The Responsive Nonprofit Summit 2020: The Complete Guide

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Earlier this year, Virtuous hosted the first part of The Responsive Nonprofit Summit 2020. The goal was to bring together responsive nonprofit leaders to brainstorm, connect and strategize around fundraising in 2020. Specifically, we wanted to address the question: how do we emerge from this crisis to serve donors? Everyone felt a sense of urgency to solve for the unexpected challenges and opportunities this year brought.

Now, fundraisers face a new question. How do you implement year-end fundraising strategies when every donor lives in a new normal. The norms and trends that were truths in previous years may not apply. Appeals must be more personal, more relevant and perfectly timed.

In short: donor-centric responsive fundraising is essential for your success this year. And we’re here to help you refine your campaigns.

Announcing The Responsive Nonprofit Summit 2020: What Now?

Virtuous is proud to announce part two of The Responsive Nonprofit Summit 2020: What Now? On October 21 and 22, we’ll join nonprofit leaders, operators and responsive fundraising advocates to discuss how to execute successful donor stewardship strategies.

Save your spot by filling out the form here.

A Comprehensive Recap: The Responsive Nonprofit Summit 2020: Emerging from Crisis

To catch up on all the insights and ideas from the first part of The Responsive Nonprofit Summit 2020, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide. Read the highlights of each session, plus stream the webinar recordings all right here.

Session #1: Responsive Nonprofit Principles


Gabe Copper and Mckenna Bailey joined Noah Barnett to talk about principles of Responsive Fundraising that are particularly suited to this moment.

Gabe and Mckenna are the authors of Responsive Fundraising: The Donor-Centric Framework Helping Today’s Leading Nonprofits Grow Giving, in which they outline 10 principles for Responsive Fundraising.

Responsive fundraising puts the donor at the center of fundraising and grows giving through personalized donor journeys that respond to the needs of each individual. The responsive approach builds trust and loyalty through personalized engagement.
It’s the way to treat ALL your donors like major donors.

Most Important Takeaways

1. More than anything, it’s crucial for nonprofits to build meaningful relationships with ALL their donors.

  • In some ways, Covid-19 has only exaggerated the way we were already engaging — active on social media, living within hyper-personalized feeds. Donors already had come to expect highly personal connection from nonprofits — they get it everywhere else they interact online, from Netflix recommendations to ad content.
  • Unfortunately, many nonprofits are still handcuffed to a communication strategy that provides personalization for major donors, and a mass “spray and pray” impersonal approach for everyone else. These mass messages are alienating, decrease trust and donor retention, and result in disconnection from nonprofits. We need to find tactics to connect with donors at scale.
  • Technology makes this level of personalization and connection possible with your current staff and resources, even for small organizations. Just as Netflix does not have a person devoted to studying your habits and recommending what to watch next, responsiveness isn’t about hiring a giant staff and doing one-on-one engagement with a thousand individual donors. It’s about using technology to pick up signals and assign tasks, so you have more time for relationship building. Things like data analytics, data signals, marketing automation, social listening, and personalization boost engagement because they make your supporters feel known.

2. Embrace innovation, experimentation, and yes, even failure.

  • Failure is not the enemy, it’s how you learn. Embrace it. The faster you fail and learn, the faster you can innovate. During this time, you’re going to have to try new things in order to survive and thrive.
  • Admitting failure and being transparent builds trust with your donors, and creating a culture where it’s okay to try things that don’t end up working (learning!) builds trust within your organization.
  • Fail “quick and cheap.” Embracing failure is not about gambling thousands of dollars or investing months of time in something that doesn’t work. Think in terms of two-week sprints and short-term split testing, as you push for innovation.

3. Focus on earning trust for long-lasting relationships.

  • These days, people have options of where to give and what to support. They’ll go with the organizations they trust. You earn your donors’ trust by doing what you say you will, showing them the impact their gift makes, and by being as transparent and authentic as possible. 
  • Mckenna used the example of Shake Shack giving back their PPP loan as a way a company built trust with their customers. They demonstrated they were listening to concerns and part of the community by taking action and righting a situation, even though they’d benefited from it.  

4. Generosity is not transactional, it is deeply human and takes many forms.

  • No one wants to be thought of as an ATM. Your donors want to be close to your cause and feel like a part of things. Close the loop on their generosity with follow ups about their impact and gratitude for their help.
  • Aim for at least 2-3 grateful or community-building touch points before you make another ask for money.
  • Celebrate your community of donors or volunteers by telling stories about them. Charity:Water features stories about donors, making it easier for potential donors to envision themselves getting involved.

