Direct Response Fundraising in the Time of Coronavirus

We have all been saying to our donors that these are unprecedented times. And these unprecedented times call for us to come together as a community to find our way through the crisis by sharing our experiences and our knowledge. We are fortunate because, unlike fundraising involving events, major donor visits, and face-to-face fundraising, mail, digital, and phone appeals can take on greater importance for organizations. With some luck and much effort, we will emerge weary but stronger than ever.

In the spirit of camaraderie, your DMFA has invited some of your colleagues and friends to share how they are addressing the COVID-19 Crisis in this blog. You can also watch our webinar on the Keys to Fundraising in a Crisis. If you have questions and want to discuss them with other DMFA members, you can log into our members-only area and click Forum in the left nav bar. Then you can post a question that will either be answered by a member or board member.

With no further ado, here are some tips to keep in mind as you navigate your own fundraising responses.

Steve Abrahamson, Vice President, Direct Response, National Audubon Society

TIP: Be Relevant and Timely

This truly is an unprecedented situation, and that we cannot say for sure that what had guided crisis response in the past is the best way forward. Unlike other crises that have been sudden blows and recoveries of various speeds, this is an ongoing crisis with no real end in sight.

At Audubon, we have been assessing our communications by asking ourselves these questions:

  • Is it still relevant?
  • Does it acknowledge the new context?
  • How will the audience receive it?

In both digital and mail channels, we have been focusing on what our donors, advocates, supporters need—how can we bring them joy, address their isolation, help them connect.

For instance, we created a “birdy care package” that has been very well received.

In the mail we are sending out a ‘Thank You’ postcard to let our donors know how much we appreciate them before our next appeal goes out.

But, we are continuing to make hard asks for advocacy or fundraising around how the administration is continuing its assault on environmental regulations despite the crisis.

Karen A. Barr Director, Supporter Experience & Retention, Save the Children

TIP: Create Resources to Help in a Crisis

Save the Children created resources for parents and kids to help cope with the devastating impact of Coronavirus. This is a difficult time for everyone, but an unintended consequence for kids is losing valuable learning and instruction time. The earliest years are most important for a child’s development and missing out on learning now could have devastating impact on their future growth. As national leaders in early childhood education, Save the Children is committed to help children and families during this uncertain time by providing learning resources for our nation’s youngest learners.

We are offering great resources on a variety of topics for parents, caregivers, teachers and all those who care about children in crisis at

These topics may actually be helpful if you have children at home and include:

  • How to Talk to Kids About Coronavirus
  • How to Help Kids Cope with Extended School Closures
  • Weekly Learning Activities: Young Children
  • Weekly Learning Activities: K-Grade 1
  • Weekly Learning Activities: Grades 2 – 6
  • 5 Tips for Families on Self-Care and Coping with Stress
  • Relaxation Activities to Do at Home with Kids
  • A Guide to Washing Your Hands
  • Reading with Your Child
  • Fun Ways to Incorporate Math
  • 10 Family Learning Activities
  • 5 Tips for Grandparents on How to Stay Connected
  • Vroom: Turning Every Day Moments into Brain Building Moments
  • Scholastic Learn at Home
  • Our Picks: Free Educational Websites and Apps

Amanda Teaford, Senior Manager, Direct Response, National Park Foundation

TIP: Make all communications personal and speak to donors vs. prospects differently. 

For us, our primary focus is to keep our mission front and center. We are here to protect parks and connect people to them. In light of the current situation, we have made a few changes to our planned communications.

  • In our fundraising letters and emails, we have added copy referencing that this is an unprecedented and challenging time. To connect to our mission, we reminder donors that national parks are places of solace and connection with nature, and these places are still essential to preserve. We have added even more thank-you statements referencing past support and highlighting what their donations will help in the future.
  • We have also taken multiple opportunities — from emails to social posts to homepage take-overs — acknowledging that since most of us are at home at this time, there are ways to experience the parks digitally from any location. The messaging supports the responsible practice of social distancing, but still follows our mission of connecting people with parks.
  • For campaigns still in the planning stage, we are looking at the messaging points and test recommendations to make sure that everything going out is thoughtful and will be as successful as possible. New tests are probably not appropriate at this time, so we are tabling those pieces until later in the summer or fall. Additionally, to the best of our ability, reviewing what the revenue implications might be so that we can monitor and report later to senior leadership.
  • The communications to prospects were updated slightly. We feel it’s important to talk to donors and prospects in different ways, making sure the connection feels personal and relevant to each group. While we always version copy by segment, we are making an even more considerable effort to distinguish the two audiences at this time.
  • Finally, we joined with the myriad of other organizations, companies, and services to send an email from our CEO acknowledging the situation. The purpose of the email was to let donors know that we are operational, where they can access updated information, and how to connect with us — and other donors — digitally for questions and support.

Moira Kavanagh, President & Founder, MKDM

TIP: Emphasize Why Membership Renewal is Still Important and Extend Benefits if Needed

Our clients all paused direct response solicitations around March 13. All are sending email communications to supporters to keep them posted on programs and operations during the COVID-19 crisis as relevant to the particular organization’s mission.

Content for DM and online campaigns that were paused is being reexamined and refined to send/mail anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months from now. For campaigns that are resuming now, asks have been softened and placed in context of the global health crisis, acknowledging the insecurity/uncertainty many of us are feeling, and affirming why the mission must go on. Subject lines in client email campaigns this past week such as “Our mission continues,” “There IS something you can do”  “The role we play now” set the tone for the ask at this strange and difficult moment in time.

It has been necessary to scrap some campaigns entirely – for example: an annual multichannel membership acquisition for Brooklyn Botanic Garden. How do you ask New Yorkers to become a member and see the cherry blossoms when the gates are closed? Where admission is a central benefit of membership as it is for this organization, membership renewal is complicated too – but not insurmountable. Membership support is still needed to tend gardens, care for collections, and preserve artifacts even when they are closed to the public. So for most of our clients, we’ll resume membership renewal asks within a few weeks and automatically extend memberships for organizations that have tangible, expiration-sensitive benefits.

Another organization we work with also had to cancel an evergreen DM acquisition because it was no longer relevant. But for this organization that works nationally with at risk kids in schools, the COVID-19 crisis lent grave new urgency to their need, and so the cancelled acquisition is being replaced by a special crisis one.

As to budgets, we’re anticipating a decline in direct response revenue for most organizations but it’s not possible at this juncture to reforecast meaningfully, so we’re looking only at hypothetical scenarios for now. Generally, clients aren’t cutting campaigns, but we will be looking to streamline expense budgets to maximize net revenue. In addition to strategy changes, client plans for the rest of the year have all required schedule revisions pushing campaigns back and so we’re having to think creatively about how to overcome crowding in the second half of the year.

By Fern Sanford, Fern Sanford Creative