Digital Fundraising During the Covid Outbreak – Messaging and Tier 1 Tactics

The covid outbreak has created a sudden need to rapidly scale up digital advocacy and/or digital fundraising for a number of our partner organisations. This is because they’ve had to temporarily shut down the offline channels they’ve traditionally relied on, the outbreak is disrupting or creating additional demand for their services, and/or there’s an urgent need to advocate for policy changes to support at-risk groups.

We’re planning to put out some blogs over the next few days to help any organisations we’re not able to directly support with their response. The blogs will outline the strategy we’re recommending and give more detailed advice on how organisations can start to do this work themselves.


We’ve divided our recommended strategy into four tiers. We’d suggest starting work on all four tiers now if you have the capacity, but prioritising Tier 1 > Tier 2 > Tier 3 > Tier 4 if capacity is limited.

  • Tried and tested tactics to drive online donations, with low lead in times
  • Low cost, quick-to-implement optimisations
  • Longer lead time, but with potential to deliver high returns over the next few months
  • Newer, more experimental tactics

This first blog covers messaging and priority Tier 1 tactics.

Messaging during the crisis

While the outbreak is so high in the public’s consciousness, more than ever urgency, timeliness, emotion, and tangible impact will be crucial to fundraising asks that perform well online, while also ensuring you’re keeping your messaging balanced, accurate and responsible.

As ever, the best approach is to test A/B different copy and imagery as much as possible to find your best performing content. Within that testing, we suggest prioritising asks that make it clear how this is urgent and different from “business as usual” campaigning and fundraising. This could be:

  • Explaining how your beneficiaries are at risk unless there is an urgent change in policy
  • Demonstrating how you are delivering additional work to support beneficiaries impacted by covid, e.g. launching new services to support people isolated at home.
  • Explaining how demand for your services has increased – for example, a higher number of calls to your helpline from people anxious about/affected by covid.
  • Being honest about the extent to which covid has impacted your ability to fund your work (e.g. because you’ve had to scale back offline fundraising activities), and making it clear that you urgently need support to continue to deliver vital work. If you test this approach, you’ll need to find the right balance between acknowledging the bigger picture (especially if you’re not a medical or aid organisation), while still making your case in a compelling way.

Whatever your ask, it will be important to use an emotive narrative to bring it to life. Given the spike in need and disruption in people’s own lives, if you can’t demonstrate to people why what you’re doing is particularly important, right now, it’s unlikely to succeed.

This messaging approach (including A/B testing creative in everything you can, from ads to pop ups) should apply across all the tactics below.

Tier 1 – Tried and tested tactics to drive donations and online actions, with low-lead times

Direct-to-donate Facebook ads

Assuming you already have Facebook ads manager setup and you need to fundraise, this is the easiest and quickest tactic to get going with straight away:

  • Start by spending £150/day, then adjust spend up or down depending on performance. The higher the spend the more donations, but the higher the cost of those donations. Your metric of success should be which kind of ads deliver the best lifetime return on ad spend (i.e. the ratio between ad spend and lifetime income received) – at the very least, return on ad spend needs to be 100% or more, of course. If it’s too low, try reducing the ad spend and/or testing new creative.
  • If possible, use the Facebook pixel to optimise for completed donations. If not, optimise by clicks, but ensure your ads have unique URL tracking so you can spot and deactivate any which are driving lots of clicks but very few conversions, and set minimum spend levels to ensure each ad gets a fair shot.
  • Test a range of fundraising propositions to find the most compelling asks. For example, with Refuge we recently found that direct-to-donate Facebook ads to their “Refuge parcels” virtual gifts product outperform standard one-off/monthly donation asks.
  • Draft and test lots of different ads. One or two different copy and image combinations isn’t enough: identify 3 – 4 different framings of your ask, and for each copy variant draft 4 – 5 copy variants and choose 3 – 4 different images. Then set up every combination of image and ad copy – that could be as many as 45 – 60 different variants. Testing a wide range of creative will almost always deliver you significantly better results than testing just one or two variants – it’s extremely hard to consistently and accurately predict what will do well.
  • Test a range of audiences, but keep them broad. We’d suggest 3-4 default audiences to test: 1) Anyone in the UK over 18, 2) A 3% lookalike of your email list or Facebook followers, 3) One or two audiences with interests relevant to your work (audiences should be 800k people plus). Set up each audience as an Ad Set within one Campaign, fill each Ad Set with all your creative variants, turn on Budget Optimization at the campaign level, and Facebook will automatically optimise spend towards your best converting audience. If you’re optimising using the pixel, you don’t need to worry about turning off poorly performing audiences or ad variants – Facebook will de-prioritise them automatically.
  • Test one off vs. Direct Debit asks. In A/B tests, we typically see Direct Debit asks delivering much higher lifetime income than one off asks. It’s possible the urgency of the moment will change this for covid-related asks; it may make more sense to people to make a one off donation that can help now than set up a smaller monthly donation. So we’d suggest A/B testing one off vs. Direct Debit asks, but ensuring that your one off thank you page upsells people to a Direct Debit (more on this in the Tier 2 blog)

Email campaigns for your pre-existing supporters

Start by drafting and sending a 4 – 6 email series, centred around one-to-two urgent, covid-related fundraising/advocacy asks.

The emails should be sent in short succession (e.g. one every 24 – 48 hours). If this campaign performs well, keep writing and sending emails. Don’t worry that your supporters will feel bombarded – as long as you’ve got a reason to email them, people are much more forgiving of email volume than a lot of us assume. And if your emails aren’t resonating with supporters you’ll see it in how they perform. So use the email performance data to make decisions on whether to send more email: if the last email performed well, send another one.

If at all possible, all emails should be sent to all supporters on your email list, not just people who’ve taken a similar action previously. All the data we’ve seen suggests supporters are willing to take a wide range of different actions for organisations if the actions are valuable and motivating, which the ones you’re sending out at the moment will be.

If you’re fundraising: make sure your donation technology isn’t costing you income

The user experience of your donation pages has a huge impact on how much money you will raise. For example, we’ve run tests where changes to user experience have more than doubled the percentage of visitors who complete their donation, and a recent donate page redesign and rebuild project increased conversion rate from 5% to 17%. Setting up optimised donation technology will be crucial to maximising income from the increased traffic you’re driving to your donation forms over the next few months.

This technology doesn’t need to be permanent: it will be better to set up short-term technology that maximises donation rates now and work out transferring the data to your CRM later, than to potentially lose tens of thousands of pounds to poor performing donate tech over the coming months.

If this is something you think your organisation needs to do, get in touch and we can discuss getting you set up on Forward Action’s Blueprint donation platform as soon as we can.

UPDATE – Blogs 2 and 3 now ready:

Blog 2: Quick-to-implement optimisation wins to make the most of increased traffic

Blog 3: Longer lead time, but with potential to deliver high returns over the next few months