Con­tra­dic­to­ry signs: as the coro­na-cri­sis con­tin­ues, what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing in fundraising?

If most char­i­ties expect to do so bad­ly dur­ing this pan­dem­ic, how come some are now doing much bet­ter than ever?

Written by
Ken Burnett
November 12, 2020

No doubt, we live in strange times. 

Since first we heard those dreaded words – coronavirus pandemic – way back in January 2020, predictions of its negative impact on charity fundraising have persistently been dire indeed. Rather than subsiding, they’ve spiralled. There’s good reason to be concerned ­– an unparalleled financial downturn is expected. So news of the pandemic was met by mass furloughs and redundancies and savage cuts to services from charities convinced the sky was about to fall in. Always starved for investment, the prospects for continued spending on fundraising essentials such as donor acquisition and supporter relationship development seemed set to disappear down the toilet. From the off it’s been presumed that the future outlook for fundraising is dismal. 

The news is mixed in Civil Society’s daily digest for 29th October 2020 and on most other days too.

In response to a perceived dearth of donor funds many if not most charities cut their fundraising, furloughed their fundraisers, fired their consultants and stopped spending on all but essential communication. And even stopped some of the latter.

‘Our wealthy donors will also be struggling. We don't want to be seen to be 'capitalising' on the situation. We don't do front line work so we can't make a good case – people will give elsewhere.’

The position of the board and senior management team, as reported by a fundraiser. 

‘We have already asked our supporters to give to our emergency appeal so we shouldn't be asking them to do anything else.’

What the communications team in a charity believes.

Both of the above are direct quotes from a recent article by Ian MacQuillin, director of the Rogare think tank.

Yet a few months in, back in the early weeks of May 2020, SOFII was able to report that despite the looming gloom some fundraisers were reporting a boom. We cited 26 organisations from around the world whose results from individual donors were exceptional, even their best ever. The common factor for all was that they’d kept asking, though for most of these exceptions to the rule, the key to their approach seemed to be that, rather than treating donors as cash machines, they’d all been focusing on delivering a great supporter experience. 

Six months later, this update is also a long article. But, again, that’s only because we’ve got such great results to share. It all seems to chime neatly with what Giles Pegram CBE and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIoF)’s supporter experience special interest group are exhorting for all UK fundraisers, here.

There’s no doubt the impact of Covid-19 on charities has been massive and sustained. Specifically for fundraising there’s been huge reductions in the potential for organised events, street and doorstep fundraising has all but ceased (though they too have learned to adapt creatively), charity shops have been closed, corporate fundraising, major donors and even trusts and foundations are frequently predicting decline. 

Paradoxically the cancelling of mass participation events has led to a surge in fundraiser creativity and ingenuity for events online. I’ve seen this first hand as I was privileged to be a judge for the 2020 Charity Virtual Awards (hat-tip to Fundraising Everywhere). It’s hugely to the credit of our sector that such creativity and innovation are so much part of our sector’s DNA.

Yet there are signs that things are getting worse, not better. Recent research reported on the BBC at the end of October indicated that 80 per cent of charities feel they need to cut back. Overall, the BBC reports, the sector is facing a financial black hole of £10 billion while demand has increased massively. The Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI) estimates that 30 per cent of small charities fear closure in 2021. The coming year will be a challenge, no doubt.

Yet, again paradoxically, many charities are reporting their best results ever for donations from individuals. The Charities Aid Foundation has just reported that in the first half of 2020 UK charities received £5.4 billion in donations, £800,000 more than their previous best year.

So, confusion abounds. And as we reported in May, some charities have still managed to detect opportunities among the declines.

‘There’s nothing like a crisis for bringing people together.’

James Culling, director of fundraising and engagement at the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership (AUK and BLF), very quickly learned this one huge lesson from the pandemic crisis. Early in 2020, just a few short weeks before the crisis hit, the two medium-sized health charities had barely started to implement their planned merger. James is in no doubt the pandemic helped them achieve integration much more quickly than otherwise they would have done. 

‘We just had to get on with it’

From the first realisation of the nature and likely impact of Covid-19, public concern about lung function and breathing issues came dramatically to the fore. Unsurprisingly, the organisation experienced a huge surge in demand for their services. Helplines, websites and information services all were faced with massively increased requests from worried beneficiaries and other interested and anxious people. The tide has subsided a bit since, but it’s still high. Though it seemed inevitable early on that many of their fundraising activities would be hit, the new charity had no thought of putting fundraisers on furlough at that time. Instead they moved their fundraisers over to the front-line service functions, encouraging them to pick up the phone to directly answer and help the flood of established and new enquirers. Any of the tensions that might normally exist between fundraisers and services personnel evaporated almost instantly as staff came together to meet the new rise in demand for help.

