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How to Use Donor Data to Develop a Crisis Fundraising Strategy


In recent weeks, every nonprofit organization in the country has grappled with new challenges. While these challenges differ from sector to sector and from region to region, for most organizations, business as usual is no longer possible.

With that in mind, your fundraising strategies don’t need to be put on pause, but they do need to shift. Outreach to your top supporters should keep happening (over the phone and videoconferencing) with strategies that reflect the current moment. Simultaneously, organizations that have the bandwidth should plan for what comes next, identifying prospects to cultivate now for asks later.

For most organizations, the challenge will be using limited resources effectively. To rise to the moment, we recommend a three-stage process—get ready, get set, go!—which any organization can execute in as little as three weeks. While this process will involve your entire team, success will allow you to secure gifts now and build capacity for the long term.

Stage 1: Get Ready

Getting ready is the first step. By taking stock of what data you have and what data you need, you’ll be in a better position to plan your initial outreach and adjust your strategies as you move forward. This first step includes many moving parts (including data integrity, reports, segmenting, and survey), but an investment of time now will save you more time later.

Not all organizations will be able to quickly collect all this information. If you’re limited by time or resources, focus your efforts on segmenting prospective donors with the data you have. Preparing these segments will be critical for what comes next.


Start this process by looking at your database. Maintaining clean, accurate data will take a small investment of time but will pay dividends down the road. Focus on these five questions:

1. Have you been updating addresses? Having the right address and properly categorizing it (e.g. home vs. business) has several benefits. For one, you’ll likely be relying more on direct mail now that in-person fundraising is off the table. For another, home address data is useful for conducting additional research like wealth screenings.

If you haven’t done so in the past year, consider conducting a National Change of Address data append. An email append can also be a useful step if you haven’t conducted one recently, especially as digital outreach will continue to increase in the months ahead.

2. Have you been checking for duplicate records? There are always more duplicate records in your database than you expect, and these can interfere with consistent tracking. There can either be more than one record for the same constituent or more than one record from different constituents in the same household who aren’t linked.

Your database system might do some of this for you, but if not, it’s a quick process:

  • Export your constituent base’s IDs, names, and home addresses.
  • Create a household key by pulling the beginning of the address field (e.g. first 13 characters), city, state, and last name.
  • Compare those household keys to find people who live at the same house with the same last name but with different IDs.
  • Once you look through the list to verify that duplicates caught should either be merged into one record or householded together, merge the records in your database using its unique merge constituents feature or add relationships to link related household members.

3. Are you tracking your appeals? At this moment, what kind of appeals work best might be an open question—and the answer most likely varies by constituency and timing. Tracking appeals, on the front end as they are sent out and the backend as donors respond to them, will help you answer that question and redirect limited resources to the most effective fundraising strategies.

4. Are your relationship management tracking processes up to date? It’s important to know who your top donors and prospective donors are and ensure they are individually managed. Too often, we find portfolios are populated with longtime institutional friends or annual fund donors who do not intend to increase their giving significantly.

Your best donors and prospective donors should be assigned to fundraisers’ portfolios with stages and proposals tracked in your database. You may need to change proposal amounts and dates as you learn more about their willingness to give, but having this data filled in will help you evaluate your pipeline. If you haven’t been tracking this data, now is the time to start!

5. Are you tracking actions? With development staff working from home, it’s especially critical to share information about fundraising activity systematically. Do you have a way to track virtual meetings vs. in-person meetings? This may be important to know later in the relationship. If needed, consider holding a quick refresher session on how to track fundraising data for everyone who will be using the system.


While you’re focusing on data hygiene, you should also make sure you have the database reports you need. With the right reports, you can track and share progress, making sure your fundraising is coordinated effectively.

If you have time, you might consider building new reports for things that are pressing now. For example, do you have reports on fundraiser activity, response to specific appeals, or gifts to a crisis fund?

You can also check which reports are being run regularly and automate them. Not only does automation save time, it also removes the possibility for human error. If your database can’t do this, there are new inexpensive tools you can use. You can either check with your database provider, or ask us if you need more information.


As you move forward, you’ll likely have limited time for strategy development. To make sure you’re matching the right approach to the right donor, take some time to quickly segment your donor pool. You can do this by looking at three factors:

1. Capacity. This is how much potential the donor has to give. Capacity can be based on several factors, including:

  • Frontline or internal research assessments
  • Vendor wealth screening
  • Modeling projects
  • Peer screening activities with board or committee members

2. Engagement. How close is a constituent to your organization? Engagement measures this affinity, and there are a variety of ways to calculate it: a simple RFM score, a more sophisticated engagement score based on a point scale, or predictive models. Pick the one that best fits your internal expertise and time available. 

