From Emergency Donor to Sustainer: A Q&A with Save the Children

Melanie Holec, Associate Vice President, Director of Content, MissionWired
Duncan Stewart, Associate Vice President, Strategy & Development, MissionWired
Karen Barr, Managing Director, Supporter Experience, Save the Children
Jon Wheeler, Senior Director of Digital Marketing, Save the Children

From the earliest moments following the invasion of Ukraine, donors have been showing up to offer support to those affected by the crisis. Save the Children, whose teams have been working to deliver aid in Ukraine since 2014, saw supporters give at unprecedented levels, with more than 100,000 people donating in the weeks following the invasion across online and offline channels. 

How has Save the Children approached their effort to retain these emergency donors and convert them to sustainers and multi-gift donors as the crisis continues? I sat down with two leaders at Save the Children, Karen Barr (Managing Director of Supporter Acquisition & Retention) and Jon Wheeler (Senior Director of Digital Marketing), as well as MissionWired AVP Duncan Stewart, who leads the MissionWired team partnering with Save the Children on digital strategy, to talk through the response to their emergency fundraising efforts and how they’re approaching donor retention.

MH: When an emergency or disaster occurs, what questions does your organization immediately ask to determine how it will approach response?

KB: One thing that really helps our emergency response to move quickly is having a decision tree in place that is focused on rapid response. We can ask the key questions: Do we have programming in the area? Are we able to make an impact for children in this crisis? What story are we able to tell of that impact to our donors and followers? With these guiding questions, we’re able to make decisions to scale up an emergency response far more quickly than we have managed in the past.

MH: And when the crisis in Ukraine began, what were the first steps you took?

JW: We were fortunate to be able to lean on our existing Children’s Emergency Fund, which provided us with some immediate support to allow us to act quickly while our new fundraising efforts began in response to the emergency. And unlike what you see with, say, a disaster like an earthquake, this was a crisis that showed some warning signs, so we were able to make some preparations on our website in the days leading up to the emergency. With those initial response strategies underway, we were also able to launch our first emails and mobile messaging within the first hours of the news breaking. We saw a huge response to our referral campaigns with The New York Times, Yahoo, “The Today Show,” and other platforms.

DS: The Save the Children team was able to provide fantastic content for our digital team to work with right away, which made a huge difference. Because their teams in Poland and Romania were responding so quickly, and they were able to provide very specific stories and images, we could get to the top of inboxes sharing messages over email and SMS that told concrete stories of the work that Save the Children was doing, giving the audience the opportunity to respond right away and make a difference.

MH: What kind of response did you see to your rapid-response appeals following the initial attacks in Ukraine?

JW: What we saw can really only be described as unprecedented results: The response from our existing donors was strong, but our strategies for engaging prospective donors yielded an incredible response. Our efforts with paid digital brought in new donors at an incredibly low cost per dollar raised, from the first few days and continuing for weeks after the immediate response.

KB: In total at this point, we’ve reached over 100,000 total donors between online and offline gifts, and we’ve also seen our mid-level and major gifts donors giving at unprecedented levels. And so with all of these new donors coming in, it gets you thinking about how to cultivate and steward them so that you’re able to keep them supporting Save the Children. Typically, we’ve seen that conversions of emergency response donors to sustainers are quite low, but given the fact that this is a longer-tail emergency, much like the ongoing efforts in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we wondered if we might see a different sort of response than we’ve seen with past emergencies.

MH: Can you talk a little bit about the strategies you’re using to retain these donors?

JW: Our strategy, working with the MissionWired team, took on a multi-faceted approach. We utilized targeted versioning with our list of emergency-response donors, specifically thanking them for their previous donations to provide aid during the crisis. And our content was also focused on delivering detailed equivalencies to say to our donors, “This is the work we’re doing. This is the impact of your gift.”

DS: We’re seeing a strong response to pure engagement stories. Long-form narrative emails that don’t have a direct ask, or all-graphic emails with just a soft ask at the end, saw a record-breaking response in donations, just from sharing back the work being done.

MH: Can you talk a little bit more about why retaining and converting rapid-response donors into sustainers became a priority? Why is it so important?

KB: The coordinated effort within our team is really a continuation of a strategic priority that Save the Children has already been focusing on. We’re following through in an intentional way on our strategies to increase our reach and impact for children by increasing donors, and we’re doing this by converting one-time donors to sustainers and upgrading them to mid-level, with an eye towards feeding our pipeline from mid-level to major gifts. If a one-time supporter becomes a sustainer, that’s more reliable revenue for the program, so it’s a coordinated effort that aligns with the overall strategic priorities of our organization.

DS: For organizations that are thinking about trying similar strategies, we know it’s tough sometimes in an emergency when your focus is to get out there as quickly as you can. But in these moments with such a high response, when your program is getting a lot of gifts and attention, it’s a valuable time to try some testing, to try out some things that you may not be able to try at other times, because you’ll have access to the data you need to back up those hypotheses. You’re able to work out a plan that you can have in place, at the ready for the next emergency.

MH: Are there any other details about your strategy and approach that you’d like to share?

JW: One really important step for us was retouching all of the evergreen welcome content that we already had in place. With this huge influx of new donors coming in and receiving our welcome content after donating to this major emergency appeal, we wanted to ensure that the follow-up messaging they received was still relevant to them, coming in through this emergency response circumstance. Taking the time to think through all those particulars of communication can make a big difference.

KB: And that same idea follows through to retention: We need to be conscious of updating acknowledgement letters and tax receipts, and of incorporating messaging specific to the Ukraine crisis within those story points, so that we’re striking a consistent tone with our supporters.

DS: Small details really do add up to have an impact over the course of a program. Another area where Save the Children is always so strong is the language used in “cart abandonment” messaging. So when a donor leaves the site without finalizing a gift, they’re hearing back with very specific language reminding them to “complete your gift to support relief efforts in Ukraine.” It’s these small moments of precision that can make a big difference overall in the experience of supporters.


In the fast-paced moments of emergency response, a concrete strategy can greatly impact your organization’s ability to respond quickly and effectively. To hear more about rapid response, check out five takeaways from our Nonprofit Advisory Board in Know the Drill, Practice the Drill. For more on fundraising and email strategy, read Fundamentals of the Narrative Email or Is Your Welcome Stream Effective?