5 Strategies to Help Charities Weather the Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a toll on both people and industries, it has hit nonprofits particularly hard. Nearly a third of charities across the globe have folded, and many others are making do with scarce resources at a time when their importance is only going to grow. How can charities survive and continue to deliver during a crisis that is proving worse, for many, than the 2007-2009 recession?

American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, has not been immune to the losses experienced by charities around the world. We have, however, deployed new strategies and accelerated several already in development, which have allowed us to continue to deliver on our critical, life-saving mission. Looking at our experience over the past 10 months — and the experiences of our non-profit sector peers and corporate partners — we’ve identified five key levers to keep nonprofits like us aloft in these difficult times. Here’s what we’ve learned:

1. Iterate on brick and mortar retail giving. Every year around the holidays, many charities rely on retail partners for their point-of-sale support to help reach fundraising goals. But with a shopping season that was unlike anything we’ve seen before — where sparse crowds were a necessary, but economically devastating — new approaches were required to draw in supporters. For many, that meant extending the length of campaigns and meeting consumers where there are now: online. For some charities in partnership with companies, it may have also included providing informational package inserts to be shipped with online purchases, creating QR codes for making seamless donations at at curbside pickup locations, or electronically providing a charity’s impact statement during an online transaction.

2. Rebalance corporate social responsibility (CSR) partnerships. It’s not unusual for the private sector to double down on CSR efforts to provide relief in the wake of tragedies, as many companies started doing last year. But this short-term surge accelerates an already-growing trend towards greater CSR spending, driven by higher consumer standards and greater spending on brands that commit to a larger purpose. Customers and employees increasingly care about what companies believe in and reward companies that have strong partnerships with charities and causes they care about. This dynamic is shifting the relationship between a charity and its corporate partner; today corporations need charities in order to fulfill the greater purpose consumers expect of them.

This creates an incredible opportunity for charities to move beyond transactional CSR in favor of a more symbiotic partnership. For example, working with corporate partners, charities can drive deeper engagement through co-branded marketing assets, enhance employee relations, or even integrate storytelling on their partner’s website and social channels.

3. Reach and engage with Gen Z. Cultivation of young donors — especially teens — at scale has proven challenging for many charities, especially those without a strong social media presence, updated website, or app. But if charitable efforts in response to the pandemic by this demographic are any indication — gamers raising money for relief, teens across the country making and donating masks to frontline workers — charities can and should be finding authentic ways into Gen Z lives, establishing ties with influencers and content creators across gaming and music for example, or hosting livestream fundraisers on platforms they use. In our case, at a time when we have diminished revenue around in-person fitness events, gamers and other content creators who fundraise for us have helped make up some of the loss, including most recently a record-breaking livestream during which the YouTube stars “The Game Theorists” raised over $3 million in 24 hours.

But it’s important to understand that not every Gen Z effort has a revenue-based ROI. For example, a digital event with a popular host may not match traditional in-person gala yields, but simply the exposure among tomorrow’s donors, especially a new international audience and their core celebrities and influencers, is worth the investment.

4. Expedite digital innovation. Accelerated by social distancing, this year saw a surge of interest among the private sector in deploying quick response (QR), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies. This once clunky technology has improved and now upgraded QR, AR, and VR have become essential ways for nonprofits to drive engagement and donations through multiple platforms. For example, with our partner Domino’s we’ve utilized AR on pizza box tops and have already seen an 80% increase in donations year-over-year. Other products that charities have successfully explored this year include donor button tech (a.k.a. “donation stickers”) on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, which helps spread community-driven fundraisers in the same way Facebook has.

5. Have faith in the unrelenting pursuit of compassion and humanity. With social distancing it’s harder than ever to provide mission touchpoints. Gone are the hundreds of in-person events across the globe where St. Jude patient families and supporters gather, including the increasingly popular tours the hospital and campus where visitors can see first-hand the impact of our work. But there are other ways to constantly remind partners, donors, and even employees of the why at every turn. On our all-staff video calls, patients dial in to share updates; racers in our virtual marathon (which still raised $7.5 million at current tally) received patient videos of encouragement; supporters gathered virtually with patient families for family trivia nights and virtual hospital tours; new digital storytelling tools, including social and email campaigns, put front and center patient and family stories of hope and strength. A single moment to share a story that connects to the why should not be underestimated as an opportunity that can have impact and reach. The aggregate of these efforts achieve scale.

Charities serve others, and often at scale. But they do more than just deliver on their noble and needed missions. In the U.S., non-profits represent the third largest workforce (tied with manufacturing), and was growing pre-pandemic. That’s why employing tactics like the ones above are important for many companies—those charities serve directly, their corporate partners, and their own employees. It also drives home our final lesson: There is no way to survive alone.

The above snapshot of strategies is not exhaustive and may not be fully feasible for every charity. As a legacy institution, we know we are in a unique position to test and learn, but we hope these ideas might trigger inspiration and help achieve some buoyancy for other charities during these uncertain months and years ahead. There is much work to be done; there are many people to serve and causes to help. By deploying the above tactics, charities like ours have staved off some revenue loss and are going into 2021 with optimism thanks to recent wins.

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