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One Household’s COVID-19 Donor Experience

Guest blog post by Katie Valvo, Sr. Account Director, Epsilon

These views are my own. Sharing an anecdotal case study of one household. For those interested in demographic profiles, my husband Matt and I are a 37-year-old couple living in rural, Western New York. We only have one child, a 12-year-old fur-baby named Rascal. Matt works in food manufacturing, and I work in support of the nonprofit fundraising industry. I’m usually the person in our household who manages our charitable giving. We give to 4-5 organizations, but in no way are we major or even mid-level donors.

I woke up this morning feeling incredibly blessed. I’m safe and healthy, with friends and family who are safe and healthy, and wanted to share that fortune with others who might not be as lucky. Matt, Rascal, and I have enough toilet paper, food, and clothes, so I decided to take $350 and divide it between 10 organizations whose missions I feel are essential at this moment. I expected to give and move on with my day, but it turned out to be a more interesting exercise.

As the nonprofit fundraising community works to determine our next steps during this time of uncertainty, I thought I’d share my experience in case it’s helpful to anyone else as you think through your organization’s approach to fundraising in the weeks and months to come.

1. Make sure you’re not confusing donor channel preference with the product of your existing engagement and solicitation strategies. As someone who came up in direct mail acquisition, the first place I looked to give was my pile of unsorted mail, but I hadn’t received any nonprofit direct mail solicitations. It was early in the day, so I hadn’t received any telemarketing calls either.

I ended up giving all of my donations online, but found myself wondering: do less traditional donors give through digital because it’s their preferred channel, because it’s the most convenient channel or because it’s the only collection plate in front of them?

Now may be a good time to consider how your organization can make channels like telemarketing and direct mail more convenient and efficient for less-traditional prospective donors. Also consider younger donors not able to donate. Are there other ways for them to support your organization? For example, giving blood. The Red Cross makes up 40% of the blood supply to hospitals and there is a critical shortage.

2. Your mission may be more connected to COVID-19 than you think, but don’t make prospective donors make that case for you. It is a scary, uncertain time but, upon reflection, that’s business as usual for far more people than it should be. Yes, circumstances are different now, but underserved communities and at-risk populations are likely more vulnerable now than before. You don’t need me to tell you about the environmental or humanitarian challenges the world faces or the dangers of poor local, national, global leadership. The need to support these causes hasn’t gone away. Make sure your messaging helps prospective donors to be certain of that continued, perhaps even heightened, need for their support.

3. Continue to promote your brand. New supporters are looking for you. I asked Matt which organizations he’d like to support in the face of COVID-19. His first thought was hunger relief, so he went to Google, typed in, ‘organizations that feed people,’ and decided to click on an article titled ’10 Organizations that Help Fight World Hunger.’ We immediately gave to two of the top -listed organizations, and then he added, “I’ve never heard of these guys before, but this is a cool idea…they give cows, pigs, and livestock to people, and then have people pass on the gift.” So we gave a third donation to Heifer International. Continue your brand marketing and engagement efforts during this time. Make a case for your mission and continue efforts to engage prospects who might be looking for new organizations to support.

4. Continue to engage your housefile. Your most loyal donors have likely already decided your mission is essential. The first organizations I gave to were the ones I already support. I believe medicine, the environment, human rights, animal welfare, and strong national leadership are as important now as ever and made sure to continue to support those causes. Make sure your current donors know you’re still here, still working, and that, while your mission might not be directly related to COVID-19, your efforts continue to be critical for many.

5. Review your online donor experience. First, I want to acknowledge the organizations that were incredibly easy to find and support online. I’m defining an “easy” experience as one where I searched an organization, they came up as number one or two in Google, I was able to click on their homepage or ‘donate’ link and only had to click one more time to get to a donation form. An ‘easy experience’ was one where I was able to donate successfully and immediately received an acknowledgment and receipt via e-mail. Of the 15 organizations I looked up, five met all these criteria. Acknowledging this is a challenging time for fundraisers, here are some opportunities I observed.

6. Review your SEO strategy and investment.  My process was to google organizations I feel have a need right now (medical organizations that support at-risk populations, hunger relief organizations, local and national animal relief organizations, presidential candidates, etc.). Some of you were hard to find. Search your organization online and make sure you’re familiar with how your brand shows up in different search engines. Look for other organizations as well for insights to inform new or revised SEO strategies for your organization.

7. Reevaluate donation form copy. I encountered some donation forms that were really copy heavy. If I’m coming back to visit your page, and clicking ‘donate now,’ I likely already know who you are and why your work is important and don’t need to scroll through multiple screens of copy to be convinced to give. Look at your forms and ask yourself, is all this copy necessary? Am I making my case for engagement as clear and concise as possible? Is there a better place to tell our broader story? In regard to online fundraising forms, remember, mobile giving makes up nearly 25% of online giving. It is critical that an organization’s forms are mobile-responsive.

8. Make sure online payment functionality is working. PayPal donation forms were down for three organizations I attempted to give to. As much as you’re able, double-check your online payment functionality to make sure it’s up and running during this critical time.

9. Explore alternative payment options. If you’re only able to accept donations via credit card, now might be a good time to explore other payment options – EFT, Google Pay, Apple Pay, PayPal, etc. I found I was more willing to jump through hoops for organizations with an obvious connection to current events, but for those with a more tangential need, I wanted to click on PayPal and not dig out my credit card.

10. Add a monthly giving lightbox. Only one of the organizations I searched had a monthly giving lightbox. The 2008 economic downturn showed us the importance of acquiring and converting monthly sustainers. Now’s a great time to get a test a lightbox on your donation forms to try to convert one-time donors to monthly. If a donor is about to submit a payment for a one-time, $35 gift, ask them if they’d instead prefer to give just $12 each month to support your mission with smaller, sustainable gifts that are more efficient for you both.

11. Let people know their donation is safe and will be put to good use by your organization. Only one of the organizations I searched had their Charity Navigator and BBB Wise accreditation logos front and center on their homepage and donation form. Consider doing the same. It is especially vital for new supporters who want to know their donation to your organization will be spent efficiently and effectively.

12. Continue to focus on e-mail deliverability. Only one organization’s e-mail acknowledgment came directly to my primary inbox. The others were lost in the sea of ‘promotional’ e-mails. As every business you’ve ever engaged with continues to e-mail you regarding their response to COVID-19, make sure to continue to evaluate your e-mails for deliverability. Last, remember if your fundraising ask is directly tied to COVID-19, make sure your acknowledgement copy is updated to align with that ask.

A silver lining of being forced from our daily routines is that we can use the opportunity to gain a new perspective on our business as usual. Use this time to get back to basics. Observe your fundraising programs with fresh eyes and consider making even small, incremental changes based on your observations. During times of rapid change, even the smallest modification could have a significant impact.

I encourage you all to do similar ‘research’ of your own over the coming weeks and hope you’ll share your findings. Ask your significant other, children, family, and friends how they feel about charitable giving right now, which organizations they’d like to support, and who’s asked them to give. If you’re able, give gifts of your own. At the least, it’s one additional way we can connect with and support one other.


Katie Valvo
Author: Katie Valvo

Katie Valvo is a Senior Account Director at Epsilon.

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