npEXPERTS 2020

Welcome to npEXPERTS 2020! For the first time, we’re excited to publish npEXPERTS digitally with more insights, interactivity, and content than ever before. Scroll below to hear from our 16 social good experts on how they are rethinking human connection through digital adaptation, relationship marketing, virtual culture, and so much more.



The emergence of the digital landscape has shifted the ways we interact with one another, enjoy entertainment, and consume products over the last several years. And now, in just the span of a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced even more change. This challenged us to embrace new routines and norms, and, more than ever, we begin asking: How can we stay connected to our friends, donors, and organization stakeholders even while apart?

In our first edition of npEXPERTS seven years ago, we set out to explore that question. Uniting nonprofit leaders in fundraising, marketing, and social media, we delivered insights and practical advice on how social good organizations could engage constituents online. Now, many editions later, we continue to examine some of those very same topics. And, for the first time, we’re excited to publish npEXPERTS as a digital feature with more interactivity, insights, and functionality than ever before.

Although many of these areas have experienced profound changes, the core tactics to building connections with supporters remain. In this edition of npEXPERTS, you’ll hear from leaders on how organizations are using technology to rethink human connection—through digital adaption, relationship marketing, virtual culture, and so much more. As you’ll hear, the digital experiences that we create for supporters are not only important; they will be crucial in the years ahead. While technology may be the means that connects us, we must inspire constituents with outreach that cultivates deeper and more meaningful relationships. Doing so requires an ongoing curiosity and willingness to listen, learn, and communicate authentically.

– Ashley Thompson, Managing Director, Blackbaud Institute


Amy Sample Ward | CEO, NTEN

Driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change, Amy is NTEN’s CEO and former membership director. Her prior experience in direct service, policy, philanthropy, and capacity-building organizations has also fueled her aspirations to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for all organizations.

Amy inspires the NTEN team and partners around the world to believe in community-generated change. She believes technology can help nonprofits reach their missions more effectively, efficiently, and inclusively, and she’s interested in everything from digital equity to social innovation. She is a frequent conference presenter and keynote speaker, guest on podcasts such as Nonprofit Radio, and contributing author for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fast Company, and other publications.

We’ve known technology as a leadership topic for a long time, but the number of tech-related issues, questions, and decisions that organizations have faced because of the COVID-19 pandemic make it blaringly clear.

But technology leadership is actually least focused on the tools themselves. Your tech success lies in leading your organization through consistent focus on people and goals. Those two areas should already be at the top of your list. Now, the opportunity is to use that to support technology decisions, implementation, and strategy. This is true whether you are leading your organization through the shifts of your day-to-day operations or toward a full digital transformation.

Your biggest tech investment is your staff

NTEN’s research has shown consistently that nonprofit staff report having the tools to do their job but not the training to use those tools well. Before you assume that the answer to any challenge is new technology, invest in your staff learning to use the technology you already have in the organization. This includes the way you onboard staff, but it goes so far beyond that—staff can’t possibly learn everything they need in their first week, month, or year. Just as you want them to improve their performance and increase their job effectiveness (and even duties), you need to continue to invest in robust skill-building for the whole time they are on the team.

Training should be appropriate for the person participating as different staff learn in different ways and, importantly, need to use your tools in different ways or to reach various goals. This may mean courses, professional certification, or formalized programs. But it could also include peer coaching or regular “tips and tricks” sharing across staff. Access to professional development—especially tech training—should be something from which all staff benefit; this isn’t something reserved for folks that have “IT” in their title.

Your community may know more about your needs than you

Your programs, services, communications, and fundraising all rely on technology. And, of course, your staff have plans for how those same areas of work can help you reach your mission. It’s important to recognize that your community members who participate in your programs, benefit from your services, receive your communications, and donate in your fundraising efforts are a huge part of the success of your work. So often, organizations reserve technology decisions and planning for internal staff only, which means only a fraction of those impacted are included.

There’s no reason to turn over your technology roadmap, decisions, and budgeting entirely to the community. There’s important information about your work, your commitments, and your broader mission that you and your staff know best. But the way that work impacts the community matters—and your processes need to include them. Create a community committee to support you and ensure that you have a diversity of program and service participation included. These committees could be long-term or ad hoc but the key is designing your processes to include their perspective to make your ultimate decisions and plans even better.

Maintaining Commitments During Crisis

When a crisis happens—whether it’s a global pandemic or something that only impacts your organization—it’s common to shift into a crisis mindset. Communication between staff may start to silo, communications with your community may decrease, and collaboration across the organization may shift into smaller teams. We know, of course, that especially during times of stress, although our minds may try to steer us a different way, crisis is when we need to be even more communicative and collaborative.

Feeling the pressure to shift events or programs online quickly in response to COVID-19 meant, for one organization I talked to, that they made a fast decision internally to use certain tools (and saw little uptake by staff and the community). Moving quickly isn’t the answer in a crisis. Communicating about needs and understanding the realities your community and staff are working within will help you find tech tools that match their access and skill options. Just as the challenges of the organization may have changed, so too have new challenges been presented to your staff and community. Until we understand what is needed, we can’t succeed.

Putting people first—both your staff and your community—may make some decisions slower. Doing something alone is often faster than doing it as a group but getting somewhere first and not having staff and community there with you isn’t worth it. The more you integrate staff and community needs, input, and participation in your technology decisions, the better those outcomes will be. And, you’ll likely find that you start to better incorporate staff and community members in the other processes of the organization for greater mission impact.

Connected Virtual Organizations

Beth Kanter | Master Trainer, Speaker, Author

Beth is an author, virtual facilitator, and trainer and is an internationally recognized thought leader in digital transformation and wellbeing in the workplace with over 35 years of providing capacity building for nonprofits and foundations. She was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and one of the BusinessWeek’s “Voices of Innovation.” Beth is the co-author of the award-winning The Networked Nonprofit books and The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout. Her clients include the Packard Foundation Resilience Initiative, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Save the Children, Counterpart International, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others.

Meico Whitlock | Founder and CEO, Mindful Techie

Meico helps changemakers find work-life and tech-life balance so they can do their best work while living well-rounded lives. He is the founder and CEO of Mindful Techie, author of The Intention Planner, and a trained mindfulness facilitator. He has worked with organizations such as Cigna, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund, and has been a featured speaker on ABC News, Fox 5, Radio One, and on the main stage at events such as the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

Workplace culture is the environment that you create for your people—whether you work in an office together or as a remote distributed team. A mix of your organization’s leadership, values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes contribute to the emotional and relational conditions of your workplace. While some may view culture as “fluff,” workplace culture has a significant impact on productivity, results, and organizational continuity.

The pandemic prompted the largest global remote work and home-schooling experiment due to the need for social distancing. Many nonprofit staff were suddenly prevented from working face-to-face together in their physical offices. Many nonprofits had to abruptly pivot to virtual work teams while also quickly adapting the delivery of their programs and services.

As nonprofits have been rightly focused on the external impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mental health crisis is emerging inside our organizations. Qualtrics recently published the results of “The Other COVID-19 Crisis: Mental Health,” a survey of more than 2,000 employees, and found that 67% of people report higher levels of stress since the outbreak and 44% report their overall mental health has declined.  Nonprofit staff wellbeing and productivity are taking a hit. But the good news is that the data shows you can improve the wellbeing of your team and mitigate some of the negative effects of COVID-19. But you must be willing to listen, then act. Caring is an important first step, but it is just a start. We must take the responsibility of fostering a healthy workplace culture (online and offline) seriously.