It’s worth pausing here. Faced with a major health crisis, surging demand for its services and a backdrop of an estimated 25 per cent loss of income over the financial year, a recently-merged new charity could be forgiven for being cautious, for keeping its head and its costs down in the hope that the crisis would soon go away. But the organisation didn’t. Instead they resolved to meet the huge rise in demand head on. They soon saw this as an opportunity and turned seeming adversity to substantial advantage with a bold supporter and beneficiary-focused response that kept their cause on the frontline. Their strategy paid off, big time.

As with other health-related causes, it’s among its beneficiaries that the charity will find most of its supporters. Unsurprisingly, there’s unmistakeable self-interest among their donors. And never more than now, faced with a rampant pandemic from a respiratory disease that disrupts its victims’ ability to breathe properly.  As potential new beneficiaries, their friends and families thronged their phone-lines and inboxes the organisation was suddenly acquiring more potential new donors than ever before, at almost no cost. James and his colleagues quickly realised that here was an unprecedented opportunity to inspire new supporters at low cost and to cement relationships with existing supporters by delivering a consistent, practical, even priceless supporter experience. Sign-ups to their weekly e-newsletter were going through the roof. So, with daily-increasing demand for information on the pandemic’s effects the charity quickly moved its e-newspaper to a daily delivery. The fundraising and services teams – working harmoniously together – were feverishly putting out great content re health and well-being using email, blogs, webinars… every possible channel of communication at their disposal.

In just seven or eight weeks more than 150,000 people signed up to the daily email service – a lot of prospective new donors to capture, with fantastic teamwork as the services staff created the content and their fundraising colleagues pushed it out and made sure it got through. Spontaneous donations to both components of the newly merged organisations mushroomed, especially online giving which grew from around £15,000 monthly to £80-90,000 monthly at its peak. That tailed off after a while but is still high.

James is keen to stress that this influx of donations and new supporters was not fundraising led, it was service-delivery led. ‘We weren’t really pushing fundraising as the main focus,’ James said. ‘With the softest of asks built into the health information we were giving out, we were giving our service users what they wanted, and of course they responded to us, big time. The opportunity to give was always there, but if we’d asked even slightly aggressively, I believe we wouldn’t have raised nearly as much. Our focus throughout was on helpfulness. We are here for you. Our beneficiaries like that and respond appropriately.’

An 800 per cent increase in calls to the AUK and BLF helpline nurses has reassured everyone that this approach is right. Not all were people who had coronavirus, far from it. ‘We also hear from the worried well,’ says James, ‘and they have lots of questions too. Many of them will become donors happily, so wrapping our fundraising around good health content makes sense for us.’

It’s not just acquisition. The organisation’s regular appeals are also doing well. Again, says James, ‘If we’d gone straight to established donors with an emergency ask, I’m sure we’d have done a lot less well.’

The charity still faces real and significant challenges in its income generation this year but with this approach the charity has spectacular potential, as 10-12 million people in the UK are living with lung conditions.  It’s an inspirational example of the benefits of giving donors what they want.

When money’s in short supply

Furloughed fundraisers of course were denied the chance to help their charities in this way. Perhaps that was a pity. When money looks like it might be in short supply, cutting all unnecessary costs seems essential, but keeping in place the people who raise the money (fund raisers, geddit?) seems a no brainer. Yet in many organisations charity fundraisers were among the first to be furloughed, and in large numbers too. I’m not saying that was inevitably, with hindsight, a foolish decision. But for many it might have been. Because for many charities, fundraising from individual donors has been going through the roof, not the floor. And this seems set to continue.

In this series SOFII documents a quite extraordinary catalogue of fundraising successes directly in the teeth of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic (Okay, I know that waves don’t have teeth. But you get my point). 

Seattle-based fundraising guru Jeff Brooks said back in May, ‘I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve never seen fundraising results like we are seeing now’.  

He means, they’re so, so good. 

So, are such results continuing? And if they are, are we right to conclude that many charities that reacted to the first news of the government’s furlough scheme almost certainly acted very considerably prematurely?

