Are Pandemic Donors Emergency Donors After All?

by Casie Craycraft

It was hard to tell at first. Many of us in the fundraising space went into the pandemic braced for a decline in giving. We assumed that the global health crisis and subsequent shutdown were going to impact donations. How could they not?

But as we all know, the opposite was true. People rallied and gave more than they had before. Causes that had a connection to the crisis faired better than others. And most organizations saw increases — an unexpected turn of events during a time when everything was so uncertain. It was a testament to the human spirit. People didn’t turn inward; they chose to reach outward instead.

Of course, the next question was what we should do with all these donors. Many of them were giving for the first time, and others were giving again after not donating for quite some time. The assumption was that all of them would be one-and-done donors — that they would behave like emergency donors motivated by the crisis, acting out of a desire to be part of a solution. But then they kept giving, staying on file, and making retention rates look better than ever. At least for a while.

So, what gives? The early analysis was telling us that these donors were not like typical crisis-responsive donors. Did donations continue to come in because of the long length of the shutdown? Did that give donors and prospects additional disposable income, which they chose to share with organizations doing good? Was there a connection between the stimulus checks and the donors who chose to pay that unexpected money forward?  And what has since changed? Are we seeing performance drop off because, for many, the crisis feels like it’s over and people are out and about, spending money again?

Clearly the economy is playing a role in the decline in donations. But it does seem that donors acquired, reactivated, or even retained during the pandemic are falling off at faster rates than other segments. Rates of decline are at about 20%. Donor files have been inflated with donors who are no longer giving.

It is time to rethink how donors are selected for direct response efforts. And here’s a good place to start: we should examine the decline in donors who were giving consistently before and thru the pandemic, compared to those who joined or came back during the pandemic. The implication of larger files on costs and performance trends have to be factored into our analysis. As you look at your full file, we don’t think you should entirely give up on these unexpected pandemic-responsive donors … but until the data tells us more about them, you definitely shouldn’t count on them, either.

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