 Today, nonprofit staff are experiencing many COVID-19-related stressors:

  • Uncertainty: Without a clear end date for shelter in place orders, there is financial uncertainty for many nonprofits as well as the people they serve, not to mention furloughs and layoffs for staff. It is compounded by postponed events and interrupted program or service delivery, with a higher demand for services already stretched thin. This makes planning difficult.
  • Isolation: Social distancing and quarantine have prevented us from engaging with our normal day-to-day lives and interacting with friends and family. Working at home, even if you are used to it, can feel lonely.
  • Work/Life Balance: Many nonprofit staff have found it hard to manage the boundaries between work and life due to unrealistic expectations from managers or a lack of down time activities outside of the home. The work week and weekend have become blurred and people are losing track of days.
  • Technology Overload: The onslaught of using video conference platforms and other virtual tools for everything in our lives—from work meetings to family holiday celebrations—has caused a new type of techno overload and exhaustion due to staring at screens.

Despite these enormous and unprecedented challenges, nonprofits are also learning how to build a robust virtual workplace culture that not only addresses the burnout and mental health issues, but also helps them be productive and get work done.

Use Rituals to Increase Human Connection

Rituals are small acts done routinely as a group that help create positive connections and relationships. Nonprofit workplace rituals may include meeting check-ins, staff recognition, celebration of work milestones, and other activities. All of these help build social cohesion and relationships. Rituals can be established for your department, team, or entire organization. With the pandemic, it is more important than ever to adapt to the online workspace.

Rituals offer a key productivity benefit: People are more likely to learn from each other, share, and combine their ideas more freely. Stronger relationships at work help us to feel more at ease in sharing our concerns and insights, seek new information and innovative ways of working, and have the confidence to speak out if there’s something that can be done more efficiently or effectively.

A few simple ways to establish or adapt rituals to the online space:

  • Appreciation: Rituals of appreciation recognize staff or a team that has been working hard or reached a successful milestone. Giving shoutouts and applause during virtual meetings is easy to do. If your organization is using Slack™, you can use “Hey Taco,” to give props to staff. There are also number of tools and plugins that can help you automate saying thank you for a job well done.
  • Celebrations: Many nonprofits have celebration rituals—from work anniversaries, to successful completion of projects, to other organizational accomplishments. TechSoup has been hosting weekly themed happy hours. Packard Foundation OE staff hosted a birthday party on Zoom™ during which everyone wore a funny hat. In addition to happy hours, your virtual workplace can also host virtual coffee hours.
  • Meeting Rituals: Meetings should always start with a great opener that orients participants to the agenda, introductions, and a check-in ritual. During the quarantine, a round of check-ins allows people to share how they are coping. It doesn’t have to be a therapy session—you can do fun check-in activities that help people de-stress. Here’s a complete list of check-in questions. And, if you are facilitating a larger staff meeting, here are some creative ways to use the Zoom breakout feature for speed networking activities. Of course, if you have staff members that hate check-ins, you can also establish a ritual of “I pass.”
  • Simulate the water cooler: When all the interactions with your team are through structured work sessions, you can quickly lose the human-to-human connection. Some may be missing water cooler chats or informal socializing in the break room. Make sure your meetings and virtual communication aren’t overly buttoned up. Some nonprofits have experimented with remote walking meetings for 1:1 check-ins using Facetime™ or Zoom, co-working together, virtual watercooler threads on Slack, or “drop-in office hours” for quick chats.

Integrate Mindfulness into Your Workplace Culture

Mindfulness—the mental state of being aware of what’s going on in the present moment without judgment—is an important tool to help us skillfully navigate this new terrain and lead in today’s world. More than two decades of research show that mindfulness is more than “woo-woo” or “nice to have.” It’s a critical organizational competency that has proven benefits such as sharpening attention, improving mental health, and increasing resilience.

Here are some mindfulness practices that can be adapted for the virtual workplace:

  • Create space: With the transition to virtual work, many of us are working more (not less). What was once our commute time or a coffee break has disappeared along with important mental cues that help us shift between work time and personal time. Reclaim this space by creating start and stop rituals for your work. For example, changing into and out of certain clothes (e.g. your superhero cape or your Mr. Rogers sweater). Also, put meal times and breaks on your calendar so you have a mental cue to take regular breaks.
  • Pause on purpose: Intentional pauses allow us to pause and reset so we can respond from a conscious place rather than react from an unconscious place. Examples might include: a brief moment of stillness or a short office yoga session before a meeting; not responding to an upsetting email right away; or in a meeting, restating what you thought you heard and asking clarifying questions before offering a response.
  • Set an intention: When it comes to meetings and collaborative projects, there’s nothing more frustrating than a lack of clarity about the purpose. One simple way to avoid this is to think about the intended outcome before diving in. This ensures everyone is on the same page and confirms it makes sense to move forward. Here’s what Oprah uses: What is our intention for this meeting? What’s important? What matters? This framework can also be used to plan your days and weeks.

  • Establish rules of engagement: One way to lower anxiety about missing something important or being seen as a slacker if we are not able to respond 24/7 is to establish rules of engagement that spell out your team’s work hours, which tools to use, who to contact if something is urgent, and expectations for response times.

It is unclear when or how our work and personal lives will go back to “normal.” It is clear the pandemic has taught us that paying attention to organizational culture, whether online or off, is more critical than ever for our individual and collective wellbeing and effectively advancing our missions in uncertain times.

Brand Experience

Sarah Durham | CEO, Big Duck and CEO, Advomatic

Sarah Durham is an entrepreneur and creative consultant with a passion for helping nonprofits communicate more effectively so they can advance their missions. She founded Big Duck in 1994 to help nonprofits increase their visibility, raise money, and communicate more effectively. In 2019, she acquired Advomatic, which builds and supports websites for nonprofits. She spends her days guiding these businesses and talking with nonprofit leaders about their communications. Sarah is the author of Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010) and The Nonprofit Communications Engine: A Leader’s Guide to Managing Mission-driven Marketing and Communications (Big Duck Studio, 2020).

Farra Trompeter | Partner and Chief Growth Officer, Big Duck

Farra has led dozens of organizations through major brand overhauls, fundraising campaigns, and much more since joining Big Duck in 2007. She’s a frequent speaker around the country, training nonprofit staff and board members on branding, communications planning, and engaging donors at all giving levels. Farra is a past Board Chair for NTEN, an organization that believes technology can revolutionize social change. She is also a part-time faculty member at New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where she teaches a class about strategic communications for nonprofit and public service organizations.

That was then. This is now.

In 2013, organizations focused on social good began to embrace marketing automation and make the shift to responsive websites (as opposed to separate mobile ones). Staff, board members, donors, program participants, volunteers, advocates, and others spent most of their time on Facebook™, and just as many were on Google™ Plus as were on Instagram™. (source). Organizations were investing more in good photography and paying to advertise because our feeds were starting to show almost as much content from organizations as from our friends.

Fast-forward to 2020. Smartphone ownership has doubled (source), and 83% of Americans are accessing websites, webinars, meetings, and more from them. We are jamming to dance parties and listening to live interviews through Instagram stories. Families are creating and sharing elaborate videos on TikTok™. People are marking themselves as “safe” after local disasters on Facebook. And without thinking, we now automatically flock to an organization’s website to find out if they are open or see how they are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Today’s Digital Culture Means for Social Good Organizations

Have you ever told someone about an item you covet or a show you love, only to discover an ad for that very same thing as you scroll through your various feeds? While it may strike you as annoying or creepy, the clicks, actions, and the revenue those ads generate seem to work. Organizations and businesses alike connect with their audiences, and viewers find what they didn’t even realize they were looking for.

Some email service providers and CRMs now offer and encourage adaptive or predictive sending—a feature that uses past performance data to deliver your message at the time the recipient is most likely to open it. It seems the more technology knows about us, the more we expect personalized content when and where it works best for us.

Experiences like these, which are normal in today’s digital culture, have set the bar higher for nonprofit brands. Instead of producing a stream of organization-centric information, our audiences increasingly expect us to tailor what we send them to their unique habits and preferences.