In his ‘Queer ideas’ blog Bluefrog Fundraising founder Mark Phillips asks, what do donors think about giving now we are seven months into the pandemic? It’s a great question and you should see for yourself the video Mark and his colleagues have produced to give us the answers. The conclusion that struck me was that the word they use to describe how many donors are feeling now is – despondent.

  • Things are changing fast.
  • There’s evidence of increasing uncertainty and insecurity.
  • People are despondent.
  • Donors feel they have to take responsibility themselves for what’s best for their families and their futures. 
  • Donors don’t want to stop giving.
  • The government can’t be trusted (this may be a UK thing. Well UK and one or two others, perhaps).

Add this to the observation that some people, particularly affluent older donors, are better off now than ever, charities shouldn’t feel reluctant to ask. Bluefrog’s research is insightful and helpful, and while it postulates a new hierarchy of giving, it’s far from concluding that charities should be hesitating at this time. 

Paradoxically (I’m using that word a lot), the latest Charity Financials Banking Spotlight report, sponsored by Barclays, finds that total current asset cash for the top 5,000 charities has now reached an all-time high of £17.9bn, having grown from £14.7bn since 2014/15. This would seem to suggest that funds for investing in fundraising are not in short supply. If only charity trustees and senior management teams had a better grasp of when to invest in fundraising, where and how…?

At last, finally, multiple sources are now beginning to point to continuing extraordinary fundraising successes. The list that follows is of course not exhaustive, in no way comprehensive. It’s also selective – there will have been fundraising failures during the same period, no doubt. But this round-up does indicate that fundraising triumphs are far from exceptional even at this undeniably challenging time, if you do it right. That last bit can’t be overstressed, so I’ve put in bold and in italics. Fundraising, generally, works well if you do it right. It’s doing it right that’s the key, that is so often overlooked.

The Agitator, led by the inimitable Roger Craver, reported on this earlier than most.

Quoting the US Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP), The Agitator reports a heart-warming 7.5 per cent surge in giving over 2019 and a depressing continuing decline in donor retention. No wonder some people are banging on about the supporter experience. But as Third Sector indicates, the mechanics of giving may be changing too.

‘The number of people giving via a website or app increased significantly over the same period (from 13 to 24 per cent), while cash donations, normally the most popular way of giving, dropped off substantially between March (34 per cent) and April (13 per cent).’

So what are the enduring lessons from all this? I see seven:

1. Stay calm, think positively

For the foreseeable future and probably beyond, crises, sadly, seem likely to loom large in all our lives. We all have to get used to this. So, unless you’re already teetering on the edge of survival the arrival of a crisis is not a time for knee-jerk, precipitate reactions – we don’t gain anything by hand-wringing and jumping to early conclusions based on assumptions and hearsay. If you have the resources, at the very least you should deploy some of them in timely, prudent fashion to allow you and your advisers time to take stock. Reserves are held by charities for just such a time as this. For a rainy day. It doesn’t take much to spot that right now, for the voluntary sector worldwide, it’s raining, hard. But not all is bad, far from it.

2. Communicate, keep in positive contact with your donors

This is an absolute must, through thick and thin. If you’re not in contact with your best friends at this time, dozens of others will be. But more than that, you’ll be denying your donors the chance to help. Be prepared, inspirational, quick and sincere. Tell the truth and tell it well. Build relationships, tell great stories, don’t just keep asking for money.

3. Give, so you’ll get

Let your supporters know you care. Ask them how they are. Offer help, a holiday from giving. Above all give them brilliant feedback and superb reporting on what their donations achieve. That’s the 5Fs – fundraisers should be Famous for Frequent, Fast, Fabulous Feedback. Next crisis-time it’ll pay fundraisers big time if they’ve long ago committed to this. It’ll be better for you, your organisation and your cause.

4. Invest boldly 

Perhaps a crisis is also the time for investment and bold decision-making. Almost certainly it will be, though so few leaderships are equipped to recognise and act on this. All fundraising is vulnerable to the unexpected, of course. So charities need a mixed portfolio of effective fundraising methods. But there’s clear evidence now that, for stability and certainty during a crisis, any charity will be more robust and durable if its core fundraising activities revolve around an appropriately-sized supporter base of real, committed individual donors. What ‘appropriate’ looks like will be different for different organisations, but it isn’t hard to calculate.

5. Be creative, develop the new

This crisis should be catalytic, a time for exploration and great invention. Which of course calls for investment and boldness as well as an innovative spirit grounded in superlative ability. So, fundraisers are ideally suited for this. Great, isn’t it?

