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How to Keep the Lights On at Your Nonprofit During a Global Crisis


By Meredith Kavanagh

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Thousands of nonprofits have responded to COVID-19 (coronavirus) and mobilized resources to aid in research and testing, provide medical supplies, deliver meals, support workers in financial distress, and more. But for nonprofits with missions that aren’t directly related to emergency response or relief, fundraising during a global pandemic can be tricky.

Many nonprofits are questioning how to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their operations, particularly how to send donation appeals and engage their communities while being respectful of the urgency and gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. We gathered the following tips to help guide you in this difficult time when so many nonprofit professionals are concerned with appearing tone-deaf or feel uncomfortable asking for money that supports anything other than coronavirus resources.

Use these tips to keep your nonprofit moving forward during the coronavirus pandemic or any other global crisis.

Acknowledge the Situation

The first communications you send out will be the hardest to write because there is no rulebook on how to approach these situations. If you haven’t sent anything out yet, it’s time to do so. This can be as simple or subtle as you deem appropriate for your mission, the severity of your financial situation, and your supporter base.

Be Vulnerable

Forty-six percent of consumers are likely to give during a crisis, and if your organization is negatively impacted by COVID-19, let your donors know. Be clear, transparent, and thoughtful in communicating how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted your ability to carry out your mission. If you’re struggling to keep your programs running or your staff properly supported, inform your community so they understand that their support is needed now more than ever.

Remember that your donors are invested in your mission, and thank them for their continued support to make your work possible.

Be Tactful in Your Ask

Whether you are sending an email to address COVID-19 and its impact on your organization, or updating your community through any other channels, you must be thoughtful in how you discuss the pandemic and request support. Take time to be creative and strategic in your messaging, but keep your mission front and center.

Follow these reminders while writing your updated webpage, campaign page, or email copy:

  • Maintain your mission. This pandemic is causing you to shift your campaign strategy and messaging, but your mission remains the same. Remind existing donors of why they support you.
  • Use a general call to action. Vary the language of your asks, especially if your nonprofit is not in a dire circumstance. Here are a few examples:
    • Thank you for your continued support.
    • Your support matters and keeps our mission moving forward.
    • Together, we can keep hope alive.
    • Our need for support remains.
  • Use storytelling best practices. Fundraising during a global crisis has its own set of challenges, but the main best practices are the same. Demonstrate the impact a donation will have, introduce your beneficiaries, use power words to incite action, and lead with your mission.
  • Be explicit in your needs. Tell your supporters if your organization needs dollars to keep your staff or purchase supplies to supplement your existing backstock. For example, if you’re a food kitchen and need rubber gloves and cleaning supplies as well as canned foods, make sure your supporters know. This is particularly important during a pandemic since many stores are sold out of cleaning supplies, water, or safety equipment.

Format Email Appeals Thoughtfully

Even if you’re crunched for time, you must distinguish this email from others. If you simply mention COVID-19 in passing and then ask for donations, this will appear as though your organization is taking advantage of this crisis to make an ask.

A few things to note when crafting emails:

  • Be sure your email format is adjusted to match the tone of your message. Consider using a different email header, greeting, or call-to-action (CTA) copy. Tailor your design along with your copy so that readers know that this is a thoughtful, purposeful email.
  • Inboxes are more crowded than ever as organizations continue to inform the public about what they’re doing about COVID-19, so take the extra time to write an engaging subject line and increase your odds of an open. Along the same lines, don’t be discouraged if your email open rate is lower than average right now, given the current influx of messages.
  • People may be stressed, overwhelmed, or scared during these uncertain times, so be thoughtful and gracious in your language, but also straightforward and easy to read. If they see five paragraphs of text, they may not make it to your CTA.

Update Your Homepage

Update your homepage with any specific messaging or blog posts about how your organization is impacted by the evolving coronavirus pandemic. If your nonprofit is in dire need of donations to keep your doors open, you can even consider installing a temporary homepage modal or screen that visitors hit as soon as they land on your website.

For example, Simply Smiles added this temporary screen to their homepage to make sure every person entering their website understood the urgency of their situation. Notice how they gave the option to continue to the homepage to learn more about their mission or click the donate button which goes to their campaign page.

simplysmiles.org COVID homepage message

They updated their campaign page with copy that not only explains why they need donors’ help, but lets supporters know they have the power to “keep hope alive.”

simply smiles COVID response

Maintaining an empowering message, no matter how dire the circumstances, will help everyone get through this pandemic. Show your community that your organization is a beacon of hope and impact during uncertain times. Be intentional with your word choices so that your readers understand the gravity of the situation, yet feel empowered that their donation will make a tangible difference on your mission.

Get Online and Offer Virtual Fundraising Options

Create an online fundraising campaign if you don’t already have one. Different campaign types can serve specific purposes, so learn about the main types before you spend time creating one.