There is also a greater sense of immediacy we’ve all come to expect from the organizations and brands we interact with. When an organization doesn’t immediately respond to a comment or remove an outdated event from their “upcoming events” landing page, audiences start to lose confidence.

In addition to speed, there are high expectations for accuracy. Audiences want organizations to share the correct information and expect organizations will follow-through on any information they share, from a name or address change to communication preferences. This is about more than maintaining good, clean data, though; it’s also about making sure your entire team knows what you are up to and can easily answer basic questions about who you are. As individuals use tools like Slack and Microsoft™ Teams to keep in touch with each other, they assume staff at social organizations also use these tools and therefore should have a full picture of what’s happening across the organization.

Beyond keeping materials up-to-date and creating relevant and personalized experiences, social good organizations must think of their website as an essential part of their brand. These days, when in-person gatherings are limited (and potentially forever changed), an organization’s website may be the only place people can visit to learn more, sign up, watch videos, take action, donate, etc. If that’s all someone ever sees or reads about you, does it leave them with the right impression and lead them to do more? Does it work flawlessly or frustratingly? This, too, will shape the experience with and influence the impression of your brand.

How Organizations Can Shape Their Brand Experience Online

In the 2013 npEXPERTS eBook, we offered these questions to guide user experience (particularly as it related to email marketing):

  1. Is it clear what we are asking our supporters to do?
  2. Are we giving enough of a reason to take the action we are requesting—without overwhelming them or using jargon that only we understand?
  3. Are we featuring someone they might relate to, either another supporter or program participant?
  4. Once they click on a link in the email, does the corresponding page feel connected with similar wording and graphics?
  5. If our supporters forwarded this email to a friend (they might!), would it make sense to someone who doesn’t know us that well?

These questions still hold up, though we’d encourage social good organizations to evaluate every single post, Tweet, story, message, ad, landing page, and more through this lens.

Branding is not a one-time fix, limited to a shiny new logo, nor is it a memorable elevator pitch. It is an ongoing practice of aligning around your organization’s identity and voice internally, then using it to create experiences that shape perceptions and behaviors that advance an organization’s mission and spark collective change. How can your organization use your website, email, social media, SMS, and other digital tools to further your work? We expect it’s a question we’ll still be asking for years to come.

Digital Communications

Jen Shang | Professor of Philanthropic Psychology, Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy

Professor Jen Shang is the world’s first PhD in Philanthropy. She is also the world’s only philanthropic psychologist. Her research has been covered in the New York Times, The Guardian, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Advancing Philanthropy, and the Nonprofit Times. Jen is the co-author of the best-selling fundraising textbook Fundraising Principles and Practice by John Wiley and Sons. Jen developed the world’s first Certificate in Philanthropic Psychology which has so far hosted students from Oxfam, Amnesty International, Red Cross, the Obama Foundation, and the Mater Foundation. During COVID-19, Jen worked with Greenpeace Spain, USA-for-UNHCR, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (among others) to help them care for their donors using digital communications.

Digital communications, when used to fulfill supporters’ needs, can become the most powerful weapon that fundraisers have ever had to grow giving. Too often how we think about using these channels has focused on optimizing the use of technology for its own sake, generating features that we hope will drive engagement and build supporter value. All too frequently, they do not.

It saddens me when I sit through presentation after presentation in fundraising conferences where people share stories about how, for example, online gaming is suddenly now a new channel that will change the world. This is after we believed Google, Facebook, JustGiving®, or crowdfunding would save the world. They did not.

Technology alone cannot save the world. It is about what we use technology for. If technology is used to chase short-term ROI, every new digital channel will simply come and go in the same way that non-digital channels did. Once we exhaust the giving resources available through one channel, we routinely go hunting for the next one.

But if we enter into each channel with the mindset of caring for the people who use the channel—instead of grabbing the money they might have to meet our own short-term needs—then we may not need to jump so quickly from one channel to another. Innovation comes in many guises, yet almost all our effort gets expended on channel innovation. Why not focus instead on innovation by focus? Drive innovation by genuinely better serving donor needs.

The essence of what it means to have a good life for humans does not change. We need to feel that we can voice our own beliefs; we need to feel powerful as we give to help others, and we need to feel connected with others. These good feelings are what psychologists call people’s fundamental human needs. They are fundamental because we all have them and, unless these needs are met, we cannot experience wellbeing.

In my view, the best gift that the digital revolution has provided for fundraisers is not another pool to fish in, but the ability to communicate with large audiences at a cost that is minuscule in comparison to print-based alternatives. It offers fundraisers a massive opportunity to build genuinely fulfilling long-term relationships through meaningful, immediate, and frequent communications where donors can talk—not just listen.

But unless technology is used to fulfill people’s needs—not to deliver the quickest dollar at the lowest price—technology will not grow giving.

When digital communications are evaluated by traditional metrics such as open rates, click-through rates, or even conversion rates, we cannot tell how people feel after they open, after they click, or after they make an additional donation.

Our research showed that not all giving is created equal. Some giving makes people feel good while others make people feel much less so. It all depends on why people are motivated to give in the first place.

Only with giving that is rooted in the right reasons can people feel better after they give. And only this type of giving can build donor value and lengthen relationships.

We also learned that the right reasons to give vary by cause, campaign, the stage of the relationship that a supporter has with an organization, and the quality of their relationships. The more people give out of the right sense of who they are, the right relationships, and for the right reasons, the more people will give in the future. This giving is sustainable because the growth in their giving means they can live a more fulfilled life, have more fulfilling relationships, and feel more powerful about the difference they can make in the world.

When used wisely, we believe digital communications can allow fundraisers to meet their donors’ needs at a level that was never possible in traditional print media. In doing so, it could create the highest growth in giving we have seen from our existing supporters—easily surpassing anything that might be gained from the proliferation of channels. It will also make the hunt for new donors massively easier as people can be exposed to giving situations dripping with opportunities to feel great about who they are when they give for the first time. Will they come back and give again? Certainly. They will because they enjoyed being the kind of person who would give in that way and human beings like to repeat activities that are pleasurable.

Meaningful two-way digital communications powered by proper insights into caring for supporters is the future that we see.

Content Marketing

Rachel Clemens | Chief Marketing Officer, Mighty Citizen

Rachel Clemens builds things. First, she built a career as a graphic designer. Then, she built Creative Suitcase, her strategic communications firm. For 11 years, Creative Suitcase helped organizations like United Way, The University of Texas, and countless others increase revenue and awareness. In late 2016, Creative Suitcase was acquired by TradeMark Media, and together they became Mighty Citizen. As Chief Marketing Officer, Rachel spends her days promoting Mighty Citizen’s services and thought leadership. She is also the proud parent of a son named Baylor and two pug mixes, Buddy and Biscuit.

Are we tired of talking about content yet? In recent memory, how much have you read about content marketing, content strategy, and, now, content governance? The conversation on content has spanned a decade—and there’s good reason for this.

Content is a vehicle, especially when you can’t be face to face. It delivers a message and creates emotion, and the best of it demands a response. Content creates connections. Which, luckily for us, is the foundational goal of impact marketing. Content is at the heart of social good! Our audiences interact with us through our websites, social platforms, and annual reports because of our content. They want to hear from us AND they want to support us when we give them reason to.

What content marketing best practices can you use to really put your content to work, especially in a virtual world?

Start with strategy

Content doesn’t start with writing. It starts with a need. The best content is useful content, so you must do a little research. What do your audiences need from you? Ideally, your content should meet an audience need and help fulfill your own business goal. Keep in mind that what’s “useful” can change quickly. As we’ve seen this year, sometimes the messaging has to shift gears (and fast). Use an editorial calendar to plan, but don’t let it restrict you. Be nimble!

Dig into the digital

Most of your content is delivered digitally and if digital analytics aren’t part of your content marketing strategy, you’re going in blind. How can you possibly publish content with your audiences in mind if you don’t know how they’re engaging with it (or if they’re engaging with it at all)? Use analytics to identify what content is popular and engaging, then publish more like it. What’s equally important is figuring out what content isn’t performing and just creating noise.