6. Ask properly

Do ask. But be sure you are asking the right people in the right way at the right time. First, show you care. Then inspire. Then ask sensitively and politely.  And thank warmly, natch.

7. Join your local supporter experience group

Or start one in your area if there’s not one already. That last point from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project that the Agitator quoted is perhaps the enduring danger on the fundraising horizon. Donor retention is still lousy. Yet there’s clear evidence chronicled in detail in all parts of this special series – it’s individual donors that can be depended upon to carry non-profit charities through this and any future pandemics – provided of course that they’ve had a rich, rewarding experience while supporting your cause.

Surely this can’t be too complicated or difficult a message to get across, to prevent future false economies and failures when the next crisis looms?   

I wish I were more confident that such lessons can be learned. Hopefully the following snippets of real results will help you to make the points that will convince.

More great fundraising results, from all over

With thanks to SOFII friends and supporters everywhere for sharing their results here. Particular appreciation to Mark Phillips, James Waring and all at Bluefrog Fundraising, Sean Triner, Christiana Stergiou, Sarah Lawson and all at Moceanic, all at National Youth Orchestra, Jess Winchester and colleagues at Forest & Bird in New Zealand, Dominique Leeming and colleagues at SPCA New Zealand and to SOFII trustees Craig Linton and Richard Turner. Plus special thanks to all fundraisers and their organisations who have shared their results so generously with us.

In our May articles we celebrated the splendidly instructive successes of New Zealand’s leading environmental agency, Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand Inc., affectionately known as Forest & Bird, and SPCA, the Kiwi Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. First, Jess Winchester, Forest & Bird’s group manager fundraising and membership, updates us on how 2020 has shaped up since. 

‘Our income has increased overall by nine per cent against the same period in 2019.’  

‘In a time of such uncertainty, as soon as we knew lockdown was coming, my team was fortunate to have the backing of our chief executive who supported us to drop everything and work on a crisis appeal.  This campaign broke every record for Forest & Bird, unlocking fundraising potential we never knew we had and uniting donors, volunteers, colleagues and board members in a mission to ensure nature in New Zealand would always be protected. Having raised over NZ$320k and reactivated more than 500 long lapsed donors, we inspired our board to lead their own peer-to-peer appeal leveraging an additional NZ$430k from Forest & Bird volunteer branches. The overwhelming response from so many incredible supporters coupled with our inability to reach them by mail to thank and receipt their gifts resulted in the speedy creation of an automated digital receipting process which has made us more efficient and helped us deliver even better service to the donors who believe in us.    
‘Every income stream has increased this year. Corporate income is up six per cent on the same time in 2019. Regular giving is up 12 per cent though with our face to face teams we’re still seeing a higher rate of gift cancellations and a lower number of sign ups than we’d budgeted for this year. So for 2021/22 we’re projecting a significant deficit. To compensate we are investing more in telephone fundraising and digital with a reactivation campaign to try and bring back lapsed or cancelled regular donors. Donations from major donors have increased by three per cent this year but for many donors this was dependent on investment performance this last financial year. Donors tell us they’ve been significantly impacted in 2020 and although our largest donor has confirmed they’ll give at the same level in 2021 they have told us it will be a struggle. 
‘We’ve been incredibly lucky in New Zealand with the way the pandemic has been managed so far and our hearts go out to our fundraising family around the world who’ve not been so fortunate. On the face of it Forest & Bird has had a large amount of success during these challenging times and I believe this is because we continued to invest in fundraising, we kept having conversations with our donors, and we have tried in as many ways as we could to give back to our supporters. But we have to be in this for the long haul. The impact of this year won’t end on 31 December only – it’s going to get tougher. Because of Covid-19 we had to carry out a restructure and although the fundraising team were not directly affected by this, we still lost colleagues with combined experience of over 100 years.’

‘Overall our net fundraised income is definitely performing significantly better than expected.’

