Overall, Bloomerang customers that sent fundraising appeals raised $1.35MM more during the COVID-19 crisis than they did during the same time period last year! We wanted to highlight some of those success stories here.
CommUnity | Event Cancellation + Normal Newsletter Cadence + Additional 3-Touch Email Campaign
In this video, Steven from Bloomerang sits down (virtually) with Julia from CommUnity to talk about how they have turned a budget deficit into a surplus by effectively fundraising during the COVID-19 crisis.
Located in one of the hardest hit counties of Iowa, CommUnity was faced with a unique challenge: continue their services despite social distancing limitations, while fundraising from a community feeling the financial effect of the virus.
Julia and her team quickly pivoted their services, while embracing a proactive approach to fundraising. What was looking like a year of unmet fundraising goals has become a banner year, thanks to a generous response to segmented communications, heartfelt appeals and detailed impact reporting.
Email #1 – Initial COVID-19 Response
CommUnity got way out in front of the crisis, communicating their initial response in early March as well as an ask for donations.
36% open rate, 1.9% click-through-rate
Subject: We Need You More Than Ever
Email #2 – Response Update
CommUnity followed up less than a week later with more updates on the changes to their services; again including an ask.
39% open rate, 2.4% click-through-rate
Subject: CommUnity’s Response to COVID-19
Email #3 – Final March Update
By late March, the scope of the impact on the community had become apparent.
34% open rate, 2.9% click-through-rate
Subject: Stepping Up to Increased Demand for Mental Health Resources + Introducing Grocery Delivery
Full Video Transcript
Steven: All right, Julia. Good morning. Thanks for being here, and thanks to all of you for watching this. You’re joining us from Iowa, right? You’re down in Iowa, Coralville, Iowa, I guess?
Julia: Correct. Yeah, Coralville, Iowa.
Steven: And not only are you dealing with the coronavirus as a county, you mentioned that you’re in one of the top three counties affected. But the services of your nonprofit are also pretty essential, so you are really in the thick of things. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, also, the fundraising you’ve been doing has just been outstanding. So before we get into that, can you tell us who you are and what the organization does, and kind of what you’re all about?
Julia: I’d love to. So my name’s Julia Erickson. My current role is Outreach and Events Manager at CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank. We rebranded our organization just a little over a year ago. So we were formerly the Crisis Center of Johnson County, which you’ll see on some things here. But we are a 50-year-old nonprofit, actually turning 50 this year.
Steven: Wow, what a year.
Julia: Yeah, big year. We turn 50 this year, and we started as the state’s first crisis intervention line. And along the way we have added on services at the community’s request. So about eight years into our services and crisis line, they recognized a correlation between emotional distress and financial and material distress. So we added on a small food pantry and that has since evolved. And now our food bank is our largest service. And we also have a basic needs program. So we offer housing and utility assistance as well as work-enabling items, prescription assistance, ID assistance, all of those great things. And then we have a mobile food pantry as well in the food bank.
And then on the crisis intervention side of things, we are a 24-7 call, chat, and text crisis center. We answer the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as their national line called Disaster Distress Helpline, which we’ll probably touch on a little bit here. And then we have a mobile crisis outreach unit as well that serves currently two counties in Iowa. And we are launching into another eight counties here in the very near future. So our organization is . . . I call it a Frankenstein organization.
Steven: In a good way.
Julia: Yeah, in the best way possible. You’ll never find another organization like this, and at this time of Covid-19, the emotional stress that this is putting on us in addition to the financial and food stress, our organization is considered essential, I think, for every single person in our community, for our clients, and our donors. We’ve seen so much support. So that’s a little bit about who we are. Is that good?
Steven: Yeah, as you were going through the list of services, I was like, yeah, you’re needed right now.
Julia: It’s needed. Yeah.
Steven: That’s pretty much every checkbox, I feel like. So what’s been the impact? I assume folks haven’t been able to come to the food bank, or maybe that’s been restricted a little bit. And then I assume the calls have increased. So what’s happened since — now it seems like we’re a month into it — mid-March?
Julia: Yeah. So as of like March 12th was when we started tracking things. I mentioned we answer the Disaster Distress Helpline. Typically we were answering about 60 calls in 1 month, and in a 10-day period it went up to 700.
Julia: So those have increased exponentially. At this point, it’s hard to say where we’ve been in the last couple of days. Right now I don’t have those statistics. But people are concerned.
And Covid-19 is very different than a typical disaster or distress that we see, because it’s typically isolated in a kind of geographic region. But Covid-19 is so far widespread that our counselors are affected by the same crisis that the clients are calling in about.