5. Vision-cast, don’t problem-cast.

  • Don’t put your problems onto the donor, instead show them a better vision/future, and invite them to be part of making it happen. This is how you build lasting hope, instead of a single spike in giving.

Final Tips

  • It’s okay to try and fail, you can learn. Experiment, learn from data and build on it for the future.
  • Now is the time for empathetic listening and communication. What do you donors need? How do they feel? Now is a good time for surveys to find out about what they most care about. 

Stream the Session

Responsive Nonprofit Summit | Responsive Principles with Gabe Cooper + Mckenna Bailey from Virtuous Software on Vimeo.

Session #2: Nonprofit Panel – Leading Through Crisis


Jeremy Reis and Mike Meyers talked about the qualities a leader needs during this time, where to invest in fundraising, and how to move forward.

While we sorted out technical difficulties, Virtuous CRM CEO Gabe Cooper popped back into the session and talked for a bit about planning. He recommended that nonprofit leaders work with their boards to develop two budgets and an action plan for this time. One budget is the “new case” budget, that sees where you are now, and uses that data to predict where you think you’re likely heading. The other is a “worst-case” budget to keep in your back pocket just in case. The action plan is a short-term realistic plan for what to do next, to be followed until things change and you can’t.

Remember, no one knows what the future will bring, so write your plans in pencil, and carry a great big eraser at all times — we’re going to have to change and revamp a lot in the coming days.

Most Important Takeaways

1. Nonprofit leaders in 2020 should consider themselves wartime leaders.

Mike proclaimed wartime leaders:

  • Focus on survival and leading into the future
  • Are not always liked, as survival-based decisions are rarely fun
  • May need to micromanage more than usual, ie. really dig into numbers with the CFO, get more hands-on
  • Have to make the call, so while they listen to advice, they also develop strong opinions

2. Where do you invest during economic uncertainty?

At this point, survival trumps long-term strategy. You have to have an organization in order for it to have a future. But keep that future in focus, too. Mid-sized organizations should create a crisis management team, while others stay in pursuit of the mission.


Online giving doesn’t preclude other channels, but during this period even people who are inspired to give via a direct mail appeal or by other means may choose to give online. Make sure it’s easy and straightforward for them to do so.


Don’t make decisions like freezing donor acquisition without modeling out to see what kind of long-term impact that may have. Use industry averages and your own historical data to build your models.


Keep communication transparent with staff, donors and volunteers. Don’t lose the excitement of your mission, lead with your vision, not your struggle.

Donors are at home, answering the phone at an unprecedented rate and eager to be part of something. Invest in relationships with your mid-to-major level donors, even if you need to create a makeshift mid-level donor department. Call your donors, not necessarily to ask for money, but to get to know them. On the phone, you can’t ignore the current crisis, it has to be acknowledged, but that does mean you’ll definitely have something to talk about.

3. Where should we invest in fundraising now, with the future in mind?


Mike recommended paying special attention to your mid-level donors. Usually mid-level refers to those making annual gifts of $1,000-$10,000, but it will vary by organization. Reach out to these donors and build a strong relationship now, that will result in them feeling more connected with your organization in the future.


Jeremy noted that emails that explain the impact COVID-19 is having on missions and people served drive responses, as well as an influx of new digital givers who used to give via other means. He recommended putting an online giving CTA on remittance envelopes and response devices in direct mail appeals.

Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs)

A DAF is a great giving vehicle during economic uncertainty because donors get the tax benefit as soon as they contribute to it, and they can give from the DAF without affecting their current income. The money in a DAF is often disbursed within the same year it’s put into the DAF, and it’s for charitable giving.

To discover if your donor has set up a DAF, Mike recommended asking, “Have you thought about setting up a donor-advised fund?” as a more tactful way to ease into the conversation.

Recurring Giving Programs

Jeremy championed monthly donor programs as a more stable revenue stream in recessions. While people may pass on one-time gifts outside of their usual giving pattern during economic uncertainty (i.e. they’re not adding new gifts), they’re more likely to keep giving the monthly gifts they’ve made a habit of.

To start or grow your monthly giving program, look to the donors who’ve made multiple single gifts in a year. Invite them to become monthly givers, with the follow-up option of making a one-time gift if they say no.

4. What to do right now?

  • Create a survival plan, which may include cutting expenses and making bold moves. Don’t wait until you’re out of money to make this plan.
  • Build a monthly giving program.
  • Connect with mid-and-major donors.
  • Look at your fundraising and cut what isn’t working. Take the time now to adopt best practices and get things in order.