Back in May Dominique Leeming of New Zealand’s SPCA told us their donors have been amazing; continuing to show how deeply they care about the animals by supporting the work of SPCA at record levels. Here’s her update:

‘We’re fortunate to be able to use all donor recruitment channels so we’ve continued to invest in the growth of our regular and cash giving programmes using face-to-face, digital, tele-fundraising and direct mail. Recruitment is performing at pre-Covid-19 levels. We have only seen a slight increase in attrition at this stage but not to a concerning level, however, we will continue to monitor this very carefully and are looking to strengthen our donor care and retention activity. During lockdown, tele-fundraising performed well due to significantly higher contact rates while everyone was at home and keen to talk to someone on the phone. This has dropped away somewhat, which was to be expected.
‘Some fundraising activities are seeing significant fluctuations. Shortly after our lockdown we launched a peer-to-peer event, Jump to the Rescue, a sponsored tandem skydive that doubled income over last year’s event. Other events have not performed as well as last year, particularly our Cupcake Day fundraiser that is very reliant on participants selling cupcakes to colleagues at their place of work. Participation rates are likely to have been affected by more people working from home and possibly because this event involves food made in someone’s kitchen.
‘Overall our net fundraised income is definitely performing significantly better than expected. We have wonderful donors and live in a country where Covid-19 is being well managed by our government. The outlook still remains uncertain but our wonderful team at SPCA will continue to focus on donor interests and needs and to look after them well.’

The National Youth Orchestra (NYO), UK

Winners of the Institute of Fundraising’s award for the best supporter experience, NYO has only been recruiting donors in volume since 2017. Yet they’re very accomplished at it already, so much so that in 2020 they’ve had their best supporter recruitment results to date, recruiting more new donors than ever through the height of the pandemic and at significantly lower cost. Sarah Alexander OBE is CEO of NYO and thinks she knows why:

‘I believe it’s a combination of impeccable donor care, a donor base of mainly retired people who have not been financially affected by Covid and most importantly a compelling and real need to support teenage musicians and give them as many opportunities as we can during this difficult time.’

Sarah makes a hugely important point here. By far the biggest group of regular donors are retired or semi-retired and they’ve mostly not been hit financially by the pandemic, on the contrary, they’ve found it difficult to spend the income they have. And they want to help. Amazingly, it’s an observation that seems to have been overlooked by many charities.

SOFII trustee Richard Turner described a series of fundraising successes for our May feature and adds another suitably encouraging list now:

Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH)  

Retention was a worry but this year fewer supporters cancelled their regular gift and GOSH enjoyed their highest ever digital upgrade campaign.

‘We provided a mechanism for supporters to send messages directly to the hospital’s frontline staff, displayed within the hospital itself. The messages were deeply moving and very much appreciated by the staff.  In return many staff at the hospital filmed ‘thank you’ messages to be sent to our supporters.  
‘We implemented the programme in the last week of March as we could see cancellations rising in the previous weeks. Since then, month on month our attrition has been falling…20 per cent fewer supporters cancelled their regular gift in the period April to August than in the same period last year.'  

Jennie Sullivan, senior individual giving manager

Freedom from Torture 

Donor acquisition – with loose inserts in upmarket media one of the key approaches – gave the charity the fastest growth in new supporters that the charity has had in nearly a decade, for two consecutive quarters, plus big first-time donations too. 

Adjusting to the changed circumstance this year Freedom from Torture scrapped their planned emergency relief fund and launched their ‘Do what we can’ campaign, based on the new reality for refugees.

‘We felt that it would be wrong not to acknowledge the crisis to our supporters and wanted to be open with them – so we added a hand-written Coronavirus insert into the mailing from our CEO.  The note checked supporters were OK, was open that we were all feeling worried about how unpredictable things were but reassuring them that we would be stepping up our support - with a soft ask reflecting the extra need for funds this would cause.
·      It raised over £25,000 in the first day - about the same as the same digital campaign raised over 6 weeks the year before.
·      The direct mail and digital elements raised a net income of over £300,000.
·      Retention rates have improved in comparison to the same period in 2019.
·      We have seen the fastest growth in supporters that the charity has had in nearly a decade for two consecutive quarters.
·      We are nearly 25 per cent above our full year direct mail budget with our two appeals left to go including our ‘traditionally most successful’ Christmas appeal.
When Coronavirus hit we all felt incredibly helpless. Yet one of the key drivers for charitable giving is the agency it gives donors to create positive change. Talking honestly to our supporters and potential supporters about our challenges and giving them concrete opportunities to play a part in overcoming them has helped us to bring them closer to the charity’. 

Sam Afhim, director of fundraising and communications, Freedom from Torture

The Royal Air Force Association (RAFA)

Their bicycle event was about to be cancelled but a supporter-led virtual event went on to raise £76k, more than the original planned event. RAFA took a risk, but now have an event they can run again next year.

‘Powered, guided and lead by a volunteer, we have been able to create an event, RAFA Rides, that far out-did any other challenge activity and excelled as a virtual event. It was an incredible experience and we are now looking forward to 2021 – whatever situation we face’. 

