by Chris Carter and Kyla Winchester

Where I am geographically, the metaphorical place we’re in right now feels uncomfortably familiar: COVID cases are climbing out of control, leaders who should be keeping us safe seem to be dropping the ball, and the stress is making everyone cranky. (Seriously, have you been out there? Everyone is cranky. Understandably.)

However, there are still things to be done, work to be completed, to-do lists to be checked off.  Ideally, I’d like to tell you to just take a nap if you need it, or take a day off, or a month. For most people though, that’s not feasible—we still need to pay the bills.

To balance this—how to be productive when productive things seems overwhelming—we have a suggestion. If you are able to, consider carefully what can and should be done right now. Event planning? Maybe not right now—events will be back, but who knows when; and planning an event that might be cancelled or rescheduled might seem even more like a fruitless task than last year. (If you do want to plan an event right now—if it gives you purpose and something concrete to work on—then definitely do it!)

Ideally, it’s best to work on something that:

  • doesn’t feel pointless or premature (sorry gala, run, and cocktail party, this is likely where you are right now)
  • is productive and useful enough to be satisfying (and helpful for your, you know, job)
  • doesn’t cause additional stress
  • and is unaffected/minimally affected by capacity limits or other pandemic-related restrictions (like commuting, travel, or availability of colleagues who may increasingly be off sick/caring for others)

Considering all of that, do the options feel like a short list to you? It might be longer than you’d think. We have some suggestions below. In addition however, focus on what you know has already been working, in terms of fundraising and marketing; if you need a revenue boost, do more of something you’re already comfortable with, and have all the tools in place. For example if your direct mail campaigns are going well, rather than testing an entirely new program (e.g. telemarketing), consider trying a new mailing or expanding direct mail acquisition.

Personas/donor data

Data is always a work in progress: there’s always new fields to standardize, new people to train, new queries to run and reports to perfect. However, that means data can always use your attention. If you’ve ever wanted to undertake a bigger task—reviewing how interests are entered, for example, to better tailor personalized messages—now might be a great time.

If you’re keen on data but the words “database clean-up” make you want to flee, consider reviewing and updating personas instead. There have been a lot of changes since March of 2020—supporters have moved into more suburban or rural areas, new outreach and engagement initiatives may have attracted new donors, and our channel mix may have been altered as well.  This could affect your org’s personas, a profile of a “typical donor” based on the info you have in your database. Perhaps your typical annual donor was urban, over 50, liked travel and wine; now they may be suburban, skewing slightly younger and interested in gardening instead. There are small changes, but multiplying them over thousands of impressions can have a huge affect. If you use your previous personas to devise an acquisition strategy based on a DIY wine stand tutorial (Gen Xers love DIY), it could do fine; however if you share a tutorial on DIY garden beds, it could prove even more successful. If you have the inclination, reviewing and updating personas could prove very fruitful.

Donor survey

Speaking of personas, when did you last do a survey? They can help for things that you can ask donors about where their opinion or memory is pertinent. For example, if you’d like to find out how someone first gave to your org, the database is probably more useful. But if you ask donors why they give, or what messaging they like, or what channels they prefer, you might get more useful info. Of course, donors, being people after all, don’t always know why they do something, or may misremember what motivated them to give. But it’s a good time of year for a survey since you’re less likely to compete with renewal. And it checks a lot of “can I do this right now?” boxes: it can be done with minimal input from others; it’s very relevant and helpful for fundraising, and it’s satisfying, because you send a survey off; and you receive some sweet, sweet data you can use in upcoming campaigns. Move this one higher on your list.

Infrastructure/tech/data audit

This is another item that’s often last on people’s to do list, usually because fixing what’s found to be a problem can become a headache in itself. However, an infrastructure audit may not require an expensive complicated solution: sometimes a revision to process or coding can make all the difference. A lot of nonprofits quickly implemented new tools in the sudden pivot to online in March 2020—with digital-only campaigns, crowdfunding, and virtual events came syncing challenges,  manual processes, workarounds, cross-checking reports and extra data entry.

