How Communication Affects Nonprofit Fundraising

An interview with Jeff Caponigro

Rachel: When you spoke on our webinar in early May, nonprofits were still very much in crisis mode trying to make sense of what the pandemic meant to their operations. Now that we’ve settled in a bit, what are your thoughts on how nonprofits should be communicating with their donors?

Jeff: A crisis often forces organizations to make changes that likely should have been made but were ignored or delayed in previous times. Nonprofits learned many lessons this year and identified vulnerabilities that previously went undetected or unexposed. Donors are more apt to support well-managed nonprofits that are focused, assertive and communicative. Each nonprofit should be able to tell the story about how it evolved during the pandemic and why it is now stronger and more effective than ever. Three key themes to reinforce would be: 1) We care about you; 2) We are now in an even better position to fulfill our mission (with your help); and 3) We are excited about the months and year ahead.

Rachel: ‘Unprecedented times’ and the ‘new normal’ have become the buzz phases of 2020. Phrases that I think a lot of people are honestly tired of hearing. How do nonprofits continue to communicate those sentiments in new, fresh ways?

Jeff: I would suggest not harboring on the past or wallowing in today’s challenges but, rather, talk about the excitement and opportunities of the future. The phrase I prefer is how the organization “pivoted.” Using a sports analogy, if a basketball player is dribbling and a defender blocks the way, the player wouldn’t simply give up or complain about the obstacle in his/her way. He or she would pivot from what was in the way and move in a different direction toward the objective (scoring a basket or making a play in some other way). So, I like the concept of the nonprofit pivoting to make a better play that serves the mission and makes a difference.

Rachel: As you know, COVID has altered the media landscape. What do you think is the best approach to getting attention in a COVID-19 climate? How do nonprofits with non-COVID needs and missions, still get their stories out?

Jeff: Well, let’s start by identifying the “media.” Traditional media certainly has changed over the years. When I first started in the business a few decades ago, there were lots of opportunities for positive feature stories and media interviews. Well-staffed newsrooms were open to soft, general-interest angles that were fantastic ways to showcase a nonprofit’s mission and people. Now, traditional media are skin-and-bones businesses that themselves are in survival mode with trimmed-down staffs and little time or space for anything but breaking news. So, nonprofits need to find or establish their own media and ways to reach stakeholders. These include social-media posts, timely and thought-provoking blogs, podcasts, virtual seminars and panel discussions, email bulletins/newsletters and short videos. The key is to lead with the benefit to the community and cloak or bring in the back door what some could see as self-serving commercialism. Inform and educate when possible and do so as a way to reinforce the organization’s relevance to the communities it serves.

Rachel: As we approach the 4th quarter when nonprofits begin planning for 2021, what are some strategies and tactics they should be thinking about as related to communications that will help ensure their messages don’t get lost in the shuffle?

Jeff: First, remain visible. Second, don’t allow the organization’s momentum to stop. And, third, have a story to tell of success and control the narrative with simple and clear messages that can be remembered and reinforced by others. If I dare use another sports analogy, there are many ways to score runs in a baseball game – singles, doubles, triples, home runs and grand slams. Nonprofits should keep the singles and doubles going – through social media, news releases, online posts, webinar participation and the like – while leading up to and through the triples, home runs or grand slams of a major campaign or virtual (or eventually in-person) event. In baseball, they call it trying to “extend the inning” with any number of ways to get on base. Nonprofits should consider the same to reinforce the importance of their mission in the community and their success in making a real difference.

Rachel: To build on that, nonprofits will begin sending their annual year-end appeal letters to donors as we approach the holidays. Do you have suggestions on how to communicate their needs (and ask for money) while being sensitive to the potential negative effects (economic and health) COVID may have had on the recipient of the letter?

Jeff: A good start is to seek continued engagement (with the nonprofit) in whatever way is possible for the donor. The nonprofit should describe how it pivoted during the year and has become even better equipped to meet the mission the donor has supported in the past. The donor will want to read (or hear) why the organization remains vital to the community and why ongoing support is so important. Find ways for donors to be involved, even if they themselves have suffered financial hardship. Keep them engaged and thank them for their support, in whatever form that may take. Donors will remember for a long time how they were treated in good times and bad. Let them know how important they are to the mission and ask for their help in whatever way they feel is possible.

Rachel: Lastly, crisis is known for bringing out the charitable spirit and, historically, Americans give more as a response. Everyone wants to be part of the solution. But the pandemic isn’t a short-lived event like a natural disaster. It’s a long-term crisis that is continuing to cause surges in community needs. How do nonprofits appeal to donor’s charitable spirit for the long-haul?

Jeff: Everyone knows the pandemic has caused hardships and difficulties for many in the community. Little time needs to be spent to “establish the need.” It is more important to communicate the continued relevance of the organization (i.e., why the nonprofit and its mission are more vital than ever). Only slightly behind the human need to be liked and loved is the desire to be respected. Because of that, people like to be asked for their assistance. This could come in the form of a financial contribution, hands-on assistance or some counsel or guidance in an area of expertise that the individual might have. Lastly, make sure that the proper level of gratitude is shown to the donor – to further show respect and appreciation for the individual. Failure to meet the expectations of gratitude forever may affect or even end the donor’s support.

About Jeff Caponigro

Jeff Caponigro, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Executive Vice President-Corporate Communications and Chief Marketing Officer for Trion Solutions (www.relyontrion.com) and continues to provide counsel to select clients of Caponigro Public Relations (www.caponigro.com). He is the author of THE CRISIS COUNSELOR: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing a Business Crisis (McGraw Hill/Contemporary Books), which is published in five languages. He has been inducted into the Public Relations Society of America’s College of Fellows, PRSA-Detroit’s Hall of Fame and Central Michigan University’s Journalism Hall of Fame.

About Rachel M. Decker

Having spent nearly 20 years in the nonprofit sector as an effective and strategic fundraising and foundation executive, Detroit Philanthropy Founder and President, Rachel Decker is passionate about helping others, making meaningful connections, solving problems and, most importantly, creating impact in our community. With the founding of Detroit Philanthropy, she turned that passion into a commitment to champion philanthropy throughout metro Detroit as a philanthropic advisor, fundraising consultant and speaker.


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