Amy Petterson, head of community fundraising, Royal Air Force Association


Following positive response to a really useful survey at the start of the year April, June and September appeals to existing supporters consistently hit and exceeded targets. 

‘The survey showed that there were three fundamental connection points - dealing with the fear when children come to hospital, the stress when children come to hospital, and providing support, connection and respite to families.
‘Our urgent appeal in April exceeded expectations with far higher income. This response focused our minds on how we make people feel after they give.
‘This turned us towards the direct connection between the donors and the beneficiaries, hearing their thanks for themselves and seeing the difference that they are making…The repeat giving has completely blown our minds.’ 

Rachel Doree, head of individual giving, Starlight

Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)

‘I’ve been creating content for RNLI for 16 years but I’ve never known a year like this one.’ 

Rory Stamp, strategic content manager, RNLI

Rory and his boss Jayne George reported on their 2020 fundraising results for the IFCOnline conference in October. These highlights are taken from their presentation.

Britain’s iconic cause the RNLI has had declining income for the last five years. Last year Jayne, Rory and their colleagues at RNLI started turning this around – their Xmas appeal in 2019 was double the previous year. And then this year has been ‘something else’ 

‘We changed our attitudes, particularly our attitude to donors…content is essential when it comes to building and engaging relationships with donors. If you get your content right, your donors get a lot of benefits from your charity too.’ 

Jayne George, director of fundraising, marketing and media, RNLI

So RNLI made their donors part of their crew, telling them, ‘the thing that keeps us going is your support’. In this year of unprecedented challenge for everyone, RNLI came up with the brilliantly simple slogan, TO SAVE EVERY ONE.

‘We focussed on our donors’ needs and this brought average gifts like I’ve never seen in all my years, with response rates like the very early days of direct response fundraising. We outperformed every target we set. No doubt – donor-centricity works!’ 

Jayne George, director of fundraising, marketing and media, RNLI

The Royal Highland Agricultural Society for Scotland (RHASS)

Like so many great events the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh had to be cancelled this year – a huge blow, emotionally and economically. So RHASS turned to their friends asking them to give to save the Show – ‘not just for 2021, or for the 200th anniversary in 2022, but for the next 200 years of connection, friendship, and celebration.’ It’s a great proposition that clearly struck a chord with the Show’s enthusiasts.  One donor responded said:

‘Congratulations on the best appeal letter I have ever received. Well researched, great composition and above all compelling! ‘

Another family donated £125 for each of its 11 members!  The average gift (generous people these farmers and show-goers) was £200. An astounding response.


The Irish Charity, Trócaire, was faced with a huge problem when Covid-19 broke last Easter. Their Lent appeal, the biggest campaign of the year, needed a complete rethink. They’d already sent a home collection box to tens of thousands of Irish homes. National lockdown meant households couldn’t hand their box to the schools and churches who collect them on Trócaire’s behalf. It could have devastated their income. 

Then the fundraising team sprang into action.

  • They immediately rewrote all their communications to supporters and the Irish public.
  • They changed the media they used.
  • They reallocated their budget to help achieve the same objectives. 

Within days the campaign messaging was adapted advising supporters either to donate directly to Trócaire instead of handing in their box or hold onto their box for now. Next, they quickly switched their investment to other mediums, such as door drops, extra mailings, and lots of videos to share on social media. Instead of their planned door-to-door programme they switched to direct response television advertising. With changing behaviours by the population, forced by lockdown, they were finding mediums that didn’t usually perform were getting them phenomenal results.

As a result, they received €4.5 million in direct donations sent in for the Lent campaign – that’s double what they would usually receive.

Finally, they came up with innovative ways of obtaining the collecting boxes as the lockdown eased and, importantly, still enable supporters to be socially distant.

Some priests opened their homes to accept lent boxes, or even stood outside the post office. One even set up a drive-thru outside a church so people could drive up and hand back their box. Word was spread to congregations on social media or even via online mass. Trócaire made sure this was all supported with regional press and a radio campaign.

 ‘We’d built a lot of credibility up over recent years… we secured board investment to engage in all aspects of emotional storytelling… and in changing the way we work.’

Trócaire’s Gwen Dempsey, reflecting on how they managed to adapt their fundraising campaign so quickly.