Julia: So it’s a much more personal interaction at this point. Our own crisis lines, of course, are still seeing those same calls.
And typically people on DDH reached out to get resources. They wanted to know who was in their area to help, and right now it’s a little more concern about their emotional health. So we’re seeing a lot more people call in to just say, “I don’t know what to do. Where can I turn, and what’s happening right now?” There’s so much information out there that it’s hard to know what’s right at some points, so that’s been difficult.
Our counselors are amazing. We’ve switched to remote volunteers. So we are a volunteer-driven organization. We have about 400 volunteers on a typical week. Right now, of course, we’re scaled back a little bit, but people are able to answer calls, chats, and texts remotely at this point. So we still have people on those lines 24-7. And we’ve actually hired on a few of our volunteers to contractually answer the DDH line, because that is typically a staffed line.
One of the other changes that we’ve had to see in crisis intervention is moving our mobile crisis outreach to telehealth. So they are responding by video right now. Instead of going directly to that person in crisis, they are doing what we’re doing right now. They’re hopping on a video chat and seeing what they can do to support folks. So that’s kind of statewide what our state of Iowa has done with our mobile crisis line. So that means that we have people who are suicidal, who are in domestic violence situations, all kinds of different things, and they aren’t able to have a physical interaction right now.
Steven: Yeah, and maybe they’re at home with an abuser or potentially somebody who’s dangerous, something that has really opened my eyes too. Yeah.
Julia: Yeah. So I think this month is actually Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it’s not something that our organization does particularly, but it is one of the services that we have and people do call about it. So that’s been a big one.
And we’ve also seen those calls decrease a little bit. We’ve kind of seen what we’re calling a honeymoon phase with this Covid-19. Maybe for kids being in school was a source of their distress, and now that they’ve been out of school for a couple of weeks, they’re feeling a little bit better. Maybe the same thing for people at work. But we do expect those calls to increase again kind of once the rose-colored glasses come off and the fog lifts and we kind of see that staying home isn’t the best for everyone, like we talked about maybe domestic violence situations, or boredom, and different mental health things can set in at those points. So that’s pretty much it for the crisis intervention side.
Moving over to the food bank, what a change it’s been. It seems like every day we have new information coming out. Iowa still does not have a shelter-in-place order, so we still have folks coming to us. We have changed our delivery service models. I mentioned we have about 400 volunteers that help us on a weekly basis. About 150 to 250 of those were in our food bank. We’ve now scaled back to five people in the food bank at a time.
So it used to be we had a waiting area where clients would come in and they’d sit and wait to be called back into the shopping area, and now, of course, with social distancing, not allowing more than 10 people together at a time, we actually have a walk-up service. And we are exploring a kind of curbside or drive-through option. It’s just a little difficult with food deliveries getting those logistics down, so we’re hoping to have that going some time this week. But we are doing pre-packaged bags.
So typically our clients were able to come in and shop for their grocery selections, and unfortunately, right now, we’re trying to limit the contact between individuals and items in the food bank. We’ve kind of reverted back to the pre-packaged bags, which is something that a lot of smaller food pantries offer. However, at this point, it’s really exciting. We’re giving people more food. The selections have been amazing, and because we’ve seen so many wonderful financial donations, we are actually able to purchase more of those kind of in-demand foods and have a better selection.
So one individual is taking home 50 pounds of groceries in a week. So it goes up from there, however many people you have in your household. But we want to make sure that we are encouraging people to stay home. If they don’t need to come to us, if they have food, don’t leave the house.
And then, let’s see. So unfortunately a lot of our basic-needs programs we’ve had to scale back on. We are still doing housing and utility assistance. Those interviews can be done over the phone, so that’s very easy.
Other things we’ve had to cut back on quite a bit. We are doing birth certificates still. Birth certificates are a necessity for folks applying for Section 8 housing.
Steven: I see.
Julia: So our Basic Needs Coordinator is actually going to the homeless shelter and a couple of the hotels that have rooms available for folks in transient housing to get them birth certificates to get them into permanent housing situations. So we have really great collaborations in our community.
And that brings us to the next one, which is a food delivery service. So our community has a fantastic network of support organizations. So our food bank is working with two smaller city food banks, food pantries to make sure that everybody in Johnson County, where we are, receives food. So a couple weeks ago, two Fridays ago, we started a food delivery service in connection with our county’s SEATS program. So it’s a kind of ride-share thing. So they are delivering food.
We have other organizations that are having one staff person come to us to pick up food for many, many clients. So it’s been fantastic.
Again, every day there are changes, but we’re staying open, we’re staying flexible, and we’re here to serve for as long as we can, as best as we can.
Steven: It doesn’t seem like you’re busy or anything.