Tips from Participants

  • “We have gone to a short-term plan of reaching out personally to people who already donate because the funds are not there to do an all-out marketing for new donors. We feel it is more important to “shore up” our base and actually ask them to bring others to our party.”
  • “Appreciate Mike’s mention of low energy among staff. It’s okay to acknowledge it, then reorient our mindsets toward the future.”
  • “I am having a high success with discovery calls that normally are a lot lower but to your point, people are at home and willing to contribute.”
  • “We are having board members engage with our donors just to reach out and say hi, check in and see how they are doing, also asking if they need anything but also relating what we have been up to.”


Mike mentioned The Signatry for help with DAFs.

Jeremy’s book is Magnetic Nonprofit: Attract and Retain Donors, Volunteers, and Staff

Stream This Session

Responsive Nonprofit Summit – Leading through Crisis: Mike Myers and Gabe Cooper from Virtuous Software on Vimeo.

Session #3 Donor Stewardship Amidst Crisis Times


T. Clay Buck, CFRE, Cherian Koshy, Des Moines Performing Arts, and Barbara O’Reilly, CFRE, three fundraising pros talk about what donor stewardship looks like in this moment, and what to plan for in the future.

Most Important Takeaways

What will donor engagement look like in the future?

First, consider what it looks like right now.

In the immediate response to COVID-19, organizations took two paths. Those who were directly involved (healthcare orgs, etc) had an upsurge in activity. Everybody else froze. Now, the frozen organizations are moving towards action.

Evidence suggests that donors are here for you. Barbara referenced BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Fidelity Charitable reports that found 93% of nonprofits felt that their donors will give less this year, but 50-75% of donors said they will give the same or more than they did in 2019. 25-30% plan to increase giving this year.

She said, “Let’s stop assuming what we think our donors will do. Invite them to help. Let them decide. Those that can will. Keep your eyes on the long view to sustain your organization during these uncertain times.”

What are the bright spots in donor engagement?

Cherian pointed out arts organizations are sharing art with their audiences, and a local food bank raising NUMBER by sharing community needs. Clay is noticing lapsed and long-lapsed donors returning to organizations because they want to do something.

Cherian’s organization pivoted to check-in empathetically with donors, updating them on what’s happening with programs and answering their questions. They also launched Project Joy to connect art, artists, and audiences, and shifted their marketing resources to sharing moments of joy that they co-create with their supporters.

Where are the cracks in the donor engagement infrastructure?

Asking from desperation and organizational need Cherian likened this approach to bull-dozing an apple tree — you’ll get apples one time, but it’s not the best solution and hurts the tree. If you cultivate an orchard of trees, you’ll have apples into the future. Good stewardship is about fulfilling donor passions.

Clay says, “Donors are data.” You can’t communicate when you don’t have data, so take this time to find the gaps and clean your data. Do you have complete contact information? Have you removed duplications and run an NCOA update? Good data practices lead to appropriate segmentation, broad-based acquisition and re-engagement.

How do we ask donors to give?

Barbara pointed out that historical low-to-mid level donors are the most steadfast. Clay recommended getting true and honest in your communications — how will programs and your cause be impacted if you don’t raise the money you need? Don’t be afraid to talk about overhead. Give people the opportunity to help and get involved.

Reinvent and create new meaningful stewardship opportunities. Ask donors how they want to engage at this time.

What do we do next?

Cherian explained Zero-Based Strategy planning, which he used pre-COVID.

  • Take everything off the table. Every single thing.
  • Add each element of what your nonprofit does back into the plan, one at a time, examining if it is necessary and makes sense.
  • Anything that is a “maybe” is an automatic “no.”
  • See what is really essential, and make that the strategy. The question is not: “How can we reform what we had before?” it is: “What is this now?”

Fiscal year financial planning probably won’t make sense for awhile, move to rolling forecasts instead.

Clay recommends engaging the board now in issues of governance, with an understanding that we’re not preparing to pick up right where we left off.

Barbara recommends looking at your portfolio and noting where it’s out of balance. Are you over-dependent on events, foundations or corporations. As event-dependent nonprofits have learned, lack of balance is risky.

Use grace and gratitude.

If you’re experiencing an influx of support, give your donors a ton of gratitude. Plan for sustainable stewardship, based on relationship and centered on donors, instead of the flash-in-the-pan short-term solution.

Noah added: Contextualize the engagement based on the donor signals you already have — this can be applied for ALL donors, not just majors.

Stream This Session

Responsive Nonprofit Summit – Donor Engagement Amidst Crisis Times & Beyond from Virtuous Software on Vimeo.

