Strategic planning

Know the Drill,
Practice the Drill:

Five Takeaways in Rapid Response from our Nonprofit Advisory Board

The insights below were shared by members of our MissionWired Nonprofit Advisory Board, experts from seven organizations: Americares, Easterseals, The Nature Conservancy, Project HOPE, Save the Children, Covenant House International, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – ALSAC. As part of the Nonprofit Advisory Board, this team of fundraising leaders outlines solutions to the challenges faced by the nonprofit world. You can learn more about our Nonprofit Advisory Board here.

In the days immediately following the launch of attacks in Ukraine, nonprofit organizations have mobilized quickly to gather support and utilize their resources to offer aid to those impacted by the crisis. We did not expect, when we convened our first-ever Nonprofit Advisory Board dedicated to determining how to continue to innovate in the direct response world, that it would overlap with a crisis of such historic scale. With leaders in the nonprofit space gathered around a table together, our first conversation centered around rapid response: the questions they ask themselves, their approach to timing, and the organizational hurdles they avoid to act fast.

As a result of this conversation, and the developing response to the crisis in Ukraine, we’re returning to the subject of Rapid Response to dive deeper, offering five things to keep in mind from some of the top names in nonprofit fundraising.

1.  Pause, mobilize, or wait-and-see? Consider your organization’s reach and mission.

The very first thing to consider in a moment of breaking news and urgent need is whether your organization’s mission is affected by the news directly, indirectly, or minimally/not at all. Among the nonprofit leaders at the table with us, response to the crisis in Ukraine was as varied as the scope of their programs.

An organization whose mission aligned directly with the crisis reacted quickly to mobilize a complex and sizable response, utilizing a large following they had previously built up through charity streaming to yield immediate, significant results. An organization that does not have active programming in the area, but has partners working in Ukraine, worked closely with their partners to scale and respond. Another organization chose to pause an unrelated email campaign, reflect on what was unfolding, and launch a response that focused on the aspect of the crisis that directly impacts their mission. And for a nonprofit with an urgent mission unrelated to the unfolding crisis, the decision to pause content centered around concern that a new campaign would be buried by breaking news.

2.  Timing is everything: Know the circumstances that will trigger a rapid response.

If a crisis warrants a response from your organization, we stand by advice we’ve given before: Be quick. But for organizations with indirectly related missions, or with disagreement among internal teams, the decision about when to respond can be more complex. One nonprofit we partner with advises setting guidelines in advance to ease decision making in high-stakes moments. If your teams know before a crisis strikes, “If X, Y, and Z happens, we are going to respond,” then acting in the moment becomes follow-through, rather than a subject open to debate.

Above all, if your program can get involved in relief efforts, don’t let the moment pass. As crises develop, waiting too long can diminish the relevance of your response, and opportunities to ask for support can be missed when the moment shifts and the core message of the crisis pivots.

3.  “We’re monitoring this”: Weigh your priorities in your initial response.

When we asked about logistical challenges in the first steps of a quickly mobilized response, one nonprofit advised carefully selecting which channels to utilize in initial and subsequent messaging. Their approach centers on funneling an initial response into the tried-and-true core channels of digital fundraising – search, email, and paid ads – and seeing how they perform. As the response continues, they recommend expanding into new channels, testing new approaches, and accepting new donation sources such as crypto currency: “Try everything because the moment warrants it.”

Other organizations responding in Ukraine discussed the challenge of messaging when fundraising and programmatic impact don’t immediately align: Supporters are eager for details before a program team can safely assess the situation as a crisis unfolds. These circumstances benefit from lightly designated appeals and access to unrestricted funding, so your organization can bring supporters into the process even while you’re assessing how support can best be utilized. But broader fundraising appeals should still exist alongside an organization’s efforts to communicate about the developing crisis. As another nonprofit reminded us, “Given how polarized news outlets have become, organizations whose supporters know they have boots on the ground are looked to as their eyes and ears, to give the hard facts of what we’re seeing. We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of messaging that offers the content we have from the field.”

4.  Know the drill, and practice the drill.

The best way to prepare to launch rapid response messaging is not only to have a plan, but to practice that plan. For this, one nonprofit recommends running a literal drill. As soon as the events your organization has agreed would trigger a rapid response have happened, tactically the infrastructure of your approach will remain the same: the steps that will need to be followed, no matter the context, to launch a response. By isolating that sequence and walking through it, and by tracking the approver needed in each step, you can prepare and mock the entire process so that when a conflict arises, your team can simply feed the related content through an existing stream.

5.  To expedite efficiency, align communications teams for emergency response.

Moments of urgent need might call for internal structures and pipelines specifically designed to speed up the process. One nonprofit determines control over response by the intent of messaging. Another designates an Emergency Group responsible for rapid response. A third organization delineates responsibility clearly between marketing and fundraising teams, utilizing a group chat to speed up communication in rapid response moments.

The key to aligning internal communications is to keep a program from getting in its own way, and in moments of rapid response, that might mean identifying the steps that can be bypassed to allow content to get out into the world more quickly. One organization grants agency to certain teams in moments of emergency response, allowing them to send content under a set of guidelines without senior leadership approvals, to help get their message out in time to garner critically needed support. When determining rapid response procedures for your team, consider how structures can meet the urgency of the moment without sacrificing the quality and consistency of the message.

As our world continues to surprise us, one thing remains constant: urgent needs are met by organizations working toward change, supported by donors who are listening and ready to help. To read what we’ve shared before about rapid response, check out our Top 5 Takeaways from Rapid Response Fundraising for Haiti and Afghanistan or Powerful Results in Key Moments with AdvantageAI.