3. Risk. Do you know who your most at-risk donors are? And do you have a plan for them? Risk represents the urgency of reaching out to a constituent to keep them as a donor. Prospects with a high risk factor include:

  • Donors whose annual gifts are decreasing in value
  • Donors who typically give during events that are cancelled this year
  • Lapsed and first-time donors who gave last year but who have not yet renewed
  • Organizations that make gifts on a spring or summer cycle

Based on these three factors, you can assign prospects to segments, allowing you to develop a short-term action plan for each:

  Capacity Engagement Risk
Actively Managed (in portfolios) High High Low
To Be Qualified (in portfolios) High Medium Low-Medium
High-Risk Annual Supporters Medium Low-Medium High
Low-Risk Annual Supporters Low-Medium High Low
  • Actively Managed. These are your closest supporters, requiring tailored engagement strategies. Everyone in this segment should be assigned to a portfolio in the cultivation, solicitation, or stewardship stages. The next section explains how to make an individualized contact plan for check-in calls and use your CRM to keep you on track. Set aggressive, but achievable, goals for how many of these contacts each officer should strive for on a monthly basis.
  • To Be Qualified. Prospects in this category have demonstrated capacity and may be interested in deeper engagement based on their engagement score or giving history. You should continue to reach out to these folks for one-on-one interactions and check-in calls, even if those interactions look different than before.

    Contact them individually with the goal of determining who may be interested in making a more significant philanthropic impact. Again, set aggressive, but achievable, goals for how many of these contacts officers should aim to make each month. Download our how-to guide on major gift qualification to learn more.

  • High-Risk Annual Supporters. These annual supporters might decrease or cease their giving if they don’t get sufficient outreach. This group will need more creative outreach strategies, especially with the increased competition for philanthropic dollars.
  • Low-Risk Annual Supporters. These are annual supporters with low risk scores who will continue giving on an annual basis more or less consistently. Keep this group engaged with relevant and timely communication, but don’t put too much of your effort here. Leverage materials and events being developed across your organization to keep people informed and connected.

Keep in mind that not everyone in your database needs to be added to a segment! Starting with this list should help prioritize your prospect pool for key staff functions and ensure you are continuing to engage prospects and steward relationships, whether individually or as part of a group.


Finally, we recommend launching a short survey to all prospective donors who are not currently under management. (As discussed above, those under management can instead receive a check-in call from their relationship manager that hits the same points as the survey.)

You shouldn’t expect to hear from everyone. The point is to gather as many responses as quickly as possible, so you can get a sense of how your community is feeling. You want to find out:

  • How people are feeling in general
  • How they are feeling about your organization right now
  • How they want to communicate with you
  • Whether philanthropic giving is still on their radar right now

Keep the survey open for one week.

Download more detailed information on RFM and engagement scores, plus a sample COVID-19 response survey.


Stage 2: Get Set

In the second stage of this process, it’s time to use the segments you created and the survey data you received.


Begin by breaking up the survey responses by the segments noted above and looking for trends. How are people feeling group by group? Has interest in giving increased or decreased in specific segments? Are there specific leaders or staff that people want to hear from more?

Based on your findings, try to draw broad conclusions about your donor segments. Put these conclusions in writing and run them by frontline fundraisers, leadership, and/or communications staff to confirm that they feel right.

It’s okay if these conclusions aren’t 100% applicable to every supporter—the important thing is you have a starting place for quickly developing strategies.


Use your findings to develop a communications plan specific to each group. These plans should cover the next three to four months with the expectation that solicitations will still be conducted during the crisis, as appropriate. Engage the right team members for each segment, and think about the following:

  • How often will you communicate? Use preferences you gathered from the survey to plan how often each segment will receive outreach.
  • How will you communicate? Some segments may be most comfortable with virtual meetings, phone calls, emails, direct mail, or other channels. Make sure you’re connecting with them through their preferred method of communication.
  • What messages will you focus on? Segments will likely have different interests and respond to different types of appeals. Think about the standard messaging approach for each segment.
  • Who needs to be involved? Carrying out these strategies could be an all-hands-on-deck proposition. Identify the staff and volunteer support you’ll need.

Once you’ve completed these plans, check your database again. If there are any new reports you need to track success, start building them now.

Stage 3: Go!

Start executing your strategies for each segment as soon as they’re completed.

  • Actively Managed and To Be Qualified: For segments that require one-on-one communications, prioritize your donor lists by putting prospects ready for solicitation first. Remember to track outreach efforts in the system, review progress regularly, and discuss successes and challenges as a team.
  • High- and Low-Risk Annual Supporters: For segments that receive group communications, focus your efforts on getting the next big communications push out as soon as possible. Whether through a mass email, a mass mailing, a social media campaign, or a combination, your community needs to continue to hear from you. Once you make that push, stick to your plan to schedule subsequent communications. As with other segments, track actions and appeals in the database.

Throughout this process, keep an eye on your reports to track progress overall and by segment. These reports will be critical to continuing the path forward: while you can’t predict shifts in the overall philanthropic environment, the performance of different segments may offer some actionable lessons. If you’re able to do some A/B testing with specific messages or strategies, this can provide even more useful information.

Going Forward

We hope this approach is a helpful addition to your crisis management strategy. Although so much is uncertain, we’ve seen an outpouring of hard work, creativity, and generosity throughout the nonprofit sector over the past several weeks.

We’ve been grateful for the chance to partner with so many organizations as they navigate this difficult time, and we’d like to continue helping as much as possible.

Please visit our COVID-19 resource page and reach out with any questions you have—we can answer your questions via email, set up a complimentary 30-minute consulting session, or provide project support as you work through this process.

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