Fundraising in a crisis: Six ways to boost your income during the pandemic

As coronavirus threatens to cost the sector billions in lost income, Rebecca Cooney finds out how charities can bring money in despite the current restrictions

Captain Tom Moore: raised millions for NHS charities (Photograph: Emma Sohl – Capture the Light Photography via Getty Images)
Captain Tom Moore: raised millions for NHS charities (Photograph: Emma Sohl – Capture the Light Photography via Getty Images)

In just a few short months the impact of the coronavirus on charity fundraising has been catastrophic. Shops closed, events cancelled, face-to-face fundraising rendered impossible by restrictions to combat the pandemic and donors wavering as they consider their own financial futures. There are no easy fixes for this, no hitherto undiscovered income stream to replace the billions likely to be lost.

But when engaged in a fight for survival, as many charities are, every little helps. With that in mind, here are six ways charities can help to boost their fundraising during the coronavirus crisis.

Be prepared to adapt

The Second World War veteran Captain Tom Moore hit the headlines in April when he raised more than £30m for NHS Charities Together by completing 100 laps of his garden in the weeks leading up to his 100th birthday. And he’s not alone.

Jo Barnett, executive director of the online donation platform Virgin Money Giving, says many people have found ways to fundraise from home, and she’s been amazed by their creativity.

When the London Marathon, one of the biggest fundraising events of the year, was postponed, a number of people resolved to run laps around their gardens or row the equivalent of crossing the English Channel on rowing machines.

Some offered live yoga classes in return for donations, some organised online pub quizzes and others took part in “donate and nominate” events, such as running 5k or shaving their heads, making donations, then nominating friends on social media to do the same.

“As people got used to being at home, there was some real momentum behind it and we had some really strong fundraising days,” says Barnett. “Not as strong as we’d normally expect in the run-up to the London Marathon, but really good even so.”

The effort has largely been led by the public while charities were still busy dealing with the fallout of the crisis, but organisations are beginning to catch up. And although charities might be hesitant to ask for money from people who are worried about their own incomes, Barnett says, members of the public will find it easier to ask friends and family on the charity’s behalf.

She urges charities to share and amplify the creative fundraising campaigns people are running in the hope of inspiring other supporters.

St Clare Hospice in Essex is one charity that has been trying to harness the power of virtual events, including individual 5k runs and online business networking events, after it became clear the lockdown would leave the charity £190,000 out of pocket because of reduced fundraising capacity and the cost of additional equipment.

Rosie Knowles, director of income generation at the charity, says her main advice for virtual fundraising is to play to your strengths. This is inspired, she says, by Sweet Farm, a US animal sanctuary, which allows companies to include a llama in their Zoom meetings in return for donations.

“It’s difficult because charities are all so different, so think about the unique asset that makes people want to connect to you,” she says.

For the hospice, which is used to dealing with bereavement, one asset was its understanding of the importance of mental wellbeing, so the charity has created a series of print-out activities for supporters, aimed at promoting mindfulness.

Get social

“Charities need to be watching what’s going on social media because there will be people doing funky stuff already and then tagging them,” Barnett says. “If people are talking about you online, you want to be a part of that conversation.

“Even if you don’t have people who are brilliant at social media or where it’s part of their job, it’s worth spending some time getting to grips with it. If you’ve got staff working from home with teenagers, appeal to them for help.”

As well as using social media to promote your cause, find out who your cause is attracting and what people are already doing to support your charity, Barnett says. It can be a great way to thank people and have meaningful contact with donors.

Get talking

With a lot of people still stuck at home and unable to socialise, it’s perhaps not surprising that people are more willing to have a chat.

Purity, a telephone fundraising agency, saw a definite uptick in the response to telephone fundraising after the pandemic restrictions came into force in March.

Helen Mackenzie, the company’s chief executive, says the contact rate – the number of people who have a meaningful conversation with fundraisers – rose by about 13 per cent, from 5.5 conversations an hour to slightly more than six.

And not only were people picking up the phone more frequently and chatting, but when everyone was at home they were very positive about fundraisers’ efforts.

Mackenzie reports a marked increase in the number of people wanting to give. Crucially, this is not just to coronavirus or care-related causes, she says.

“People who are isolated at home feel a little bit powerless, and this seems to be giving people an outlet where they feel they can be doing something about the issues they care about,” Mackenzie says.

And it’s not all about the ask, she says: having a chat with supporters to give them a positive experience when they’re feeling isolated can lead to greater
support in the future.

Be honest with your supporters

St Clare’s Hospice debated whether to launch an emergency campaign.

“As a hospice, we don’t usually have emergency situations,” says Rosie Knowles. “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime situation and the whole world is going through this shared experience. We realised we had to be open and talk about that.”

Knowles says she was moved to tears by supporters’ responses, with financial and in-kind donations generating almost £100,000 in the first few weeks.

“We’ve been engaging with our supporters themselves, creating dialogues with them online or phoning them up,” she says. “But the main thing for me has just been listening to them.

“Everyone feels out of control at the moment because we’ve all had our lives massively changed. Being able to empower our supporters to do something really tangible has been incredible.”

As one supporter, who unexpectedly offered a five-figure donation, told Knowles, “this is the rainy day”. So, says Knowles, you should be open about how difficult the current situation is for everyone, including charities.

Don’t forget the visuals

Launching a new direct-response TV campaign might not be the first thought for many charities right now. But John Eversley, managing director of the consultancy WNPC, says this might be exactly the right time.

People confined to their homes are watching more TV than they normally would. But at the same time struggling businesses are pulling their adverts, causing prices to drop, which means, Eversley says, it might be possible to secure advertising slots for more competitive rates and be more impactful than usual. And although filming new footage might be impossible under lockdown, Eversley says, older content can easily be repurposed and voiceovers added to create an up-to-date advert.

Even if DRTV is still out of your reach, the same principle applies to videos shared on social media, with people spending more time online than usual.

“The right video can positively use the goodwill that’s out there at the moment,” Eversley says.

Prepare for the future

Over the course of a few weeks, the pandemic has changed almost every aspect of life. But don’t forget to plan for fundraising post-lockdown, says Barnett, particularly the demands on fundraisers’ time.

“Come summer, charities will have to get ready for autumn because so many events have been pushed back until then,” she warns. “Their fundraising and events teams are going to be run ragged.”

St Clare’s Hospice has also kept one eye on the future in its appeals to local businesses, which might be struggling right now, but could be in a better position to help in the future. The charity has introduced a “business pledge”, with companies promising a gift or a meeting or some other form of support in three to six months’ time.

“I think people really value talking about something they can look forward to,” Knowles says.

Ultimately, she says, fundraisers must ensure they’re ready to move from an urgent ask to one that emphasises supporting the charity in the long term. After all, things won’t be this way forever.

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