Julia: No, not at all.
Steven: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. But, you know, you mentioned the financial support. All these changes on the services side, I assume also your fundraising was nearly equally transforming. It looked like you had an event planned, like so many do in the spring. Was there sort of a conversation or a strategy session of, “Okay, this is what we need to do on the fundraising side”? Because you were not shy about asking for help and some people are. So could you kind of walk through what that mentality was all about in the early days?
Julia: Yeah, there was a little bit of panic at first. Back in early March, when we had the first cases of Covid-19 diagnosed in Johnson County, we were like, “Oh, we can’t change the Hunger Banquet.” Our invitations had just hit mailboxes on Saturday, and so we were like, “Ah.” April 22nd we had this event coming up, and I was like, “It’s over a month away. This will blow over by then.” But then, you know, things started changing. And that’s not going to happen anymore.
So we made the decision pretty early. Of course, that was when like no gatherings of over 500 people, and then it very quickly went down to no gatherings over 10 people. So that decision was kind of made for us, which was nice. And then we had contact with our venue, which is a local hotel, and they were actually ceasing food and beverage service until June 1st and, furthermore, closing their hotel rooms indefinitely. So that was like, “Okay, we’re not doing it in April.”
We reached out very early on the same week that Covid-19 started hitting us to say, “What do you have available in June? It’s before the end of the fiscal year, so we would really like to try to make it happen before then.” So they were awesome. They gave us a number of dates. We said, “That one. Get it booked.” And then things kept changing, and here we are April 13th, and yeah, we decided to move to June. And furthermore, we’ve decided to move to virtual. So that is kind of yet to be announced. We’re consuming all of the information we can about virtual events.
And like you mentioned, Steven, there’s so much information out there but not many case studies. So we’re really excited to kind of lead the way for our community in virtual events. And we’re really excited about it. We’re working with a great local gentleman who’s on our board, and we’re excited about what this could mean for us. And it kind of takes the limit off of a physical, in-person event. So our fundraising goal for the event is $50,000. We have about $25,000 in sponsorships. So we’re in the process of reaching out to our sponsors to make sure that they’re still interested and still able to support the event.
And we’re actually excited, because a virtual event kind of means they can get a little more benefit. So we’re kind of trying to figure out what that looks like, and moving forward, how to communicate that with our current donors who . . . Our donor base is 60 plus, so they might not be as into a virtual event as some of our younger donors. But it could also open up a whole new world of donor acquisition for us. So we’re really excited about it. I hope it turns out well.
Steven: I think it will. From what I’ve seen from what else you guys are doing, I’m not worried about you.
Julia: Oh, thank you.
Steven: You know, you mentioned the financial support earlier. What has been the response? You’ve done such a good job not just explaining all the changes, but saying, “Hey, we need help. We want to still provide these services.” What’s been that response from the people you’ve asked for?
Julia: It’s been amazing. We cry frequently about it. And we have a very small development staff. We have three people on our Communications and Development team, and we are working very closely together, even though we’re a little farther apart right now. We’re all working from home and kind of rotating in-office days. But we started early, and we let people know that . . . you know, we tried to be very transparent and said, “This could have huge ramifications for our community.” We have people that are out of work. We had the largest amount of Americans apply for unemployment in the history of that program. And we know that we’re going to see all those people come to us for help.
So we’ve been doing about an email a week, and we’ve seen an amazing amount of support. I think you had the number a little closer than I did, but we blew our March goal out of the water.
Julia: And April, within the first 10 days of April, we hit our monthly goal. So we know that this is not a short-term thing. The financial ramifications of this pandemic will last much longer than the actual illness does. We’re hearing people out of work, and what do you do with your kids at home when you have to provide child care in addition to trying to work from home? That doesn’t work out too well, so either one or the other.
And with the mental health side of things, we’re just really trying to communicate that we’re here for people no matter what they’re feeling. So we’ve done some press conferences, some blog posts, some different things along those lines to help communicate. The mayor of our, I guess, one of the cities that we serve is doing a Community Connections video series. So our Executive Director was the first one on that, and just so much support from that.
We’ve had individuals that are doing those little virtual concerts and donating to us. And then last week we had a couple send us $2,400 because they thought our organization needed the federal stimulus money more than we did.
Steven: Oh, wow. I see. So they transferred their . . . Wow, okay.
Julia: Just amazing. Yeah, and he is actually going to be writing an op-ed for newspapers encouraging people to do the same. If they don’t need that stimulus money, send it to your favorite charity. So we are just so blown away by the support of our community. And we’ve had $5 donations and we’ve had $5,000 donations. Just every single gift is so heartwarming.
