How to fundraise during the COVID-19 pandemic

This post was written by Authentic’s CEO, Mike Nellis, and originally appeared as an editorial with Campaigns & Elections.

The coronavirus outbreak has impacted every facet of our society — and digital fundraising has been no different. With tens of millions of Americans suffering economic hardships related to the pandemic, or worse, the last thing any digital fundraiser wants to do is be tone-deaf asking for donations on the internet.

But many campaigns and organizations can’t survive without grassroots donations. So what’s a digital fundraiser to do?

I’m here to share my firm’s insights about how COVID-19 is impacting digital fundraising, how our clients have altered traditional tactics, and what to do if you must fundraise now.

If you can afford to, stop asking for money and use digital to serve your community.

About half of our clients have either slowed down fundraising requests or temporarily stopped raising outright. Instead, they are using their email lists and other digital assets to support their community. This is a good thing.

Many of those clients are focusing their email lists on raising money for charitable causes, thanks to our friends at ActBlue. This is a great way to do some good in your community and track how your supporters are engaging during this pandemic.

Those emails are performing extraordinarily well — in the top range of fundraising and beyond for most clients. In fact, our team has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from our clients to frontline organizations just in the last week or so!

If you have to keep fundraising, include compassionate messaging about coronavirus.

We do have a number of clients who, mostly through necessity, are continuing to fundraise. Of those clients, the ones performing the best are the programs working coronavirus messaging into their fundraising and organizing asks. That includes talking to supporters about the impact this pandemic is having on the campaign as well as giving them the opportunity to opt-out of messages for the next several weeks if they are suffering a financial or health hardship.

While we are seeing a reduction in overall fundraising in recent weeks, it’s less staggering than you would imagine. We are also coming off the impeachment wave, which was a period of very good fundraising for many of our progressive clients.

So, you can continue to fundraise if you need to, but I strongly recommend you do by leaning into the reality of this moment. The COVID-19 pandemic is too large of a moment to ignore, and the path forward for campaigns and organizations is to lean in and be honest with your supporters about how it’s impacting you and them.

On the ads front, we’re recommending campaigns be mindful of the moment. Thousands or even millions of people might see your digital ads while only a handful take action. That’s okay. Acknowledging the moment is important to preserve your credibility with voters at-large.

In our ad targeting, we’re mindful of the unemployment numbers and how they are disproportionately affecting low-wage workers. With campaigns that are still running fundraising asks, we’re focusing our efforts on those who are most likely to still be able to afford to contribute.

Digital fundraisers also need to be mindful to avoid alarmist rhetoric. The last thing any of us want to do is contribute to public anxiety during this pandemic. Ramp down a bit on the urgency, if you can, and stay away from flamboyant words like “emergency” as you recalibrate your messaging during this actual emergency.

In summary, our overall recommendations are:

1. If you can afford to, temporarily slow down or pause fundraising— and take serious consideration of how this pandemic is impacting your community.

2. If you continue fundraising, be mindful of your messaging and avoid any alarmist rhetoric or subject lines. It’s okay to talk about COVID-19, but we don’t want to do anything to contribute to the public’s anxiety.

3. Remember that every program is different. We have numbers and guidance that vary wildly from client to client. Our best advice for you is to over-communicate with stakeholders and lead with your values. Do no harm, as they say.