Going (Ever)green

Key to your content marketing strategy is evergreen content, or content that has a long lifespan both in its relevance and its messaging. One large piece of evergreen content can be repurposed into so many other types of content to fit the needs and preferences of any reader.

For example, a piece of long-form content like a research study can be broken down into articles, infographics, quotes, etc. that can be distributed through various channels like email, social, and the web. If you can stay in the cycle of identifying useful content and breaking it down into different content types, you’ll have an integrated approach to your messaging that works for all your different audiences across all your virtual platforms.

Stick with storytelling

Humans have been storytelling since the dawn of our creation, and we’ll be doing it well into the future. Storytelling builds connections, crosses all barriers, and is a key component of what makes us human. There is never a bad time for storytelling, and if you focus on storytelling as a base for your content marketing, you’ll be well-suited to deepen your relationships when the unexpected happens (you know, like a global pandemic).

Focusing on stories in your communications also creates emotion for your audiences. The decision for anyone to engage with your organization—whether it be a donation, request to volunteer, or petition signature—is an emotional one. People simply don’t take action without emotion. Your storytelling could make all the difference!

Govern, Govern, Govern

People have been creating online content for decades now. We’ve amassed a plethora of it. Think about how many articles, videos, Tweets, and images have been poured onto the internet since its creation. Think of how much just your organization has published! How do you manage all that content now, and how can you manage it better in the future?

Enter content governance. That is, the collection of rules, processes, and protocols that define how an organization identifies, creates, publishes, maintains, and archives content. The term has surfaced in the last few years, and it’s here to stay.

Content governance is multifaceted. It involves various elements like an editorial calendar, workflows, a content audit, style guides, and more. Establishing content governance within your organization helps with content organization, documentation, and optimization—three things that become ever more important as you continue to hone your content marketing.

Over the last few decades, content marketing has continued to evolve and move online through a variety of virtual platforms. This will only increase as more and more people work from home and look to these online platforms for human connection. As they do, you’ll want to make sure your content is there—the right content in the right place at the right time eliciting the right emotion.

Virtual Volunteering

Danielle Holly | CEO, Common Impact

Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to meaningfully contribute to making their communities thrive. 

She is currently the CEO of Common Impact, an organization that designs skills-based volunteer programs that direct companies’ most strategic philanthropic asset—their people—to the seemingly intractable social challenges they’re best positioned to address. Danielle has supported hundreds of companies and nonprofits in effectively scaling their models of social impact. 

She is a contributing writer for Nonprofit Quarterly on strategic corporate engagement and serves on the board of directors for Women in Innovation and Fan4Kids. She is also a member of the NationSwell Council and a member of Chief, a professional women’s network.

The history of service is as long as the history of humankind. Humans are pack animals, and it’s a natural, hard-wired desire for us to want to support and serve each other for the betterment of our individual communities and society at large. It’s been proven that service and volunteerism result in significant mental and physical health benefits. Volunteering—or just thinking of volunteering—activates the same part of the brain as food and other pleasures. Volunteers have exhibited less of the stress hormone cortisol on the days they do volunteer work.

Therefore, a natural outcome of the rapid digitalization of our world is that we’ve seen a steep rise in digital volunteer connections. As more and more opportunities to virtually volunteer with nonprofit and community organizations arise, a few themes have surfaced.

Values-Driven Work: The Millennial generation shattered the barriers between work and life and refused to leave their values at the door in pursuit of a paycheck. They demand that social impact be a day-to-day part of their work, even as they pursue careers in the private sector. This has driven a rise in volunteerism and skilled volunteerism, with companies offering their employees an outlet for a meaningful way to “do good.” Millennials, as digital natives, pushed for that volunteerism to be virtual.  While Boomers and Generation X were more likely to gravitate towards direct service (in-person volunteering), Millennials (who are now the largest part of our workforce) are more interested in volunteer opportunities they can access from the comfort of their laptop and that leverage their skills.  As they move into leadership positions across sectors, we’ll no doubt see the interest and opportunities for virtual volunteer opportunities rise.

Digital Divide: While technology can create broader connections between us and more inclusive environments, it can also deepen the inequities that already exist within our society. As our digital society has taken shape, we’ve swiftly gone from slowly waiting for our dial-up connections to load to carrying always-connected smart phones around in our pockets. Technology access remains a privilege. According to a Pew Research Center study, in the U.S., nearly half of adults with household incomes below $30,000 don’t have a computer or broadband services. In addition, 24% of rural communities—across income levels—say high speed internet is a challenge. In 2020, as the world moved indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the part of the population that lacked digital access was immediately disadvantaged. The schools that were providing virtual classrooms weren’t able to reach each student. The civic engagement organizations that were educating communities on online Census participation and information on voting during the pandemic were unable to reach the citizens’ whose voices need to be counted. Even without COVID-19, our entire world is increasingly dependent on technology for our way of life. Our philanthropic investments, including our volunteer efforts, will need to be focused on the organizations that are getting technology into the hands of the populations who lack access and connecting them to the web of opportunities that are at the fingertips of the privileged.

Creating Connections: While our technological advances have brought us closer and closer to an “in-person” experience online, it can’t quite replace the connections and empathy that you get through “real-life” human interaction. This poses a challenge to the fundamental elements that make volunteer engagements successful—namely communicating and developing passion for a mission and inspiring a commitment to the volunteer work that serves that mission.

Virtual volunteering requires a little more structured and intentional relationship building. The one strategy I’ve seen work incredibly well in setting the right foundation for a virtual engagement is to continually ground the volunteers and nonprofit professionals in their core values—what they care about and the reason they showed up. Spend time on it at each meeting, particularly at the first. We so often fall into the routine of introductions that reveal everyone’s name, title, and what they do for work. The points of true connection between us are so rarely about what we do all day, and much more about our values, what and who we love most in the world, and how we want to contribute. 

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a remarkable rise in the opportunities to virtually support communities. The impact to our way of life brought about by COVID-19 at the very beginning of this decade will surely quicken our step down that path. Still, what’s so important to remember is that our technology is simply a tool, a facilitator, an enabler—it’s not the goal. What’s been most meaningful about virtual volunteering is that it brings together real people with deep values who work together to make a positive impact on our community. In a society that overly lauds likes, Retweets, and often meaningless validation from strangers, virtual volunteering can be the antidote.

Subscription Economies

Erica Waasdorp | President, A Direct Solution

Erica Waasdorp is President of A Direct Solution, located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Erica lives and breathes direct response and fundraising and can be considered a Philanthropyholic. She works with nonprofit clients all over the country and internationally, helping them with their appeals and monthly giving. She is also the former U.S. Ambassador for the International Fundraising Congress (IFC).

Erica Waasdorp published one of the very few books on monthly giving, called Monthly Giving. The Sleeping Giant. She created the Monthly Donor Road Map and several eBooks including The Top Seven Questions about Monthly Giving and The Monthly Donor Retention Playbook. She also co-authored the DonorPerfect Monthly Giving Starter and Marketing Kits. Erica is a Master Trainer for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and she is currently working on her next book, On the Road to Monthly Donor Success in One Hour or Less!

A quick introduction: Sustainers are a big part of today’s subscription economy and we’ve seen tremendous growth in the past few years, as this chart from the DonorCentrics™ Sustainer Benchmarking Study shows.

We’re still not at the level I think we should be at, but I guarantee that those organizations focused on growing their sustainers over the past few years were able to breathe a lot easier during the recent pandemic.

