In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, people across America flooded civil rights nonprofits with first-time donations. This money and support has created fresh momentum in the long fight for racial equity. However, if organizations don’t adapt their infrastructure and systems to fully engage new supporters, this influx of resources may fail to create long-term impact.

Events in the global news cycle always influence the public’s giving behavior – something humanitarian aid organizations understand well. Yet the sharp rise in donations to racial justice organizations seen in 2020 seems to have marked something fundamentally different – and important – in the world of nonprofit audience engagement. 

For years, communications and fundraising professionals have conceived of an engagement funnel that starts with awareness, continues with affinity, and ends with financial giving and brand advocacy—a typical process of transforming casual observers into loyal supporters. What happens, though, when nonprofits see a surge of donors who are not actually aware of what these organizations do? Donors who are contributing to a fundraiser at the behest of their favorite K-pop star or yoga studio, and may not even know your organization’s name?

For those on the front lines for racial justice, this challenge is real and urgent. When an unexpected windfall comes, old systems, processes and mental models for engaging supporters are no longer sufficient or relevant. Adapt too slowly, and organizations risk failing to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity—hampering their mission to tackle the systemic injustices of racism.

The unique challenges of a windfall

The Advancement Project is a civil rights organization that supports national and local grassroots organizing movements for racial justice. It is one of numerous groups facing a version of this unique dilemma. As #BLM gained momentum in May and June 2020, lists of justice-oriented nonprofits worthy of financial support sprung up across the Internet. The Advancement Project’s donor base swelled as an influx of small-dollar donations started arriving from across the globe. Indeed, at one point earlier in 2020, nearly 75% of donations through their website were coming from a simple Carrd site created by a teenager that went viral with celebrities and media outlets.

While one-time financial contributions are potentially transformative, organizations that seek to convert them into a sustainable base of long-term support require solid audience engagement systems. ParsonsTKO helps nonprofits supercharge engagement through precisely this focus on internal systems—and we’ve been thrilled to partner with the Advancement Project as part of our commitment to social justice, helping them harness the enthusiasm of a new generation of supporters. 

In our experience supporting dozens of nonprofits, the challenges that civil rights organizations now face are, in many ways, simply exaggerated versions of the same ones that many other mission-driven groups experience (no matter their current financial outlook). What differs is the level of urgency. In order to maximize the potential of an unprecedented moment, groups like Advancement Project are accelerating improvements to their systems for nurturing engagement with supporters at a new scale. 

Mechanisms for strengthening audience engagement

Developing and sustaining deep, durable engagement with your most critical supporters hinges on the strength of your Engagement Architecture—the integrated system of platforms, people and processes that drive your outreach. In particular, Advancement Project’s experience points to the importance of a few sector-wide opportunities for boosting audience engagement.

Developing automated, evergreen content for brand new donors

For every nonprofit, educating new supporters on how to deepen their commitment to the cause is critical. But when donors are circumventing the traditional engagement funnel—moving immediately to giving without first understanding the organization’s core work—it’s even more important for communications and development professionals to have straightforward, evergreen content that connects donors with answers to their questions.  

A well-crafted, automated welcome email series is one of the most effective means for organizations to accomplish this. It tells new supporters exactly who you are, what you do, and how they can help. If you already have a welcome series in place, consider if an alternate version for donors who are relatively unfamiliar with your organization might be valuable. This might be targeted to individuals who come to your nonprofit from crowdfunding campaigns, rather than directly through your website.

Unifying donor and email lists into a cohesive system that streamlines and segments your communications

A rapid increase in the number of giving platforms in recent years has given nonprofits and their supporters more options than ever to raise money. Indeed, as #BLM-affiliated organizations have experienced, individuals increasingly fundraise on groups’ behalf without their direct input via crowdsourcing sites like Facebook, ActBlue and Tiltify. While opening up fresh channels for support, this fragmentation makes life much more challenging for those who must manage the data on the back end. One typical result? Audience records are housed in systems that don’t speak to each other, with inconsistent standards and imperfect data quality. 

Ensuring that various databases housing supporter information are unified into a single, integrated system effectively addresses this issue. However, this doesn’t always mean you have to migrate to a new platform! In most cases, clear processes and governance can define a single source of truth for data even if, for example, donors and email subscribers first enter their data via different systems. This allows organizations a fuller picture of their audience members’ actions and engagement, enabling effective segmentation based sothat  communications and fundraising professionals can move quickly in response to unexpected developments.

Aligning the outreach work of communications, development and membership teams

Especially when the stakes are high, it’s enormously valuable to have a holistic, organization-wide outreach strategy to interact directly with audience members. Otherwise, uncoordinated messages and poor experiences can turn off donors and potential supporters. Our experience is that harmonized cross-departmental outreach is very much the exception, rather than the rule. 

Ideally, a holistic outreach strategy identifies key audience segments, has clear engagement goals and metrics, and spells out governance processes that ensure effective coordination across departments. It typically takes involvement from executive leadership or a neutral third party to catalyze these cross-departmental efforts, and develop workable governance protocols that accommodate each department’s unique business needs.

The importance of Engagement Architecture

For many nonprofits in the midst of the global pandemic, the challenge is not too much revenue, but too little money to meet growing demands. Regardless of your current financial state, Engagement Architecture remains a vital framework for mitigating the risks of change and uncertainty that we all face in unstable times. Deeply engaged stakeholders are the key to our collective success. With sustained attention and investment, we can grow their enthusiasm and support—and increase the resources at our disposal to create enduring change for our country.