Tackling the New Working Environment One Year Later

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed entire industries in ways we’ll still be measuring and experiencing in years ahead. But direct response fundraising isn’t one of them. Not really. Not if you were doing it right at least.

Before the pandemic, we already knew that for our programs to thrive …

  • We need to maintain new donor acquisition.
  • We need strong online giving and communication programs.
  • We need channel integration.
  • We need to be cost efficient, strategic, and data driven.
  • We need to be nimble and adaptable.

If anything, the pandemic has affirmed for us the imperative of these best practices and the durability of direct response fundraising when we stay true to core principles.

But if you think of your direct response program like a mixing console made up of dozens of strategies, and you’re the producer, you also know that the really good music relies on what you turn up, what you turn down, and what you keep steady.

Some of the strategies that we have turned up in our clients’ programs during the pandemic include:

  • Online registrant optimization and conversion. The boom in virtual events and engaging online content provided by nonprofits throughout the pandemic has driven significant growth in email revenue and registrant files for many organizations. Email registrant files are excellent prospects for membership conversion vie email and address append for direct mail prospect testing.
  • Budget austerity. By client mandates but also confident in the knowledge that a good “words on paper” package can yield great results, we produced some of our most stripped down direct mail packages in spring and summer of 2020. Even if a client’s direct response program wound up performing at or above goal, other fundraising areas such as events or major gifts were either down or at risk this time last year, so keeping costs as low as possible has been of heightened importance. 
  • Email communications/solicitations. Email and online communications are already essential in direct response fundraising. But in the past fifteen months email has taken on the additional job of stopgap in many of our clients’ programs. Email has been of heightened importance for making up shortfalls and communicating about moving targets like reopening dates and membership expiration and renewal implications.
  • Expressions of gratitude to donors and no-ask celebrations of mission. Whether to keep the lines of communication open in place of a postponed solicitation, or to convey a heartfelt thank you for a gift that is not to be taken granted, these times call for heightened attention to gratitude.
  • Prioritization of response rate over average gift. This generally holds true at any time of financial crisis or threat, and the pandemic has been no exception. It’s always easier to upgrade an active donor than it is to reactive a lapsed one, so setting the bar for inclusion is always the right choice. 
  • On that note, overarching all of the heightened strategies that emerged in 2020 has been a heightened priority: building inclusive direct response programs that represent and value supporter diversity.

Because all of the strategies on our mixing console are important, we have only turned down one thing (willfully) during the pandemic: testing that adds more than moderate costs. This doesn’t mean we can’t test meaningful things; we have just back burnered tests that require greater financial investment.

Finally, what have we kept steady wherever possible? You guessed it: acquisition. The organizations that didn’t turn it down have reaped the rewards. But not all of our clients had the budget and luxury of continuing direct mail acquisition as the pandemic intensified through 2020. For some, we were able to compensate through conversion of higher numbers of email registrants. And for the others, you bet acquisition is the first thing we turned back up as we turned the page to 2021.


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