Let me start with some positive news first because I’m sure you could use some:

  • It’s not too late to start growing your number of sustainer subscribers! Yes, even NOW.
  • I’ve seen record-breaking growth in the number of organizations’ new sustainers. Mind you, it didn’t matter if the nonprofit provided direct service or not.
  • I’ve seen small donors who contacted organizations to upgrade their current sustainer gifts.
  • I’ve seen sustainers who converted from credit card gifts to gifts from their bank account, thus upgrading their gifts.
  • Yes, I have heard from nonprofits about sustainers who canceled their gifts, but in many cases, with some proactive guidance, at least 20 to 30% were saved.
  • I’ve also seen organizations with very few cancellations.

What was the main driver in most of this sustainer growth?

Here are five major factors that helped drive the digital growth of new sustainers and increases for existing sustainers in particular:

  1. Many donors care about the organizations with which they’re involved and, when presented with a challenge (such as a lost event), they are happy to step up when asked!
  2. Many donors who see sustainer giving as a long-term solution will be especially beneficial for the organization as they are happy to step up when asked!
  3. While unemployment rates have sadly skyrocketed, most donors are in the retired category so they have some (fixed) income they can tap into when asked!
  4. If presented with the option to give monthly to an organization they already care about or to a nonprofit they see is especially active and doing great work in the trenches, donors see that a small gift on a regular basis from their (fixed) income is a great way to help, especially when asked!
  5. For those donors who are already giving monthly: If they get regular updates of how their gifts are making a difference—especially now—and how they’re helping the organization’s mission, that’s an important reason to keep their sustainer ‘subscription’ going. In some cases, they’ll even increase their giving levels when asked!

I hope you see the pattern here. Sustainers (and donations) come in when asked.

While so many of us had to retreat to working from home, some ‘old school’ channels (newspaper, mail, and phone) and newer technology (personal videos, online meetings, emails and social media) were successful in reaching out to donors. They especially helped in accomplishing growth in sustainers and all or most of the above.

Here are some of the approaches that were extremely successful:

  1. Emails to donors with targeted sustainer gift or emergency asks
  2. Emails with simple—often positive—updates, if there was a button or a link to make a sustainer gift in addition to an emergency ask
  3. Social media—especially with positive news—personal videos, quick updates, recipes, tips, “how are yous.” They all helped.
  4. Phone calls. With donors, at-home contact rates were higher than ever before. Donors want to connect and once you talk to a donor, the topic of sustainers can come up. Telemarketing agencies had to rework their systems and had to manually dial donors, with much higher contact and connection percentages. And you know what they say: More donors reached = more conversations = more conversions.
  5. Matches. If you made a call to your favorite foundation or major donor, you could bring up the topic of a challenge match, which is useful for all types of fundraising but especially for sustainers.
  6. Mailings. With the USPS working and printers and letter shops considered essential businesses, personal cards and appeal letters worked well, especially in combination with email follow-ups. A simple tick box on the reply form asking for sustainers could do wonders.

It’s now so easy to generate a new sustainer. Your website is there. Your online form is ready. You simply must start driving everybody there.

Finally, while most fundraisers were extremely busy at this time, many donors had time to read their mail. They had time to talk to you. They had time to engage and learn more about your organization. And the more they learned, the more likely they were to commit to that subscription: the sustainer gift.

I already saw the tremendous power of sustainer gifts before. Now, with events canceled or postponed, I hope that more organizations will see the power of mail, phone, and email to generate new sustainers. I expect that will continue for the foreseeable future. Don’t lose the connections you made—continue building more of them!

Donors can make a huge contribution with a small subscription-level sustainer contribution. Don’t ever sneeze at it and you’ll be able to raise more money than ever before—and you can plan on it no matter what!


Gayane Margaryan | Senior Digital & Partner Marketing Manager, African Wildlife Foundation

Gayane Margaryan is the senior digital and partner marketing manager for African Wildlife Foundation. Gayane leads strategy for the organization’s digital programs including fundraising, content, advocacy, and marketing. In her current role, she has had the joy of collaborating with partners like Nickelodeon, Smithsonian Channel, Flipboard, Cadillac, and others to make our world healthier, kinder, and more sustainable. In her spare time, she loves working with local businesses and nonprofits to help them hone their digital strategies. She holds a bachelors’ degree in Public Relations and Political Science from the University of Florida.

Back in 2013, email was a champion for digital fundraising programs, bringing in an average of 30% of a nonprofit’s online fundraising revenue. And just seven years later, data shows that online revenue from email has shrunk to just 16%. Busy fundraisers—scrambling to find the time and resources to keep up with an ever-changing digital landscape—put email on the backburner because it was generating less engagement and making less. It kept making less and generating less engagement because it was neglected.

As I write this in April 2020, much of the world is on lockdown due to COVID-19. Daily life has changed overnight and so have the ways and times at which people consume information online. Early data is showing that email engagement rates are seeing an increase as people are sheltering in place. It also shows that email send volumes are fluctuating.

As email regains relevance, we would do well to be reminded of the opportunity it gives us as fundraisers to engage with our constituents to forge deeper relationships. The next months are fraught with uncertainty, and it is difficult to predict when and how email behavior will change again, but successful organizations will be taking an opportunity to strengthen their email programs in 2020.

Giving Back to Supporters

Donors and constituents do not need lots of tchotchkes to keep them feeling engaged and valued. Instead, give them what they really crave: a connection with a cause they care deeply about. Fundraisers will create more meaningful and impactful email content, refocusing on stewardship and storytelling and using email to bring—and keep—supporters closer to their cause.

Too often—and especially during times of uncertainty—fundraisers fall into the habit of asking supporters to give, sign a pledge, start a Facebook fundraiser…and the list goes on. Of course, the organizations’ needs are urgent and critical. But it is important to return the favor.

2020 will be a time to carve out intentional stewardship communications. Fundraisers will be telling stories that show donors the impact they have had on the organization’s mission. They will provide them with inspiration during times of difficulty. They will show them what is good in the world and that they are there for them, particularly during difficult times. Even though supporters may not be able to give or give as much in 2020, in better times, they will return with a gift to those organizations that kept them authentically engaged.

Investing in Donors and Email Programs

Unfortunately, many organizations keep their major donors, board, and planned givers siloed away from their direct marketing email programs, worrying that they will become overwhelmed by emails.

In 2020, more organizations will focus on major gift fundraising and more quickly funding needs that emerge due to economic and political uncertainty. Savvy fundraisers will develop email strategies for these high-level giving groups.

These donors are interested in making sure their investments are safe with their chosen organization. In 2020—with needs arising in every vertical due to myriad challenges—transparent, authentic, and regular communications will reassure donors that their organization is operational and functioning. These savvy donors will also want to see that nonprofits are responding to emerging needs as new challenges present themselves.

Pivoting and Being Nimble

2020 is not a year for the inflexible. This is already proving to be a year in which planned communications are scrapped or moved. Fundraisers should be prepared for this to continue—and they should continue to use the lessons learned during this time to stay relevant.

Successful fundraisers will be those who are ready to pivot on a moment’s notice. The news is changing every hour. As digital marketers, it is our job to stay current to ensure we are sending timely, accurate, and useful communications to our audiences. As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, there will be days when new developments necessitate putting the pause on a fundraising email. There will be others when a fundraising appeal is needed immediately in response to current events.

Donors and supporters are savvier than ever and they will be looking to their causes to inform them and keep them up to date, especially online. Smart digital marketers will not disappoint them. They will be using these times of uncertainty to leverage email to increase their value to their constituents, providing them with hope, inspiration, and resources during uncertain times.

Social Media

Julia Campbell | Nonprofit Consultant and Speaker

Julia Campbell is nonprofit consultant and speaker focused on digital storytelling, social media marketing, and online fundraising. She is the author of two books, a mom of two kids, and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Her passion is to get organizations and change makers to stop spinning their wheels and start getting real results using digital tools. You can check out her thoughts and ideas at

  • It’s not business as usual for nonprofits. Beyond the dramatic and devastating impact of COVID-19 on the sector, frequent technological, cultural, societal shifts have coalesced to force nonprofit fundraising to reinvent itself again and again.

