Four Kitchens

How nonprofits reworked their digital strategies to survive the pandemic

5 Min. ReadDigital strategy

For nonprofits, the changes spurred by the pandemic could have constituted an extinction-level event. Limited by public safety measures, organizations that were dependent on galas and other in-person fundraising avenues were left without a lifeline. How do you connect with your community when no one can leave their house?

In short notice, nonprofits needed to reinvent their digital strategies to survive. Websites that once acted as digital brochures needed to better facilitate fundraising, host virtual events, rethink the volunteer experience, and increase awareness of an organization’s efforts. There simply was no other option to continue building support for causes and communities whose situations were just as dire.

Plenty of uncertainty remains about what’s potentially still to come during this pandemic (and the next one). However, by adjusting their fundraising and outreach efforts to nurture a digital audience, nonprofits are better prepared for what’s next. Here are a few survival strategies that emerged over the past two years to boost your organization as well.

Websites offer more than just another communications channel

Not long ago, nonprofits that were especially dependent upon in-person fundraising tended to allow their websites to become a lesser priority. This was especially true at smaller nonprofits, which were already stretched thin with a smaller communications team in charge of digital marketing. When things got busy, the website was often first to fall by the wayside. Who would be focused on site updates when funding for next year’s programs depended on an upcoming silent auction?

But the pandemic transformed websites into the only way to connect with their audience, and organizations were left scrambling to find the right digital approach to storytelling and fundraising. Though ecommerce and B2B companies have long used CRM software to track and refine website customer journeys, most nonprofits had limited capacity and budget to track  website user habits.

If you can’t identify who your users are and what’s driving their interests on your site, how do you nurture them toward donating? Nonprofit organizations faced far bigger questions than how to create personalized marketing funnels.

Flexible websites and analytics open doors for nonprofits

The shift to digital spurred by the pandemic left nonprofits with a few clear digital priorities. Your site could no longer remain unchanged for weeks and still effectively engage with your audience. And just as importantly, your communications team needed the ability to make website changes and improvements. There was no longer time to wait for your website agency to tweak every event page for you.

As websites became a critical touchpoint between nonprofits and their audience, the addition of website analytics introduced crucial capabilities for tracking how well their message is connecting with users. However, even now, website analytics remains a largely untapped resource for many organizations.

Google Analytics is a complex application that delivers a firehose of information. Anyone but the most technically adept users will struggle to understand how to extract value from all its data. Even as organizations view reports about the parts of their sites that are attracting traffic, there’s little direction in the platform of what to do with that information.

For example, when one page is performing well, does that mean your organization should make more content like it? Or should you focus on improving what isn’t drawing as many visitors? Even a supposedly negative metric like bounce rate could be misinterpreted if users are leaving a page because they found the information they needed.

Nonprofits needed more than a new suite of tools to keep their organization afloat during a difficult time. They needed (and continue to need) a big-picture strategy that allows them to replicate in-person successes. Plus the people and processes to support any new approaches they adopted.

Refining online experiences provided a lifeline for nonprofits

It’s common knowledge that public events play a pivotal role in nonprofit fundraising, which meant organizations needed to pivot to online alternatives during the pandemic. However, even as nonprofits built out their websites to support virtual events, simply installing the right technology wasn’t enough to ensure results.

Even with a digital agency as your development partner, you could only rely on them to do so much. Zoom may offer the right functionality, but getting people to show up and giving them an engaging experience once they arrive is your organization’s responsibility. Technology alone wasn’t enough to ensure the results nonprofits needed.

Virtual fundraising events remain a work in progress

Most organizations only began experimenting with virtual events when the pandemic presented them with no other option. Consequently, they remain a work in progress. Replicating the full impact of an in-person experience remains a high bar to clear, but a number offered promising approximations of what the organization was hoping to capture.

The arts and media institution BRIC needed to transform their annual concerts, such as Celebrate Brooklyn!, into an online experience. During the pandemic, BRIC hosted virtual counterparts to the performances, but they also allowed audiences flexibility that real life doesn’t allow. Rather than being tied to the event’s schedule, BRIC archived the concerts so users could access them at their convenience.

Organizations planning virtual events should examine the details of their in-person experiences and consider how those could best translate. If your organization has a signature cocktail for every annual gala, can that collective experience be translated online? How can a talk from a key figure in your community look different from any video conference during the average workday?

By applying a strategic approach to events, you’ll be able to foster the sense of community your organization needs. And, just as critically, raise the funds your initiatives require.

Virtual experiences expand the audience for nonprofits

Once organizations dial in how to attract and engage their audiences for virtual events, they gain a new advantage through the expansive reach of digital. Rather than limiting their potential donors to the size of their venue and its location, some nonprofits have been able to extend their reach into new directions.

Digital strategies adopted for survival now enhance ongoing efforts

Nonprofits with an expanded approach to digital find themselves with new options for the future. Even as in-person events are again possible, organizations that have established digital alternatives have a powerful resource in place. One they should plan to continue to leverage to their advantage.

With restrictions lifted, nonprofits can now offer their audiences a hybrid of in-person and virtual events. Or some organizations may continue pursuing digital alternatives and allocate the costs of staging in-person events elsewhere.

In 2022, Jewish Family Service LA opted to again host a virtual gala, which allowed the organization to reach an audience beyond Los Angeles as they had the previous year. But just as importantly, a virtual event eliminated the need to rent a hall, which allowed the nonprofit to invest those expenses into their community instead.

The pandemic offered a clear message that nonprofits needed to adapt to survive. Assuming we continue on a path toward a new normal, those who invested in creating better digital experiences will have better chances to thrive going forward.