Building lists and sorting information in things such as Excel can be soothing for many personality types. For example, you’ve always wanted to clean up some typos in your titles in the database: maybe you had a couple outliers such as Ms but also Ms. and maybe even “M s”. Here’s your chance to identify those outliers, lock your options down and clean up bad records.

Similarly, processes, systems, and procedures could have seemed overwhelming and may be hovering over you, creating stress. Here’s a chance to build things such as a flowchart to see how all the systems interact with each other and start identifying roadblocks.

It’s well known that creating quick wins for yourself can reduce stress and improve your mood. It’s why experts often suggest putting simple things on your to-do list, such as making your bed: you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment getting it done but also crossing it off your list. Cleaning up a database field—eliminating that archaic, time-consuming process—will provide the same sort of relief.  

Articles/content/editorial calendar planning

We’ve all been there, staring at a blank page on the screen, or an empty table where planed social posts should be outlined. If any of your work involves having and then executing “ideas,” you know the feeling of having to fill up weeks or months of content out of what seems like thin air.

So if things are quiet right now, as they often are in January, get a head start on your content for the year! There are a million ways to approach this kind of thing, whether for articles, social or planning an editorial calendar as a whole. However, when everything is possible it can seem like too many options, and the trick is narrowing it down to something specific. Get your brainstorming cap on, and perhaps inspiration will strike, such as:

  • themes on a topic, such as new hashtags for day of the week or issues important to your org
  • how you can tie an interest (see gardening and DIY, above) to articles or posts
  • a series for new supporters, covering representative mission-based topics or addressing FAQ in more depth (“how does the org do X?”)
  • a series checking in on past stories, like popular features/posts from last year;
  • guest posts from colleagues, board members, experts in the field or prominent supporters
  • and so on

If a straight brainstorm session doesn’t work, there are many more approaches:

  • Book brainstorm meetings with colleagues who work in a different area than you, or get exposed to a different side of the organization, or who have contact with donors.
  • Read, a lot! Read relevant content generally to see if any ideas float to the surface, or read content from other charities to get ideas you can customize for your org.
  • Do an analysis on content from the last year to determine if there are patterns in which were clicked, when, etc.

Some people are marathoners and some people prefer to sprint, so keep in mind you can break this up into half-hour segments or move to all-day creative sessions depending on what works for your  creativity.

"Story hunting"

One of the challenges with DM (and other things too, like email) is finding a good story. It has to check all the boxes: illustrate a problem that can be solved by donations; represent a scenario that is typical for your org to address; that has a single person (or animal) who can personalize the situation; and hopefully with good photos to help communicate visually to supporters. Finding stories that have all of these details can be challenging, and it often feels even more difficult when you can see the required stories for all the year’s DM stacked up in front of you like an unending to-do list.

Well, you have time now, so this could be the opportunity to unearth hidden gems. Try booking a chat with colleagues who might have stories who you don’t talk to often enough. (I started doing video-chats regularly when we moved to remote work. I called them ‘watercooler chats’ to replace moments in the kitchen etc. when you casually chat with colleagues. I recommend them even if you’re not story-mining!) Even if it’s someone you talk to a lot, the experience of brainstorming for stories can be different even on video than over email. It’s easier to give different prompts in person, like, what’s a mission-delivery moment that stuck with you? What conversation with a client do you remember from a year ago? What outreach do you recall as especially effective? And then in response you can ask for more info on certain things or inquire about photos etc. Alternatively, cast a wider net than usual when you seek stories: you may end up with some stories that aren't suitable, but tuck them away for other purposes as needed. And you might uncover some hidden gems in the process.

Times are rough, for at least the next little while—though COVID predictions have been proven wrong before, and who knows where we’ll be in the spring. In the meantime, as much as you are able, try to find to some work you can do at this moment that fills your cup—or at least doesn’t empty it.