Session #4: Case Study: Going Digital: Fundraising + Virtual Events


Brad Chrisakis and Cameron Ripley discuss digital fundraising, virtual events, and how to make decisions as take fundraising online.

Virtual fundraising and virtual events are two paths within digital fundraising.

Whether an event or campaign, digital fundraising can expand your reach beyond geographic and cost barriers. People who could not physically attend your event or afford a traditional ticketed event can still contribute.

At this time, when people are moving events online and launching fundraising campaigns, it’s important not to substitute urgency for strategy.

Most Important Takeaways

1. Messaging: How do we talk to our supporters and fundraise during this time?

  • If you’ve transitioned an in-person event online, remember: The event was a means to communicate a message. The lack of an event doesn’t eliminate the message and the impact the funding of the event would have!
  • Be as direct as possible.
    • Remind people why they were going to support you in the first place.
    • Remind them of the programmatic impact of the fundraising.
  • Be specific and clear.

2. How do we decide what to do when our original plan can’t happen?

  • Don’t wait for perfection, something is better than nothing.
  • Get your fundraising tools (platforms, donation forms, etc.) out to your audience.
  • Talk to your supporters and ask their advice.
  • Be personal, vulnerable and real as you communicate with your supporters.

3. How do you get people to attend a virtual event?

  • Don’t spend all your time and money on creative. Split your budget 50/50 on creative and marketing the event.
  • Email marketing
    • Email is cost-effective and reliable. Most nonprofits aren’t sending enough of it. Segment your audience and make your emails as personal as possible.
  • Social media marketing
    • Volume outweighs perfection.
    • Use memorable hashtags for events.
    • Reach out to micro-influencers within your network of supporters (people with larger social media followings).
    • Utilize live stream and stories (stories are a great place for a hard ask).
    • Facebook and Instagram ads have the best ROI and hyper-targeting.
  • Marketing budget
    • Spend: 50% of your budget on the first tier of your audience: your existing supporter base, 25% remarketing, and 25% on new audiences (lookalike, targeted demographics).
    • Google Ad grant will stretch your budget.
  • P2P Empowerment
    • Build community with your peer-to-peer fundraisers.
    • Give them templates and information.
    • Use P2P to pre-launch the campaign and fundraise ahead of time, paving the way to raise 30% in the first 48 hours.

4. Be creative

  • Look to KTLO (Keep the Lights On) campaigns for examples of nonprofits getting very real and authentic.
  • Some people don’t need their stimulus checks and are looking for somewhere to donate it.

5. Is there a danger of crisis/urgency burnout for donors as time goes on?

  • Avoid this by presenting information through a “hope filter.” Focus on the good you’re trying to do, not just the urgent need.
  • People are hungry for good news and nonprofits are the perfect conduits to deliver it.
  • Celebrate constantly–this is always important for virtual fundraising, but especially now. Shout out donors, congratulate fundraisers and volunteers, mark every milestone.
  • Mission matters, keep it central in your communications.

6. Top tips for prioritizing digital fundraising

  • Build a monthly giving program for a dependable revenue stream
  • Peer-to-peer / digital fundraising isn’t temporary — these are channels organizations should prioritize even when constraints are lifted. Always add a digital channel to your events and campaigns.
  • In marketing, think about two goals — building brand and community plus donor acquisition and cultivation.
  • Explore channels and identify the best ways to use them in a scalable way to add value for your organization. Practice. Test. Learn.

Stream this Session

Responsive Nonprofit Summit – Going Digital: How To Pivot & Adopt Virtual Fundraising Strategies from Virtuous Software on Vimeo.

Session #5 Coronavirus Nonprofit Fundraising Response


Tim Kachuriak shared the results of NextAfter’s latest experiments and observations on how nonprofits are responding to the coronavirus and what we can learn.

Most Important Takeaways

1. What are other nonprofits doing?

NextAfter conducts mystery donor studies, in which they subscribe to nonprofit email lists and make test donations. These nonprofit’s communications feed into an Aggregate Donor Inbox, providing data about what nonprofits are doing. The data set we’re looking at is from emails received between January 1, 2020 and April 15, 2020. It includes emails from 156 nonprofits, across 12 verticals. 2,889 emails were received, 28.7% mentioned COVID-19.

NextAfter found that nonprofits are sending more emails, with public policy and international verticals sending the most. They observe a steady increase in email volume in recent weeks that has primarily been driven by messaging that includes COVID-19. Roughly half of the emails are solicitations.

2. Is it advisable to mention the current crisis in appeals?

NextAfter conducted three split testing experiments with messaging. For each experiment, the control did not mention the current crisis and the variant did mention it. They tried three different approaches to the variants.