To understand where we are going, we must understand where we are. That requires examining several key changes in the social media landscape that affect nonprofits.

Key Changes in the Social Media Landscape

There are more social media users today (3.8 billion) than there were people on the entire planet in 1971. In 2020, 3.8 billion is nearly half of the world’s population.

We spend an average of two hours and 24 minutes per day using social media—and those are numbers recorded before the coronavirus forced us to stay home and interact virtually.

The way that people use social media has also changed. We use it to discover new products, connect with causes and brands, and express our identity by what we share (and don’t share). Facebook still dominates the social media sphere, with 2.9 billion people using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp™, or Messenger each month (2.3 billion use at least one of their services daily).

Mark Zuckerberg himself called these the “holy grail of social experiences…letting people live wherever they want and hologram into work so they can access opportunities anywhere and don’t have to move to a city or another country for a job.” Or, go into the office at all. We need to be ready for the implications for fundraising, marketing, and work in general.

Ephemeral, spur-of-the-moment content in the form of stories is booming. Stories are growing at 15x the rate of newsfeed content. And, at some point, Facebook and Instagram may even merge the feed and story formats. With the introduction of the donation sticker for both Facebook and Instagram Stories, nonprofits have many more ways to get people to raise money and awareness for them.

Three Seismic Shifts in Donor Behavior

1. Small donors are disappearing.

Giving USA’s 2019 report revealed a decline in general and mid-level donors (defined as donors who make gifts less than $250 and between $250 and $999 respectively).

This may be due to the playing field getting more crowded. There will be an estimated 1.7 million charities in the United States by the end of 2020 (in 2000 there were 688K).

It also may be because people are increasingly distrustful of institutions, brands, government, and nonprofits—they are eliminating the middleman and giving directly to individuals.

2. Demographics are shifting.

Long ago were the days when donors gave to nonprofits simply because of name recognition and the number of years a charity has been around. Demographic shifts are resetting donor and participant expectations.

Beyond just a shrinking pool of donors, individual donor behaviors are changing in significant ways that have important implications for how charities raise money.

Fundraisers are now communicating with and engaging five distinct generations. Younger generations have different giving preferences and different expectations of social causes. They want participation at a deeper level. They expect personalization and a frictionless fundraising/donation experience (think Netflix® and Amazon®).

3. The promise of technology reaching supporters in the age of social isolation and shelter-in-place has never been more real.

In my mind, the promise of technology is to democratize philanthropy and make it accessible to anyone with an internet connection or a smartphone.

Facebook fundraisers have enabled nonprofits to raise $4 billion worldwide. With the Internet of Things, you can donate via Alexa™, Google Home, and Siri™. There will only be more opportunities and integrations that allow nonprofits to interact with consumers through platforms like Uber™, Venmo™, Shopify™, and Twitch™.

How can we future proof our social media strategy?

  • Don’t panic. 

While COVID-19 has brought about need and financial hardship like nothing else in our lifetime, we have to beware of mission drift. If your current social media strategy is working for you, continue using it. If not, change it up.

Continue to focus heavily on sharing photos and videos. Be human. Visual storytelling wins on social media every time.

  • Preach to the choir.

If the choir is singing together in harmony, they will bring others in and share your gospel.

Nonprofits need to stop focusing on shouting at strangers to attract “new donors” and learn to strategically leverage their current community members to bring others into the fold. Every day, go into your communities and answer comments and questions. Be present and don’t over-automate. Always learn about your community and what they are most interested in, what moves them, what drives them, and what inspires them.

  • Be relevant.

This means you need to comment on current events. What is your audience worried about? How does that relate to your mission? Social media offers an opportunity for you to become the go-to, indispensable resource. We have an obligation to combat “fake news,” myths, and misconceptions about the people we serve and the communities in which we operate.

  • Take a stand.

Don’t be afraid to tell me what you stand for and convince me that this is a problem worth solving. Use stories, but also incorporate data and statistics to demonstrate that this is in fact an urgent, timely, and relevant problem.

  • Demonstrate impact.

Show me that you walk the walk. Show me that you are making progress solving this problem that we both care deeply about. Prove to me that not only is this a problem to which I need to pay attention, but that your nonprofit is the right one to solve this problem. What changes have you made in people’s lives or in the community? Make people inspired and proud to be a part of your community.

  • Create your plan for using the new tools available, but don’t overwhelm yourself.

TikTok is coming out with a donate button. Instagram and Facebook have the ability now to raise money via Stories and live streams. A new tool is always going to take center stage. Always remember: It really isn’t the tools that matter. It’s the knowledge of your audience and the ability to create content that they want and need.

  • Be proactive—not just reactive.

 Strategically use each social media channel based on its strengths and demographics. Give your stakeholders a good reason to connect with you on that specific network. What value are you providing? What are you offering that will entice them to stay tuned in? Think about the reasons people use each network to formulate a plan to consistently post and share content that resonates with your specific audience, wherever they congregate online.

Building Movements

Brian Gomez | Finance and Operations Manager, Sunrise Movement

Brian Gomez is the Finance and Operations Manager at Sunrise Movement. He’s passionate about optimizing digital systems for nonprofits and manages centralized and decentralized finances for Sunrise. Previously, Brian was at the Sierra Club and Earth Guardians where he did similar operational work supporting young people to act on climate change.

He is a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he currently lives. He was an Obama Foundation CLC fellow in 2019, won first place at Chicago Techweek Hackathon in 2015, and runner-up at the ThinkChicago Hackathon in 2018.

Building grassroots movements has always been about increasing reach. As we progress into the area of the internet, we’ve seen that reach has become much easier—but it also comes with a set of challenges. What I’ve also seen in this generation is that reach is not just about promoting an event or campaign but more about the ability to create touchpoints with your base and supporters.

As organizations, we are expected to respond digitally as fast as people can access new information. Today’s population—especially younger people—see a message about an environmental report and if their favorite environmental organization hasn’t responded within the day, they begin to wonder “what are they doing about this?” Now more than ever, we are seeing rapid updates about our changing world. People need movements to guide them through the chaos.

As much as this creates urgency, one of the big benefits is that it allows movements to tell the story about the world. They are also able to get on-demand feedback and address what their members care about in real time. A strong grassroots movement today is agile, responsive, and employs email, text, and video to keep a strong pulse on the movement.

Activism, especially digital activism, is in vogue today more than it’s ever been. One exciting thing about that is that, unlike the armchair activism we saw in the past (where members were engaged once a year when they donated), the ability to harness passion becomes much easier with “slacktivists” or “clicktivists.” When someone posts on, comments on, or likes your page, you are able to see where they stand on a variety of measures and what you need to do to get them to turn their digital support into a reality. It also can re-engage members that took some time off but are looking for a way back into your movement.

Relative to an in-person event, the advent of digital events could serve as a better and more accessible point of entry. This could be a video call about a topic, a $1 or $5 donation, or access to a members only-hub. Steps like this are small but can actively build supporters’ fervor by increasing knowledge on the cause, making them feel invested in the movement, and connecting them to other passionate people.

That’s the other big challenge right now: community. Once we got supporters out to an event, we knew that they would feel welcomed by our people and be inspired to act. Now we must figure out how people can find community by acting at home. Membership hubs like online learning platforms or discussion boards on websites can all serve these purposes.

Combined, community and digital engagement are powerful. Finding an online community with which you can act together (and possibly have friends in) is one of the strongest drivers of building movement at this moment. 

An example that comes to mind is in 2018 at Sunrise. We employed an online fundraising platform. One of our benefits was the ability to have community-ran forms. As we were building out capacity in 2019 for our 300 chapters or “hubs” around the country, we also realized they needed their own financial systems. By pairing the online fundraising platform with an online payment system, we were able to replicate a structure that allowed local groups to do their own digital fundraising and spending locally. We also used the program as a community and knowledge-building opportunity for hub treasurers. Now, we are also using the system to support groups through mini grants. Our finance system to date has impacted hubs’ ability to have the materials to create powerful actions, bring support to events that need it, and run great in-person trainings about our campaigns.

