How charities can utilize emergency campaigns

Jun 12, 2023
Not for Profit Thought Leadership

This NFP Council blog post is based on a presentation that was given at AFP Congress in 2022, which was developed in partnership with Fai Hassan, Associate Director of Digital Fundraising at Public Outreach Canada. 

Emergency fundraising is typically used within organizations who respond to sudden onset emergencies. While international development organizations like The Canadian Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders have standard operating procedures to activate emergency campaigns and raise millions of dollars annually, many principles would also apply to locally based organizations. These principles go beyond fundraising to a more holistic approach which involves engaging with audiences to reinforce your brand, from awareness and advocacy to audience retention strategies – all supporting your organization’s mission.

Emergency fundraising campaigns generate net positive revenue at an exponentially higher ROI than regular campaigns. Activating on emergencies creates an opening to improve second-gift retention to recently acquired donors and value-max opportunities to core donor audiences, which in turn impacts revenue in the short-term as well as the long-term value of donors. It’s also a great way to acquire new donors that are revenue neutral or net positive. However, I would caution using emergencies as a main source of acquisition since emergency donors tend to have a much lower second-gift retention rate.

Canadians respond to a crisis with the motivation to help. They are generous and want to support response efforts, regardless of the impacted location. It is important to note that new donors do not have brand loyalty – they are giving because they see a need that they want to support. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a wealth of learnings for how Canadians give in emergencies beyond a sudden onset natural disaster. Recent observations from other organizations suggest they are more loyal than donors who give to sudden onset emergencies that happen elsewhere in the world.

There is no shortage of emergencies that organizations could activate on. Examples include:

    • A water advisory
    • A weather-related crisis that impacts the community you serve
    • A nursing shortage
    • A political shift
    • Food prices increasing
    • A spike in violence against the people you serve

While all these things are regularly happening at any given time, this blog is looking at how we can use market interest to propel our missions further and generate a positive ROI. So, where do you begin? How do you determine if activating is right for your organization?

Below are some steps you can take to develop an emergency program:

Assembling a team

It is critical to have a team that has a cross section across the organization at different levels. However, you need to balance having the right people in the room versus putting everyone in the room just for the sake of it. This is important from a time management and utilization perspective, as the intention is not to compete against existing activities. Meaningful collaboration is key. The team must be flexible and agile and trust needs to be maintained. Here are some tips to achieve success: 

  • Establish clear roles and responsibilities: It is vital to have clarity on who is doing what to keep everyone accountable and ensure things run smoothly. Who makes the decision to activate? Who decides the strategies and tactics used across teams? Who is responsible for centralized communication and updating staff and stakeholders on campaign progress? Who approves the budget and is responsible for reconciling? Remember to trust the subject matter experts, and make sure to outline who the backup is for staff coverage. 
  • Develop protocols: This includes outlining processes needed to activate and maintain an emergency campaign. What criteria is being used to decide to activate? How are staff informed of an emergency campaign? How will staff be updated if an emergency happens outside of office hours? People reviewing assets should be providing value, and turnaround should be quick to ensure speed to market. Have business continuity plans in case a critical issue arises, such as servers going down. 
  • Stock a tool kit: No two emergencies are the same, however some things can be created in advance such as having draft critical paths, pre-built checklists, or templates for email updates or social media posts. You can also pre-pull data lists that are refreshed monthly so you can send out communications to audiences quickly. You can also do mock drills to practice for emergencies and determine potential barriers.

Focusing on digital activation is where you have the best opportunity. You can activate quickly, adapt, and optimize as you see results, and scale quicker than more traditional fundraising channels.   

Know that you don’t have to go it alone. There are great agencies out there with experience supporting charities with emergency programs, including helping to develop the processes and tools you need to be ready. To take advantage of this, you must be in partnership before the emergency occurs so you can be in market quickly.

Deciding when to activate

Generally, an organization would have to be agile before launching a campaign, allowing a test and scale approach based on results. This would also allow for some failure as the right mix of messaging is tested to generate the best ROI. Moving quickly is important as speed to market matters when competing with similar organizations and getting the right message out to audiences when a crisis is top-of-mind. Once it fades from market interest, your ROI decreases significantly.

You can regularly monitor trends to help inform you if an activation would be worthwhile from a market interest perspective. These include looking at search trends, doing social listening, completing media monitoring and checking supporter inquiries. However, trends are not enough.

Here are a couple of questions you need to answer before proceeding:

  • How will you manage an emergency interrupting your regularly scheduled activities? Will any planned projects/campaigns be impacted?
  • How will this impact staff capacity?  
  • How will this affect employee morale?
    • This applies whether you are activating or decide not to. The key to managing this is communication. Not activating a public campaign doesn’t mean your organization isn’t doing something to address the crisis. 
  • Is there already interest from stakeholders? Is there a champion to make a first gift that can kick off response efforts? 
  • Will this raise exponentially more money and improve engagement compared to business-as-usual?
  • Will you need to plan any new audience journeys or create alternative journeys as a result? Will the volume be worth the effort required to do this?

Some of the best campaigns I have seen were the result of a small offshoot of the emergency team seeing an opportunity and testing a small activation before scaling. When subject matter experts are given opportunities to make decisions, it can result in significantly higher ROI campaigns with limited strain on internal resources, while still maintaining business-as-usual activities.

Ongoing campaign monitoring and optimization

Every situation is different; you could have days, weeks or months, and there could be curveballs coming your way in the marketplace. The same considerations for when to activate also apply for determining when to stop a campaign, plus the added look at ROI based on current investment. ROI depends on several factors, but ultimately it should be higher than a regular campaign for your organization. 

Completing a post-mortem review

Once the emergency is over and the campaign has wrapped up, it is important to document and report back. Debriefing and adapting regularly keeps your emergency plan fresh without too much maintenance, and it ensures you are generating learnings to apply to the future. It also holds teams accountable to each other.

Here are a few things to review:

  • Successes and challenges: This review is more about how you worked together as a team, not about the activations and results themselves. It’s an opportunity to celebrate when things worked and came together and document challenges and barriers. This allows you to adjust your processes and templates and make improvements. A simple spreadsheet can be used throughout the campaign to collect information for this review. It should include a summary of a situation and roles involved. For challenges, it should also include a recommendation for a solution or next step. 
  • Campaign summary: For the next stage of evaluation, each team involved should do a summary of their program activation. A generic template could be adapted to highlight the strategies and tactics used, results with KPIs and goals to compare against, and learnings and recommendations. If you have access to a data analyst, it is also a great opportunity to include audience insights and overall data trends beyond specific program activations. 
  • Executive summary: This is a very condensed and topline summary that goes to the senior leadership team. This is not required for every campaign but should be done for larger scale activations that require significant organizational resources or impacted the delivery of business-as-usual activities.

Final thoughts

Having an agile team of staff that is empowered to make decisions is critical to having the right content served to the right audience, at the right moment, in order to be the most relevant to your donors. This also applies to awareness and advocacy programs, and donor stewardship and retention initiatives. It won’t be perfect, but perfection is the enemy of progress, so test new ideas until you find what works for your organization. 

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Mary Stranges

Director, Community Giving UHN Foundation




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