  • The “natural approach” where the appeal is COVID-19 specific, ie. the organization is directly addressing the crisis.
  • The “forced approach” where the appeal is the same as the control except for the addition of crisis language (ie. shoehorned into a regular appeal).
  • The “neutral approach” where the crisis is obliquely mentioned (“In these difficult times,” etc.).

They found that not all COVID-19 mentions performed the same. ‘

  • The natural approach resulted in a 37% increase in donations.
  • The forced approach resulted in an 81% decrease.
  • The neutral approach was inconclusive.

In light of these experiments, it may only be helpful to mention COVID-19 in appeals if you can take a natural approach.

3. Data Caveats

Tim pointed out that the data could be impacted by an inconsistent representation of verticals, e-commerce tracking, and only having partial data for April.

4. How are donors responding?

  • Web traffic
    • YOY, nonprofit web traffic is up 3.2%.
  • Email traffic
    • Email traffic is up slightly, but accelerating.
    • This could be because nonprofits are sending more emails, or because audiences are at home and on the Internet, and thus, more responsive.
  • Website engagement
    • Traffic is slightly up, engagement is slightly down.
  • Revenue
    • Online revenue YOY is up.
    • 11.2% increase in online donations in March.
    • Gift size went down in March.
    • Conversion is up every month in 2020 so far.
    • Flux metrics affecting revenue: traffic, conversion rate and average gift.

Responsive Nonprofit Summit – How Has COVID-19 Impacted Online Fundraising from Virtuous Software on Vimeo.

Session #6 Discussion: Navigating Uncertainty & Responsive Fundraising


Even prior to the Coronavirus Crisis, we were on the cusp of a generosity crisis due to a growing gap between today’s donor and the fundraising tactics most nonprofits are handcuffed to. Hyper-connectivity, micro-consumption, fractured attention, and fierce competition are namesakes in our connected economy. And now, this is compounded due to the upheaval market slumps, election shenanigans, and the coronavirus pandemic has sparked with no clear end in sight.

The summit ended with a conversation facilitated by Noah Barnett with Gabe Cooper and Jason Lewis to discuss these realities and uncover recommendations on how nonprofits can refactor their fundraising to close the gap, and ultimately build better, longer-lasting relationships with their donors.

Most Important Takeaways

1. Efficiency and responsiveness

  • Efficiency and responsiveness are opposite ends of a neutral spectrum. Both are necessary elements of fundraising. For a long time, we prioritized efficiency, but now that needs to change.
  • Fundraising may have reached peak efficiency, now we need to swing towards responsiveness.
  • Technology helps us remain efficient while becoming responsive.

2. Modern world, modern donors

  • Leading with organizational need instead of donor interests isn’t working anymore. It erodes trust and doesn’t give donors what they want.
  • Pre-COVID this was already a problem. We needed to shift towards responsiveness anyway.
    • Trust in institutions had already broken down significantly. Customers making brand decisions, and donors making giving decisions, go with organizations they trust, but the old way of working doesn’t build it.
    • Hyper-personalized online experiences are now expected. Donors want to be very close to the cause.
    • COVID exposed more of the problem, but the problem was long-established.

3. Exploring vs. exploiting

  • Efficiency is designed to exploit maximum value
  • Exploring requires a relinquishment of control–letting donors lead. This is a mindset shift, but one that makes all kinds of new things possible. Explorers find new ways to engage.
    • Take what we’ve learned during this period of shutdown and ask how it applies. Proximity, for example, has changed. We don’t have to be in the same room to connect.

4. Break down siloes, create responsive culture.

  • Give program staff opportunities to interact with donors. Make calls to learn more about them, not necessarily ask for money. This aligns you with donor interests faster and aligns the entire organization with generosity.

5. Growth is more important than control.

  • When you become responsive, you relinquish some control. You have to decide to make growing more important than controlling every aspect of your endeavors.
    • GivingTuesday grew so much because people were allowed to make it their own.
    • Participating on their own terms gives donors value and meaning
    • Gifts based in deep engagement and relationship eventually become efficient, as donors narrow in on what they care about and how to make it happen

Final Tips

  • Responsiveness requires you to be nimble, embrace risk/failure, and have an explorer’s mindset. This requires action and listening.
  • Establish a culture of agility. Lose control, try new things, fail, and learn.
  • Become determined to actively listen to your donors.

Stream this Session

Responsive Nonprofit Summit – What Now? What Should Nonprofit Leaders Be Focused On from Virtuous Software on Vimeo.

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