The Week’s Good Cause

BBC Radio 4 in the UK has for decades run a short programme called The Week’s Good Cause, a three-minute national appeal highlighting the work of a charity and appealing for donations to support its activities. First broadcast on Sunday morning the appeal is repeated on Thursdays, so each charity gets six minutes of national airtime. There are 49 such appeals broadcast on Radio 4 each year, and in 2018/19 they raised £1,219,278 – an average per appeal of £24,833.  Totals for the 2020/21 cycle are still incomplete, but comparing appeals across the same three months – April to June 2019 with April to June 2020, the average appeal total was £14,061 in 2019 and £45,934 for the same period in 2020 – three months pre-pandemic compared to three months at the height of the pandemic.

Donations going through the floor? Or through the roof? That’s more than three times better during the pandemic than the year before. Wow! A tribute no doubt to good briefing from the BBC and terrific fundraising from those charged with the task, it shows that where a good fundraising story meets compassionate donors, magic happens. As James Waring from London-based specialist direct marketing agency Bluefrog Fundraising explains, it’s clear donors also have a huge part in this.

‘Donors have been heroic too. We’ve seen that warm results from established programmes have continued to exceed expectations throughout the summer. This trend has carried through to Autumn, even as the threats of local lockdowns and hospital admissions have increased.

James Waring, Bluefrog

Bluefrog’s research has shown that the charities who built a connection with their audience during the pandemic, updating them and including them in the story (and the fight), have been the most visible to, and valued by, donors. This coupled with offering a means to take control against the virus through giving, has seen appeal income grow – in some cases more than double against last year’s results. 

Bluefrog’s client Marie Curie produced both a summer appeal and newsletter. The response rate to the appeal has increased by 200 per cent against 2019 and net income is 2.5 times the target – amazing results given many of these donors gave generously in May to the first emergency mailings. 

Feedback is always crucial, but this year even more so given how much donors have committed to their favourite causes. The summer edition of their magazine By Our Side, giving updates on how, with the support of donors, Marie Curie has had to adapt to still deliver vital care during the pandemic, has also surpassed all targets. Net income is up by 50 per cent on 2019 with active donor response rates as high as 40 per cent - to a newsletter! 

‘We’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of our wonderful supporters throughout the pandemic. The response to our emergency appeal was phenomenal, as supporters rallied to help Marie Curie Nurses working on the frontline. Since then, their support and commitment to help people living with a terminal illness during this crisis has been unwavering, and we’ve been equally unwavering in our gratitude for all they continue to do’.

Pablo Gonzalez, head of direct giving, Marie Curie

Alzheimer’s Society also involved their donors in the efforts to combat the virus early on, launching an appeal during the first lockdown with a great response. The emergency appeal appears to have cemented relationships between those who truly value the services and the charity itself, as subsequent fundraising campaigns have also seen strong results. A follow up appeal in the summer, detailing how services continued to adapt and that donors were still vital, came in over target while the next campaign in early Autumn, funding research unrelated to Covid-19, but contextualised into this year’s unique circumstances, hit target within just four weeks. 

‘It’s been amazing to see how generous our supporters have been at such a challenging time for everyone. They’ve put people living with dementia at their heart and given to us so generously – the average gift to our emergency appeal was almost double what we usually see! And the subsequent success of the appeals that followed has been really encouraging and just goes to show that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your donors for their support, as long as you ask well’.

Becki Bednall, head of individual giving, Alzheimer’s Society

James neatly gets the last word in this roundup from Bluefrog. 

‘Many of our clients, and our team, have worked incredibly hard this year to make sure that appeals have still been produced and donors given the opportunity to show their support. It makes it all worthwhile when we have seen the millions of pounds that our joint efforts have raised. And all before Christmas!

The results? During one visit, a check for US$100,000, plus a pledge for US$400,000 more. And in a handwritten envelope, a check for US$1,000,000. Yes, US$1 million!

Following up on the string of successes they reported back in May, the Moceanic worldwide community of fundraisers can report yet more equally impressive recent results. 

Here they are, mostly in the fundraisers’ own words, without further embellishment from us:

Mary Callan – Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe – USA 

‘This year we’ve had incredible success with major donors who haven’t donated in a while. I made a point of reaching out to them in a MUCH more donor-centric way, communicating how we genuinely cared for and prayed for them through the pandemic.
‘I was finally able to arrange personal visits with two of them, and I set up the visits with them on their terms, on their turf, and serving their needs.
‘The results? In our hands during one visit, a check for US$100,000, accompanied by a pledge for US$400,000 more. And arriving from the other donor, quite unceremoniously in a handwritten envelope addressed directly to my attention, a check for US$1,000,000. Yes, US$1 million. Both of them were given as unrestricted gifts.
‘Had I shied away because of the pandemic, or had I not asked empathetically how we could accommodate what they desired during this tumultuous time, these visits would have been nonstarters.’

