Meetings of the Minds: Roundtable Discussions with Nonprofit Leaders

December 17, 2020

Throughout the months of September and October, ForwardPMX brought together leadership from top nonprofits to have intimate discussions about the state of nonprofit, individual experiences from this year and what can be expected from these final weeks of 2020.

We were joined by a wide range of organizations including: Feeding America, Best Friends Animal Society, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, American Cancer Society, Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps, Plan International, American Heart Association and Save the Children. These organizations came together and shared stories ranging from what it took to reinvent fundraising campaigns, to quick pivots that triggered mind-blowing results. Their stories represent a snapshot of the industry over the past year and we are happy to share some of what we heard with you here.

Adapting to a Virtual World

“With in-person events getting cancelled, we’ve doubled down on donor loyalty.”

Health organizations were most heavily impacted by the absence of in-person fundraising events. Event revenue streams dried up overnight, but many organizations pivoted efforts to focus on past event donors. The most successful approaches emphasized delivering personalized content that called out the events that donors had participated in previously, along with clear and present mission need. Including content that called out the inability to hold events due to the pandemic and organizational impact was key.

 “Face to face came to a halt overnight, but we are now testing the waters again in certain markets.”

Face to face is a significant revenue stream for many nonprofits, but particularly for International Relief organizations. Many sustainer programs have been built primarily through this channel. Some organizations have recently been able to resume face to face fundraising in some markets. While presence in the market is much lower than pre-pandemic, organizations’ willingness to test is generating success due to lower than normal competition. Additionally, organizations are leaning into sustainer acquisition testing in other channels to lessen their reliance on face to face as the primary driver of sustainer, helping mitigate risk into the future.

 “The team pulled off an entirely virtual – and successful – gala.”

While it was clearly a challenge to pivot large-scale events so quickly, going virtual did come with significant cost savings. With organizations no longer having to fund a venue, catering, or identify live auction items, more time was able to be invested in connecting donors with the mission through storytelling. Pre-recorded videos featuring organizational programs in action and stories from those who have received mission support brought donors straight into the areas their support is impacting.

Winning Donors with Bold Moves

“We threw out our controls.”

While I can’t imagine anything more unsettling than throwing out a decades-long acquisition control, if the content was going to come off as tone-def during a pandemic that is exactly what needed to happen, and more than one organization we spoke with went for it. The decision to make content timely and relevant across all channels, but particularly in direct mail, paid off 10-fold in donors and revenue. Some organizations incorporated lift notes, others took packages in an entirely new direction – both generated successes.

“It seemed like a great time to test CTV and we were right”

Some organizations were left with budget surpluses due to the pandemic that presented opportunities for testing. In March, Connected TV CPMs plummeted due to the increases of individuals at home streaming TV. One organization took the opportunity to quickly run a three-month test and generated so much success that they were able to secure additional funding to run CTV as a part of their year end strategy. Their willingness to test meant they were one of the first to market for nonprofit in this emerging channel.

“Attribution was pivotal to measuring direct mail success”

Organizations who execute attribution reporting as part of their standard post-campaign reporting were able to track response shifts in real time. In March and April, response to direct mail campaigns shifted significantly to online channels. Without matchback attribution, organizations may have missed this response shift and assumed that direct mail response was waning. Multiple organizations who saw this multichannel response made the decision to increase investment in direct mail as a result and optimized packages to push online response, resulting in even further donor and revenue lifts.

Eagerness to See Long Term Impact

“We are inclined to believe that these donors will behave similar to emergency donors, but only time will tell.”

Organizations with a rapid response aspect of their mission know a thing or two about emergency donors. Typically, these donors are extremely difficult to convert to an organization’s core donor program. With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting core mission need across a multitude of organizations and it being such a slow burn “event”, no one is entirely confident how these donors will behave. Will they be quick to lapse and difficult to retain, similar to traditional emergency donors? Will they more easily convert to core donor programs? As our client noted, only time will tell. Organizations, however, are making a concerted effort to try and retain these donors. Two different organizations we spoke with developed entire communication tracks for newly acquired COVID-19 donors and it’s proving successful at supporting retention via second gift capture.

“While we’ve seen immediate gains in digital, there is uncertainly about budget shifts away from mail and if we will see a negative impact to LTV.”

Many organizations we spoke with made a budget shift to capitalize on digital responsiveness during the pandemic. In more than one case, this investment in digital acquisition was made possible by a budget reduction in direct mail acquisition. If we know anything definitively as an industry, it’s that a cut to direct mail acquisition quantity sends ripples through an organization’s donor file for a 3 to 5-year period. What we don’t know yet is that if shifts from direct mail acquisition to digital acquisition will yield similar results. With digital donors more valuable at the point of acquisition than arguably any other channel, the outlook is optimistic. Organizations should invest additional time in ensuring proper stewardship of these new to file donors to help ensure strong retention and LTV.

What a privilege it was to hear these and all of the stories shared at our roundtables. Across the board, regardless of size or mission vertical, nonprofits have all been forced to reinvent their fundraising programs. Armed with only 24 hours in the day and limited, or in some cases, dwindling resources, nonprofits have done a phenomenal job of navigating the pandemic and connecting with donors. Your tireless pursuit of your mission is paying out. Thank you for inviting ForwardPMX and all of your partners to have a seat at the table as we’ve worked together to make an impact this year. We are looking forward to wrapping up a successful Year End and continuing the momentum in 2021.

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