5 Clever Marketing Strategies that Helped Nonprofits Flourish During the Pandemic

With in-person fundraising events a complete no-go, savvy marketing has become even more necessary.

Nonprofit work
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Before the pandemic, nonprofits often relied on in-person fundraising events to generate publicity and donations. Participants would typically attend a gala, marathon, clean-up or party in the area they lived. After working or socializing for a few hours, they might hear a speech about the importance of the cause and a prompt from the nonprofit's director to donate what they could. COVID-19 turned that model on its head.

For the past year and a half, nonprofits, like all businesses, have been forced to adapt. With in-person fundraising events a complete no-go, savvy marketing has become even more necessary. By leaning into the new limitations and leveraging technology, some nonprofits have managed to thrive.

1. Challenge-Based Fundraisers

Stop Soldier Suicide is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the mental health of war veterans. Before the pandemic, the organization relied mainly on in-person fundraising events. Knowing that veterans were dealing with the stress of isolation during COVID-19, Stop Soldier Suicide partnered with social fundraising solution GoodUnited (a client of ours) to move fundraising online.

Stop Soldier Suicide raised over $4.1 million in 2020 alone and now has over 500,000 followers on Facebook. To increase engagement, GoodUnited and Stop Soldier Suicide encouraged followers to join challenge-based fundraisers. Participants dared one another to complete a goal or task, like running 100 miles over the course of a month. Successful members were rewarded with donations to the Stop Soldier Suicide cause through Facebook fundraisers. The company also introduced Facebook groups for each state, where participants could connect and find the motivation to accomplish their goals.

When it comes to online fundraising, emails are often ignored. Focusing on virtual engagement allows donors to feel that they are part of a community. This sense of togetherness creates an added incentive to contribute financially and maintain ties with the organization. Facebook groups, challenges and messaging are all great ways to meet donors in a space where they are more likely to pay attention.

2. Make the Most of the Medium

The Surfrider Foundation, based in San Francisco, is committed to preserving the oceans and coastlines of the region. Before the pandemic, they got the word out by organizing beach clean-ups. Though fewer people were visiting the beach during COVID-19, they knew that ocean pollution was still a pressing problem. Rather than wait for quarantine to end, the Surfrider Foundation decided to take advantage of the fact that there were more people at home "surfing" the web. They teamed up with a client of ours, the mission-driven marketing agency Media Cause, to produce a video PSA educating smokers on how to responsibly dispose of cigarette butts. They even created a virtual "Buttcan Map" to let people locate the nearest buttcan to recycle their cigarettes.

Their success shows that it's important to meet donors where they are — which in this case was the internet. The Surfrider Foundation's ability to pivot and adopt a new strategy was essential to their outcome. They demonstrated that investing money in creating a high-quality digital product, like a video, is not limited to the domain of for-profit organizations.

3. Address the New Reality

50can's goal is to make education more equitable by encouraging leaders to implement more effective education policy. During the pandemic, most children and schools were affected by the move to learning remotely. 50can responded to the pandemic by creating a weekly newsletter called "The New Reality Roundup," which focused on how schools were adapting to changes. Writers interviewed the heads of school districts where the transition to remote learning had been successful. Their goal was to highlight the creative solutions that educators had discovered and continue to encourage better education policy.

Focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on a field that they knew inside and out allowed 50can to stay top of mind during uncertain times. Additionally, by creating their own newsletter, they were able to establish themselves as experts and forge a deeper connection with readers.

4. Become a Source of COVID-19 Information

Many companies insisted that nothing would change during the pandemic, but CreakyJoints, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of those suffering from arthritis, took the opposite approach. Again with the help of Media Cause, they revamped their website to become a source of information on the health effects of COVID-19. Visitors to their site are immediately greeted with scientific studies detailing the impact of COVID-19 on chronic conditions like arthritis. CreakyJoints even changed their landing page header to "CreakyJoints - Social Distancing" to emphasize how fundamentally they had pivoted to address the issue. Their move to teach and inform, based on their existing expertise in the health space, successfully positioned CreakyJoints as authorities in their field.

5. Run Remotely with a Virtual 5k

To Write Love on Her Arms is dedicated to ending depression, self-injury, addiction and suicide. The organization held an annual 5K in Satellite Beach, Florida, for seven years but decided against it in 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19. Instead, they chose to partner with marketing company Classy to bring their supporters a virtual run. Participants received a t-shirt and bib and were given the option of running any course they wanted as long as the total distance amounted to five kilometers. The event was such a success that To Write Love on Her Arms plans to continue it in the future.

The organization's ability to pivot by creating a new experience helped them retain their donor base. The rarity of these experiences can make a strong impression on donors and make them more loyal to the nonprofit in the long run.

Embracing technology and addressing the pandemic, rather than staying stagnant, has been key for nonprofit marketing during these uncertain times. The sense of community that donors gain by participating in social causes, even remotely, proves the adage that giving is its own reward. As quarantine comes to an end, reliance on digital marketing for nonprofits is likely to remain a successful strategy.

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