, with newly developed tools that will have long-term value and with new capabilities for quick response that will serve them well the next time the world turns upside down on us.