It all started with a very complex question…
How do nonprofits respond when an international crisis occurs?
We have seen our fair share of crises in the past two years. From a global pandemic, a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, to all the wildfires and everything in between, nonprofits have had to pivot to respond to the ever-changing environment.
But to make this analysis a bit more approachable, I focused on a more recent ongoing crisis: the war in Ukraine. At the time of this writing, we’re in month 3 of Russia invading Ukraine (again).
According to the International Rescue Committee, the crisis has been labeled the largest and fastest displacement crisis since World War II. So how exactly have nonprofits responded to the crisis?
To do this study, I analyzed all the communications (email and direct mail) we have received from 140 organizations we have donated to in a previous study. Here are the questions I wanted to answer:
- From the 140 organizations we donated to, how many nonprofits are emailing about Ukraine?
- What nonprofit verticals are most likely to talk about Ukraine?
- How soon did organizations respond? And how often are they communicating with donors?
- What types of emails did they send to donors (solicitation vs. cultivation)?
And this is what we learned:
20% of nonprofits emailed donors about Ukraine
In the first 7 weeks of the invasion, we received 162 emails and 1 direct mail piece from 28 organizations. Curious about which organizations sent us emails? Here’s a list of them with the total number of emails they sent us:
What verticals did those organizations come from?
While you can safely assume that humanitarian and relief organizations would reach out to their donors about the crisis, I was curious if we would see any outliers. For example, would there be any animal and wildlife organizations? Would any education-based organizations take this opportunity to offer academic journals analyzing the crisis?
The answer for the most part is no. At least, not from what we observed. Below you’ll see a chart showing the organizations we donated to versus how many sent us communications regarding Ukraine by vertical.
We received emails from 52% of the international organizations we donated to and zero emails from education, environment, wildlife and animal welfare, and arts and culture organizations.
Overall, 88% of the organizations that responded to the Ukraine crisis were faith-based or international/humanitarian organizations. While this may not have been a surprise, I will note that faith-based and international organizations account for almost 40% of the organizations we donated to in the previous study.
Now let’s analyze some of the other verticals:
The USO was the one human services organizations we received emails from about Ukraine. Their message focused on supporting the U.S. troops that are deploying to Poland.
The March of Dimes, a well-known organization that advocates for the health of women and babies, supported Ukraine by focusing on the families affected by the war.
Regarding the March of Dimes example, if you check out the language of their email on the left, you will see that their role in supporting the humanitarian efforts is more focused on being the go-between for non-governmental organizations directly involved in Ukraine.
As a potential donor, I appreciated their transparency. The March of Dimes acknowledged the crises and shed light on providing aid to those in need, but they did so by acknowledging what they couldn’t do. In doing so, the organization establishes more trust with their donors by being honest.
We have seen similar trends during the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some organizations found ways to fundraise, some were cautious about their approach, while other organizations made donation asks that felt disingenuous.
How soon did organizations respond? And how often did they communicate with us?
This is where things get interesting. We began to receive emails regarding Ukraine on February 21st, 3 days before the invasion. These emails were from faith-based organizations requesting prayers in response to the precarious situation in Ukraine.
The chart below shows a timeline of the number of emails we received each week:
What types of emails did they send (solicitation vs. cultivation)?
During a high urgency campaign, the intricate balance between cultivating our donors and asking for donations can feel tricky. When responding to a time-sensitive crisis, there is a natural tendency to focus on asking for donations.
But cultivating your donors, whether through newsletters with updates on the crisis, or videos explaining the impact of the donations, is still important.
Before the invasion, all the emails we received were cultivation emails. On February 25th, we began to receive solicitation emails. The graph below shows the cultivation versus solicitation breakdown for all organizations. Overall, 50% of communication we received was solicitations, and 50% was cultivation.
Interestingly enough, faith-based organizations were more likely to cultivate the donor. This is most likely due to the daily newsletters sent by CatholicVote called The Loop, which shares top international headlines.
On the other hand, international organizations were more likely to send out solicitation emails, with 2 out of 3 emails soliciting for donations.
What are potential donors looking for?
As I write this, we’re in month 3 of the war. We continue to receive emails and mail from organizations, including some new ones that were not in the original study.
Additionally, in Google’s monthly insight report for April, they stated that people are still actively looking for ways to provide meaningful aid. According to their report, people are searching for terms such as ‘how can I help’, ‘donations’, and ‘ukraine’
Here are some other highlights from the report:
- Year-over-year searches for “how can i help” have grown globally by over 90%.
(how can i help ukraine, how can i help ukraine fight russia, how can i help you, how can i help, how can i help ukraine uk)
- Year-over-year searches for “donations” have grown globally by over 30%.
(gofundme donations, donations center, donations for ukraine, donations, ukraine donations)
- Year-over-year image searches for “ukraine” have grown globally by over 5,000%.
(ukraine, ukraine flag, ukraine map, russia ukraine, ukraine news).
The data shows us that people are continuing to look for ways to support Ukraine. As nonprofits, it is not too late to find ways to get involved. Just as long as it is genuine and true to your mission.
How can you make a difference as nonprofit fundraiser?
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fundraisers were faced with a decision:
Should we keep fundraising, hoping that those with means will be even more generous to those that are need? Or should we pull back since so many people are losing jobs and in need?
During that time, we tracked the fundraising trends and saw giving overall actually increase. People with means were giving above and beyond. But through a/b testing, nonprofits learned that the approach to fundraising in crisis is nuanced.
Using crisis language without a direct correlation
In this experiment from the early days of COVID-19, one organization learned that trying to create relevancy between their fundraising appeal and the crisis actually decreased donations by 81%. If there is not an abundantly clear and natural relation between your appeal and the crisis at hand, it may be harmful to your fundraising efforts.
Using crisis language with a direct correlation
Another organization ran a similar experiment, but had a very direct correlation between their cause and the impact of COVID-19. They wrote an appeal directly asking for people to support their work to influence policy around the crisis, and it led to a 36% increase in donations.
Using crisis language with a tangential correlation
A 3rd organization tested using crisis language on their donation widget saying “in times like these” their services are more important than ever. The work they did was tangentially related to the pandemic, but not directly on the front lines. This type of crisis language made minimal difference in their donations.
What should you say in your fundraising efforts during a crisis?
In summary, testing fundraising appeals during the pandemic taught us a few rules of thumb:
- If your work directly impacts the crisis at hand, don’t be afraid to talk about it in your appeals.
- If your work does not directly impact the crisis, don’t try to force a connection.
- If your work is indirectly related to the crisis, test your appeal messaging to know exactly the impact it’s having on donations.
Dive Deeper on how Nonprofit Fundraisers Are Responding to Ukraine
You can dive into the data behind how 140 nonprofits are responding to the war in Ukraine via their email and direct mail communication. We’ve made our Google Data Studio dashboard public for you to browse, see trends over time, and even view the general communication strategies of each of these 140 nonprofit organizations.