Building a successful digital mobilisation programme with Refuge


Forward Action first began working with Refuge in late 2019. Together, we smashed their Christmas 2019 digital fundraising goals through an email and ads campaign, supported by tech optimisation.

Next, we ran a rapid-response digital fundraising programme that brought in 6,325% more donations during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

These were both powerful fundraising moments, with emotions and generosity running high nationally. But we knew to sustain this success, Refuge needed a large base of engaged, motivated supporters who would continue to donate to fund their work and take action to win advocacy campaigns.

So, in summer 2020, we started working with Refuge to build an always-on digital mobilisation programme. So far, the results have been, in Refuge’s words, “transformational” for the organisation.


The programme at a glance

We’ve focussed on four key areas to build Refuge’s mobilisation programme:

  • Always-on supporter acquisition funnel — growing Refuge’s email list size from 2,000 to 73,000 and driving a 400% return on ad spend through immediate donations
  • A weekly, action-focused email programme — mobilising 45,000 supporters and achieving a stunning campaign win
  • Tech optimisation — granular iterations, which delivered a +117% increase in donation income
  • Scaling up activity for Christmas 2020 — the number of donations grew by +330%, year on year, relative to 2019

What We Did

Always-on supporter acquisition funnel

There’s a near-universal rule in digital mobilisation: the more supporters you can reach, the more impact you can have. More supporters means more donations, more online advocacy actions, and a larger pool from which to find the people willing to take your highest-impact actions, like volunteering or visiting their MP.

So, to begin to scale up the income and impact Refuge’s mobilisation programme could deliver, we set up an always-on email list growth programme to rapidly grow Refuge’s supporter base.

Using handraisers, together we recruited 33,000 new supporters in the months following the first lockdown. Through donations in the post-action slide of the handraiser, Refuge immediately recouped 435% of what they spent on Facebook ads to recruit new supporters – before sending a single fundraising email.

By asking people to sign their name in agreement of value-based statements, we connected Refuge to a whole new host of like-minded supporters through Facebook ads, trialling and iterating messaging along the way. Already, Refuge’s list has grown from 2,000 before we started working together to 73,000, and continues to grow rapidly by the day.

handraiser example

Always-on email programme

Getting supporters signed up to your email list is just one step – keeping them active is another. Ultimately, mobilisation is about driving people to take meaningful action, not just having large email lists for the sake of it.

While the moment a supporter first signs up is a great opportunity to drive them to take further action, successful mobilisation programmes drive supporters to take action again and again over time.

Since September last year, we’ve used email to engage supporters with a variety of campaigning asks — from signing petitions to participating in Refuge’s very own virtual festival.

A major accomplishment was mobilising just under 45,000 supporters to email government ministers about the Naked Threat campaign. This led to a huge campaign win: the government officially committed to amending the Domestic Abuse Bill to make threats to share intimate images a criminal offence.

As well as campaign asks, we’re seeing the cumulative effect of giving supporters multiple opportunities, over time, to donate. A previously untapped tactic, donate asks via email are now a reliable source of income for Refuge, as they move beyond direct to donate ads. Their regular giving file has trebled.

Naked Threat Campaign Image


Always-on testing and tech optimisation

Page optimisation has been crucial to helping Refuge drive their impressive results.

We A/B tested almost every element of the supporter journey; imagery, Facebook ad copy, email subject lines, donate asks – just to name a few.

To mobilise supporters, we need to understand what drives them to take action and then make design decisions around those insights, rather than our own preferences and gut instincts. We can’t assume we know what works best for supporters – we need to test it.

Working together on a longer-term digital programme means we can really think strategically about what to test, and identify the biggest opportunities to optimise and make Refuge’s donation pages work even harder for them.

We’ve seen some small changes lead to big improvements – for example, including different types of ‘upsell’, such as encouraging users purchasing a gift for a woman to add a gift for a child too, and vice versa. This led to an 8% increase in the number of gifts purchased.

Another significant finding was when we tested adding in a high value parcel on their Christmas donation page (replacing £75 with £500 as the highest gift). This increased their total parcel income by +117%.

Keeping an open mind about what will and won’t work, questioning assumptions, and always looking to use data to improve results, mean that we’re able to continually try new things to produce higher-converting pages and journeys – and create a better experience for Refuge’s supporters.


Reaping the rewards at Christmas 2020

Our 2020 Christmas fundraising campaign generated a 330% increase in the number of donations, year on year, relative to 2019: an incredible result for direct to donate ads at scale.

Building on the success in 2019, Refuge set more ambitious targets for Christmas 2020 – essentially allowing us to do more of the same, but go bigger. Of course, we also applied our learnings from the previous year, as well as drawing on the capacity-building and optimisation from the previous 10 months.

The results were really exciting. The campaign budget was more than 10x higher than the previous year, but achieved returns – and much more income to fund Refuge’s vital work. Our main takeaway was that there’s scope to go even bigger for Christmas 2021.

What’s the takeaway?

A strong digital mobilisation model is scalable and reliable, built and refined over time – not just a one-off breakthrough.

Whilst direct to donate ads can be very successful, performing especially well around key moments in the year, their performance can be relatively unpredictable.

Implementing a broader, more holistic strategy that’s evergreen also means that you can engage supporters in more than just a monetary way – they’re empowered with the chance to give their time, their words, and their ideas too.