Rose Young – Baptist World Aid – Australia 

‘Our appeals program has been incredible this year. We ran a Covid-19 Emergency Appeal that achieved our best April result since 2015. And it was our biggest ‘disaster appeal’ since the Boxing Day 2004 Asian Tsunami appeal. 
‘Our End of Financial Year appeal has also broken records – it is our best ever tax appeal and beat last year’s results by seven per cent.
‘We also had success using webinars to ask high value donors to provide matching funds. In previous years we’ve had warm leads for this campaign but despite not having any leads this year jumping online helped us meet our target for this campaign and gave us a new way to connect to some of our key donors.
‘However our regular giving programme which relies upon face-2-face acquisition in churches is down, due to the closure of churches during the pandemic.’

Barbara Cecil – SOS Community Services – USA 

‘This year we’ve received the biggest ever donation to our annual fund - US$100,000! In addition, between April and October 2020, funds raised from direct mail appeals have more than doubled and online gifts have quadrupled.
‘Our fiscal year ends March 31st but we already have exceeded our annual fund goal, which was US$612,000. Since December is usually our biggest month, I project we will raise a record total of about US$800,000 by March.’

Judy Elliott – International China Concern – UK

‘2020 has been an exceptional year for fundraising for us. Our income from individuals has meant that to date we are on target for what was a 10 per cent stretch budget in 2021. 
‘Our appeals program has seen exceptional results. Our summer appeal has had results similar to those we normally only see at Christmas. Our best appeal this year (and ever in our history) along with the summer appeal raised £44,870 more than budget – 258% more than we expected. 
‘With all the bad news this year our individual donors have been a source of hope and joy for all of us – their generosity has surprised and inspired us all.’

Sheena Revington – Cranford Hospice – New Zealand 

‘Covid-19 threatened our income significantly. We were facing an income loss of around 50 per cent overnight with the closure of our retail stores, cancellation of events and challenges facing trust and grant funders. 
‘To make up the shortfall we ran a crisis appeal that included reaching out to our donor database and running an acquisition campaign. It included paid ads in print and radio and this activity was supported by PR in both of these media channels.
‘We hoped to raise NZ$30,000. We received 10 times this with NZ$312,000 coming in from the campaign. Half of this income came from current donors – they gave at five times their normal giving rates. We acquired 600 new donors, growing our database from 1,874 to 2,478. Our monthly giving file grew by 43 per cent from 48 to 69 and we acquired two new bequests. All of this, including the acquisition, came in at a staggering ROI of 156.’

In our May 7th article Fundraising successes at a time of catastrophe SOFII trustee Craig Linton was able to report startlingly good results from a range of medium to small UK-based charities who despite the crisis didn’t shirk from asking their donors to step up. Now he reports on two more:

Doctors of the World

With a mix of great appeals, personal feedback, lots of engaging ‘non-ask’ emails (send a message etc) and campaigns, Doctors of the World have more than doubled their income from individual donors this year and nearly quadrupled over the last four years. 

Leeds Cares  UK

Until 2020 Leeds Cares (linked to Leeds Hospitals) hadn’t done any new donor acquisition, nor had they ever used direct mail. This year both have produced considerable success, with a door-drop backed by social media delivering £70,000 at a very agreeable return on investment. Perhaps, you might think, a health charity might expect good results at this time, but as Craig points out, many charities still are simply not asking.

So what does this prove?

All this is merely the tip of a huge iceberg of successful, enthusiastic giving that proves two fundraising fundamentals:

  • At a time of crisis, turn to your committed donors.
  • The very best asset that any charity can have is a robust, growing, well-developed base of active individual donors.

Discover more about why the supporter experience matters so much in the time of coronavirus here.

If you have a great success story to share with us, please e-mail to spread the word.

About the author: Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is author of Relationship Fundraising and other books including The Zen of Fundraising, (Jossey-Bass Inc, San Francisco, USA). The Tiny Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board and Storytelling can change the world, both published by The White Lion Press, UK

In 2021, he wrote and published a book about campaigning fundraising, The essence of Campaigning Fundraising in 52 exhibits and 199 web links.

Ken co-founded SOFII with his late wife Marie and served as a trustee before retiring from the SOFII board in 2022.

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