By: Craig Zeltsar, Principal and Co-Founder, NNE Marketing
More than a year has passed since the start of the pandemic, and if your direct response fundraising program is like many of the organizations we work with, you are probably pleasantly surprised. In March 2020, I distinctly remember feeling that fundraising was in for a bumpy ride. I anxiously waited for the bottom to drop out. Amazingly, it never did.
This doesn’t mean organizations didn’t feel real pain. Other areas of fundraising were down significantly, and the gains in direct response often didn’t offset the declines in areas like events, corporate giving and revenue from services provided. The excitement of direct response needs to be tempered with the reality of the bigger picture.
With that said, many organizations are seeing acquisition perform at levels we haven’t realized in years, resulting in an increased number of new donors. Retention and lapsed reactivation are strong, contributing to reduced attrition, and in some cases, growth. Direct response is thriving and leaves us with many questions. Are these current metrics the new benchmarks or will we return to post-pandemic performance? Has the behavior of the donor changed for good, or is this some sort of mirage during this unique time? What does the future hold?
To answer these questions, I believe we must learn from the past. Prior to March 2020, many sectors in our industry saw declines in donors, revenue or both. We were on a treadmill, trying to balance increasing gift size to cover the decreasing number of supporters. Organizations that stayed in traditional channels like direct mail struggled each year to maintain their donor base, all while costs increased. Many groups had to make the hard choice of spending their investment dollars in new channels OR spending on traditional efforts to keep their programs afloat. Unfortunately, many organizations diversified too late, if at all.
Very rarely do we get a chance to go back and do it all over again. However, the pandemic bump offers us the opportunity to set ourselves up for the future once again. If you have realized gains, it is important to determine what that means for your core program. For example, if your donor base grew, then hopefully the revenue coming from that base is higher. What level of investment in that core program do you need to maintain (or even grow) this new baseline, and do the metrics support it?
However, at the same time, you need to make sure you take some of your newly found revenue and diversify. Try strategies you couldn’t prior to 2020. Invest in building your monthly donor program, increase your digital acquisition spend, invest in cultivating your donors, try something completely out of the box. Be innovative, don’t settle. Operate under the assumption that donor behavior may slowly regress to what it was pre-pandemic. We’ve already seen that doing the same thing we were doing for years wasn’t enough to grow. Measure these new programs’ short-term and long-term numbers against each other, and against the bottom performing parts of your traditional channels. Invest further in those with the greatest potential.
This will create a more diversified donor base that positions us to grow long into the future. We owe it to the people who are served by all the great missions and causes we work with.