Currently at Sunrise, one program we are running is Sunrise School. Sunrise School uses the power of video conferencing to build an online school. We have 3-week courses that meet twice a week and focus on a specific part of our movement. We talk about the Green New Deal in one, Movement Building in another, and offer advanced courses on fundraising, storytelling, and organizing during COVID-19. In a week, we have had over 8,000 sign ups and use an online platform to track attendance and diversity. These courses involve group breakouts, discussions, and opportunities for students to invite their friends on the final day to learn more about our campaigns and how to get involved. We’ve built this quickly and, though we have had issues with managing multiple courses a day and thousands of participants a week, we are excited to be providing our base with an opportunity. We are committed to getting our digitals right in this moment. We knew we had to build quickly and collect feedback about what could improve. 

At the end of the day, we want supporters to know that we are with them day-in and day-out and that we are using digital tools to craft creative solutions to address their needs. They also know we are not experts and are learning alongside them. Doing pilot projects and allowing your organization to fail is the key to developing a strong digital strategy for today and tomorrow.

Digital Resilience

Cheryl Contee | CEO, Do Big Things

Cheryl Contee is the award-winning CEO of the digital agency Do Big Things, a diverse team that is using new narrative and new tech for causes and campaigns to create global change in a new era. Cheryl is the author of Mechanical Bull: How You Can Achieve Startup Success, available on Amazon. Previously, Cheryl was CEO of Fission Strategy, which brought Silicon Valley startup culture to the world’s leading causes and campaigns. She’s the co-founder of—the first tech startup with a black female founder to be acquired by a NASDAQ company—the National Board Chair for Netroots Nation, and a proud co-founder of #YesWeCode.

My team at Do Big Things provides causes and campaigns like yours with a new narrative and new tech for this unprecedented era. All of us have been forced to adapt to extenuating circumstances and, as a result, have had to embrace emerging digital tools and techniques that might have seemed like science fiction in the “before times!” It is often said that where there is a crisis, there is opportunity. I believe that is still true in this moment, despite the tragedies unfolding all around us.

Your digital footprint, infrastructure and community have become more important than ever. The digital-first future has arrived and is coming in hot! Yet, many nonprofits and foundations are now asking the questions: How well-prepared is our team for this new world and how can we accelerate our progress?

Now is the perfect time to step back and reimagine how we connect and ally with audiences and members. The old paradigm just won’t do, and we must create deeper relationships through digital in order to further our missions. The good news is that people are yearning to relate to each other and to be of service. How do we channel that energy in our work as our institutions are inevitably reshaped by a new level of global awareness and the shared experiences of staying at home together?

Consider that, in this moment, your core message amid crisis and recovery might include:

  • Meeting people where they are (in The Moment) both mentally (focused on impacts to healthcare, unemployment, education, food supply, and more) and physically (isolated, alienated, connected digitally via Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube™, Houseparty™, Marco Polo™ and other social media channels)
  • Offering your vision and an invitation to be part of the solutions (Your Strengths)
  • Acting in collaboration with partners and tracking/counter-messaging those with competing visions of the way forward (Competitors and Partners)

It’s critical to reinforce messages about protecting the most vulnerable communities that you serve and associate them to your ongoing work. You’ll need to connect the dots for your audiences about why your mission still matters and why it requires persistence in this moment.

Even if your mission is not directly connected to crisis response, you can still pivot in a way that helps your members stay connected to you. Here are some ways you can start to re-design your outreach and fundraising efforts:

  • Be up front and transparent—show how the new work you do is in line with your mission under new circumstances
  • Internally determine priorities and consider what makes sense for your audience right now
  • Emphasize online action and move events online
  • Don’t go silent—lift up others who are doing work that will support your communities in the future

This is also an opportunity to focus more on relational organizing. Relational organizing is more important now than ever before. With a foundation of personal relationships, this organizing inspires community action built from real people that want to see change in their lives and in the world around them.

While everyone is at home, they are looking for things they can do now. As an organization, you can help them feel ownership of your online efforts, grow their own voice in a movement, and embody care as humans working together. Examples of relational organizing include:

  • Building digital communities
    • Facebook groups, Slack channels, Microsoft Teams channels, WhatsApp chats, etc.
  • Peer-to-peer engagement
    • SMS, phone calls
    • Email and social sharing
    • Zoom, Houseparty, Marco Polo
  • Community-sourced content
    • Social and video
    • Featured ambassadors/influencers

For some organizations, this may mean that you need a more robust digital program that is integrated with all your organization’s activities. It might mean a significant re-investment in training and technology. Yet, the organizations that can adapt most quickly and reach people most effectively are those that will ultimately show the greatest digital resilience and success in this new future.

Digital as a Science

Roger Craver | Editor, The Agitator

Roger Craver is a pioneer in direct response advocacy and fundraising for some of the household names in American nonprofits. Craver helped launch and build the National Organization for Women, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity International, Greenpeace, Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union, World Wildlife Fund International, and the Heifer Project International, among others.

Roger is the author of Retention Fundraising: the Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life and the Chief Editor of The Agitator, the online information service that provides daily fundraising advice and insights to thousands of fundraisers around the world.

The crucible of the coronavirus pandemic presents the opportunity to forge a far more robust digital fundraising future.

But the crisis alone won’t be enough to spur digital growth and sustainability. Realizing the vast potential of digital requires far more than just following the same old practices—or performing them, but with greater frequency. This sort of return to “normal” simply signals a failure to learn.

We need to think not about resumption but about revision; or more accurately, “transformation.” In the words of the venerable investor Warren Buffet, “When the tide goes out, you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

For those organizations that had either ignored investment in digital skills and technology or relegated them to the basement of their priorities, the pandemic has been merciless in its exposure. Incapable of timely and proper communication, they failed their donors and failed themselves.

Organizations that had invested in basic digital technology and fundamental skills were able to function and, by all reports, either fared well or even struck some pandemic gold. However, given the likely depth and length of the economic depression to come, this is no time to rest on the laurels of complacency and smugness.

The tendency in tough times is for organizations to cut costs. Cost-cutting not only seems rational but is easy to measure. What’s far tougher to measure is resilience—and the investment required to invest in the technologies and skills required to thrive in the new age we’ve entered. The bean counters and boards who fail to see the importance of this will have ledgers filled with lapsed donors and depressed income statements.

The pandemic has exposed in raw terms what has been painfully clear for some years; by itself, digital can’t meet the full financial needs of most organizations. Today, it accounts for only $8 out of every $100 raised by U.S. nonprofits—and there were signs even before the pandemic that the digital stream was beginning to slow. That’s why even a return to “normal” will not be nearly enough to meet the needs of organizations. Digital fundraising must do more than recover; it needs to get better.

The pandemic merely reinforces two trends already in progress before the coronavirus struck: the importance of integrated, multi-channel fundraising and the life-giving value of loyal donors.

Organizations that rely heavily or solely on digital are crippling their future. Often, because of the mistaken belief that digital fundraising is free or inexpensive, they neglect the most powerful channel of all—direct mail, where returns are 15 to 25 times greater than digital. And when the digital channel is reinforced by the direct mail channel and vice versa, the returns spike even higher.

Of course, developing the expertise to combine or integrate channels of communication is both expensive and time-consuming. But in an era when the number of active donors was already declining, it is sheer neglect—if not outright malfeasance—for an organization to ignore the need to beef up both its skill set and mindset. You need to truly focus on multi-channel marketing and fundraising. Failure to effectively reach and involve the precious (but declining) numbers of loyal donors will result in stressors to the organization.