A few takeaways for specific campaign types:

  • Peer-to-peer campaigns are always a powerful way to expand your reach, and fundraising during a crisis is no different. Lean on your most loyal supporters to act as team captains to enlist friends, share best practices, and keep fundraisers motivated. Leverage your network to help you get the word out.
  • Crowdfunding campaigns can act as a catch-all for any donations, and on Classy, you can create a crowdfunding campaign in 10 minutes.
  • Fundraising events are still an option, and many nonprofits are seeing great success turning in-person events into virtual events. Whether you need to pivot an existing event, or want to create a virtual event to bring your community together to fundraise, check out this post detailing best practices and tips on virtual events:

Classy’s director of training and enablement, Brad Chrisakis, spun up this video to share best practices for holding virtual fundraising events and campaigns. Having worked in the online fundraising industry for 10 years, Brad offers tips and examples that are applicable for anyone interested in turning their campaign virtual.

Adjust Existing Campaigns

Find a way to make your existing campaign relevant to the current events. This applies to fundraising events, peer-to-peer, or crowdfunding campaigns. For example, CoreGiving was in the midst of its annual March Madness Bracket Battle campaign when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.

“It was in the back of our minds that March Madness could get canceled altogether, but we, like the rest of the population, stayed hopeful,” says marketing coordinator Breanna Magnuson. “But with the cancellation of March Madness and in response to COVID-19 concerns, we immediately knew we had to shift gears from brackets to backpacks.”

Their annual campaign was originally designed to benefit food banks in the communities served by their parent organization, ShopCore, and the school closures only increased the urgency for their campaign to succeed.

“These school closings may affect over 80,000,000 children throughout the United States,” Breanna says. “One in 6 of those children does not know where their next meal is coming from. We knew it was incredibly important that we lead the effort to secure nutritious food in response to increased food insecurity.”

So the team decided to shift the structure of the campaign from engaging donors through a March Madness bracket, to directly asking for donations to provide food for children in need. The shift in messaging for their new campaign, Brackets to Backpacks, needed to happen fast. “Our marketing team had an all-hands-on-deck meeting to brainstorm new ideas, create a new logo and campaign, assess all materials that need to be edited, mock up a new layout for our Classy page, and send out communications to our employees, donors, and vendors within 24 hours.”

Within that timeframe, the ShopCore team that works on CoreGiving initiatives successfully updated their campaign and now have raised more than $350,000 to distribute to food banks and homeless shelters around the country.

coregiving campaign COVID

Offer Engagement Opportunities

In addition to donation appeals and campaigns, get creative and share engagement opportunities that supporters can participate in from the safety of their homes. Providing an option for those who can’t afford a monetary donation is a critical way to keep all supporters connected with your cause during a crisis.

For example, buildOn shares weekly ideas for “virtual service projects” that people can participate in individually. These volunteer ideas spread hope, engage supporters, and keep their nonprofit top of mind in connection to good deeds.

You can also shift existing volunteer projects to support the pandemic. Days for Girls has thousands of volunteers around the world who sew their hygiene kits, and the organization recently announced a supplementary initiative for their sewers to sew masks.

masks4millions campaign days for girls
Days for Girls email announcing their Masks4Millions campaign.

Days for Girls didn’t abandon their mission, but rather asked supporters to continue sewing hygiene kits, donate if possible, and make masks if they can. This is a creative example of how an organization with no direct tie to the coronavirus pandemic is empowering their supporters to take action with emergency support while still contributing to their mission.

Provide Resources for Supporters

As you ask for support from your community members, consider how you can give back to them.

Get creative with how you can offer supporters something of value while also keeping them engaged. For example, if your nonprofit provides healthy meals for children, share simple recipes that families can make together using ingredients most have in their pantry.

Check out the example below from LoveYourBrain. The organization provides support to those healing from brain injuries. They do this by building communities and fostering resilience through a variety of activities. They are offering meditation, yoga, and yoga training classes online so that their beneficiaries aren’t without support during an already difficult time.

They sent a straightforward email explaining how COVID-19 is impacting their programs, their planned actions, and how they will continue to support their constituents online.

loveyourbrain COVID response email

Whether you share inspirational quotes, recipes, or workouts, focus on a high-level need that everyone can relate to: spreading hope and positivity during this uncertain time.

Maintain Your Mission to Do Good

It’s hard to ask for support when the world is focused on responding to one universal crisis, but moments of crises are when nonprofits shine. You are used to working under pressure, in extreme situations, and with high stakes. The strength and resilience of nonprofit professionals are what makes this industry so inspirational, and right now you need to continue on your mission to have a positive impact on the world.

Stay true to your “why,” be open with your supporters, and continue to work towards your mission. The world needs you now more than ever.

If your nonprofit is looking for more inspiration and tangible tips on how to move forward during this pandemic, view the recordings from our first-ever online conference, the Collaborative: Virtual Sessions. The four-day online experience took the place of our annual conference in Boston, and in light of the current crisis, Collaborative: Virtual Sessions was completely free for attendees, to encourage wide participation during such critical times.

Access the recordings today to to walk away with the insights, ideas, and motivation after viewing your choice of 54 sessions covering fundraising and marketing, organizational priorities and finances, current technology, leadership in times of crisis, and resilience. Each topic has been carefully curated to help nonprofits navigate the current operating environment.

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