In addition to boosting skill sets within the organization, a mindset change is also necessary. The all-too-common practice of blasting out email after email will no longer cut it—even by tossing in the all-too-frequent matching gift offer.

Many organizations claim to be donor-centric, but few understand or practice the true meaning of the term. Now more than ever, these skills must be mastered. Time and talent must be invested in building monthly giving programs, mid-level giving initiatives, major gift efforts, and planned giving efforts.  Succeeding at this means the collection of individual donor information about donors’ identity (“why” they give to you) and their preferences (what issues, channels, and frequency of communication are they interested in?), and tailoring your efforts and offerings according to the donor’s needs.

The pandemic has hastened the death of the one-size-fits-all, digital-is-cheap-or-free approach to fundraising. The opportunity—and need—for transformation are staring us in the face.


Tim Kachuriak | Founder and Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer, NextAfter

Tim Kachuriak is the Founder and Chief Innovation and Optimization Officer for NextAfter, a fundraising research lab consultancy and training institute that works with charities, nonprofits, and NGOs to help them grow their resource capacity.

Kachuriak is a nonprofit thought leader and the author of the book, Optimize Your Fundraising. He is the lead researcher and co-author of the Online Fundraising Scorecard, Why Should I Give to You? (The Nonprofit Value Proposition Index Study) and The Midlevel Donor Crisis. Kachuriak is also the co-founder and board member for the Human Coalition, a member of the board of directors for Open Doors USA, an Advisory Board Member for the SMU Digital Accelerator, and an Advisory Board Member for the Blackbaud Institute.

In this time of great uncertainty, it is more important than ever that we gain deep insights into the mindset of our supporters. We need to be able to quickly adapt our strategies as their behaviors shift. But is this possible? And if it is, how do we do it?

Many people believe that digital is the future of fundraising (and that may be true). However, it may not be for the reasons you think. Yes, the web is a powerful medium—a way to reach your supporters and engage them in dynamic ways. But the true value of the web is not just in its utility as a channel, but its ability to function as a living laboratory.

Most nonprofit organizations today have more behavioral data passing through their websites than could be collected in a lifetime of clinical studies. What this means is that if we learn to read our analytics properly, we can begin to better understand our donors and how they behave. But analytics alone is not enough. It may be able to address the how and what questions, but the more important question of why remains a mystery. For example, analytics may tell us the exact point on a website that a visitor abandons the donation experience, but it will not fully explain why. It might be said that asking how and what leads to information but asking why leads to wisdom. Wisdom must be our goal.

This is where testing and experimentation coupled with web analytics become an invaluable resource to you as a fundraiser. By identifying where your website visitors bail on a process, you can begin formulating ideas about why they are not taking the actions you want them to take. However, if you want to know what will fix the visitor abandonment problem, you must run a test.

A well-designed online test can prove to be invaluable in two ways.

First, it can help you boost your fundraising performance.

Imagine that your donation page generates a 30% conversion rate. That means for every 100 visitors to the page, you are receiving 30 donations. Now let’s say that, after reviewing your web analytics, you determine that a certain percentage of your visitors are falling off between steps two and three of the process. This leads you to develop a hypothesis:

Removing one step in the process can reduce the friction of making a gift and make it easier for the donor to complete the process.

You then create an alternate version of your donation page that includes only two steps instead of three and run a simple A/B split test. In the test, 50% of your visitors will receive the original 3-step process and 50% will receive a new 2-step version. You run the test and once it has fully validated, you find that the new 2-step process produces a 20% positive relative difference when compared to the original 3-step version. Boom! You just increased your conversion rate from 30% to 36%. Depending on how much traffic your website receives, that might translate into tens of thousands of dollars in additional revenue. Not bad for a few hours of coding!

But what happens if the test bombs? What if, instead of generating a positive increase in donation conversion, your 2-step version produces the same—or worse—a decrease in performance? Does that mean the test was a failure? Not exactly. What it means is that your hypothesis was not correct. It wasn’t the fact that there were three steps that caused your would-be donors to bail. It was something else altogether. This insight may lead you to discover the true nature of the problem and a subsequent test could unlock a true breakthrough.

This is the second (and perhaps more) valuable aspect of online testing:

Every test, when designed correctly, will produce learnings.

And learnings are often more valuable than the lift! Learnings from testing and experimentation can help you evolve your understanding of your donors and extract powerful insights that can transcend the digital channel—and potentially revolutionize your entire fundraising program.

Over the last 8 years, my team has had the opportunity to run and document over 2,500 online experiments across many different nonprofits. Not every test has produced a positive result. But every test has helped us learn something. About donors. About human behavior. And even about ourselves.

Digital Adaptation

Steve MacLaughlin | Vice President, Product Management, Blackbaud and Senior Advisor, Blackbaud Institute

Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Product Management at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits. MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and on National Public Radio. MacLaughlin previously served on the board of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), is a frequent keynote speaker, and is an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University. Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.

Change is hard. Transformation is even more difficult. But what if adaptation is the better way to achieve both successfully?

We are constantly bombarded with messages, discussions, and articles about the need for change management and digital transformation. “Change this and transform that.” You’ve got to keep up because the one constant is change, right?

One problem is that the terms “change” and “transformation” are used interchangeably, but they are very different things. Change is about adjusting in an attempt to fix the past or the current state. Transformation is about reimagining and creating a future that is independent of the present.

Now, change by itself is hard enough. It requires a lot of incremental tweaks to habits, behaviors, and actions over a sustained period. Change often means things take a dip and get worse before they get better. Our point of comparison is the status quo and we have thrown things out of sorts.

Transformation is even harder. It requires vision, leadership, and managing a lot of risk and uncertainty. Transformation is doubly difficult because it means having to keep everything in motion today while creating something new for the future—keep the programs, processes, meetings, and operations going while you reinvent it all.

Most organizations struggle with change and fail at transformation. If all you have ever done is operate one way, then it’s a challenge to change course. Everyone likes change, but no one likes changing. Change demands discipline and transformation necessitates being all in. That is a tall task and the path of least resistance is to do neither.

So, do we just give up? Throw in the towel? Roll the dice and hope for the best? Maybe, just maybe, the problem contains the solution. This very moment, we’re seeing another way right before our eyes. Right now, we’re seeing organizations having to quickly adapt to new ways of working, engaging, operating, and improving in response to the COVID-19 virus.

Suddenly, our teams are all working remotely. That means having the right technology, the right training, the right processes, the right access, and the right habits to keep operating in challenging conditions. Suddenly, we need to engage with staff and constituents in a world where “how we’ve always done it” is simply not possible without adaptation.

No one asked for the current situation. No one formed a steering committee to decide if we should make these changes. No one brought in a consultant to develop a plan to transform. Instead, we all had to adapt how we live and work very quickly.

Some people are going to adapt better than others. Some organizations are going to be more prepared than others. But no one can doubt that digital adaptation is exactly what is happening right now. And, right now, adaptation is more important than transformation.

The ability to adapt quickly out of necessity become advantageous to people and organizations. Change isn’t enough and transformation will take too long. Instead, we are witnessing digital adaptation in real time. People are finding new ways to use existing technology and use brand new technologies. We have had hours and days to adapt—not months or years.

The donors still need to be engaged. The accounts still need to be reconciled. The students, faculty, staff, members, volunteers, activists, and supporters still need help. The planning still needs to happen, and the fundraising cannot stop. The mission doesn’t stop just because the world has come to a standstill.

The gala event this weekend just went virtual. The staff meeting took place as scheduled—just in pajamas and with kids in the background. The fundraising campaign just got more important. The program team just doubled down on communication efforts. The priorities just got a lot clearer. We skipped change, avoided transformation, and went straight to adaptation.

Change is hard. Transformation often seems impossible. But we are seeing digital adaptation quickly cut through the chaos to help people, organizations, and the important work that still needs to be done. We are all being pushed out of our comfort zones, but adaptation is helping us make it all more comfortable.

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