I opened a letter last week from an elderly woman that said, “I went to the grocery store. I was gloved. I was masked. I had everything on. But still when I got to the register, I was able to pay for my groceries. And there are so many people that can’t do that right now, so I’m extremely grateful. And here’s a gift.” And, you know, that’s the kind of support we’re seeing from our community.
If you don’t ask for help, you won’t get help. So that’s very much the mentality that we’ve been following right now. Our Executive Director and some of our board were very concerned about pushing the Hunger Banquet, and that money, that $50,000 directly sustains the food banks for 6 months out of the year. What are we going to do without that $50,000? Don’t worry, it will still come.
Steven: Yeah, just not through an event.
Julia: Not through an event the way that we’ve always done it. But oh, my gosh, this has just been tremendous. I can’t even believe some days what the support has been like, but we know that this isn’t short term, like I said. So we will continue updating our donors because they mean so much to us. They make our organization run. So we’re planning to keep with the weekly emails. The Hunger Banquet communications will start up again shortly.
We’re doing Facebook, all of those good things. And then on top of it, we’re not able to accept in-kind donations for food and household products. So that’s been a huge hit to the food bank. So having the extra support and being able to purchase five pounds of food for every dollar donated has been just amazing.
Steven: Wow. What you said about if you don’t ask, you’re not going to get it, there seems to be this paradox, right, where you’ve got a hard-hit community. So I feel like a lot of organizations, and it may be a similar situation, are saying, “Well, we can’t ask them for money. They’re losing their jobs. They need help.”
But it seems like there are people in a community that maybe aren’t hard hit, and you seem to have tapped into that generosity. So I’m wondering if you could maybe give a pep talk. What would you say to someone that is hesitant about asking for money, regardless of what their services are? I feel like maybe some people watching this would say, “Well, of course, they’re raising money with the services they’re providing.”
But I feel like everyone is essential to their donors, right? And you seem to have tapped into that. So what would you say to maybe a colleague, or maybe their board is on the fence and saying, “Well, we can’t ask for money right now. It’s inappropriate, or it would be not a good time.”
Julia: I personally believe that transparency to your donors is one of the best things that we as fundraisers can provide. And to just sit there and say, “No, no, we’re doing fine. We’re going to get through this without. We don’t need the help.” People are going to think that their gifts don’t matter. Right now their gifts matter more than anything in the world.
There are federal stimulus plans for businesses, and maybe your organization might be able to tap into that. But for so many of us we can’t, and the grants that are available are gone like that. So you cannot rely on what you’ve got in the bank right now. You can’t rely on grant opportunities. You can’t even rely on corporations at this point. It’s those individual donors that will get you through this crisis.
We have an amazing board member and member of the community who said they were hit really hard with taxes this year and they owe quite a bit, but they still wanted to make sure that our organization was supported. So they sent us their gift that was intended for December of 2020.
Steven: Oh, wow.
Julia: That’s really great having that money now. If we need it now, we need it now. If we don’t need it now, that’s great. It’s still there. That donor has fulfilled their desire to help, and your organization will go on for another day.
At this point in time, just communicating with our donors, making sure that they know that they are appreciated and their gifts matter, that’s one of the most important things to us. So in addition to those weekly communications, we’re trying to steward those donors and cultivate those donors. And we’re looking at our lapsed donors to say, “Hey, you haven’t given since 2018. Would you consider a gift right now? We could really use it.”
Steven: I love that.
Julia: Asking our mission circle, our monthly donors to possibly increase their gift.
Julia: But more and more we’ve seen so many new donors come to the organization. So encouraging your donors to share with their friends. We had a Facebook post go out about our food delivery service. It was shared over 200 times, and that, to me, is just astounding. Usually it’s a couple likes and maybe a share on posts, but this is what people want to see. They want to see the good that’s going on in this really, really crazy time. So as nonprofits, as social service organizations, as arts organizations, all of the above, we need to be there for our community, because we’re going to start serving clients that have never used our services before. So those people that have been donors in the past might need to turn to us for support, and we need to make sure that we’re there for them.
Steven: I love it. And I don’t think it’s an accident that you’ve raised the hundreds of thousands of dollars that you have. Just hearing what you said about segmentation, asking the monthly donors, the lapsed donors, you’re doing it right. So I hope people watching this don’t think that this is just some accident that they’re successful. Your playbook is what I’ve been recommending to folks, so great job.
Julia: Oh, thank you.
Steven: I mean, keep up the good work. You’re inspiring to be talking to on a Monday morning. I’ve taken up so much of your time. You’re super busy, but thank you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and encouraging other folks. I think it will help out a lot of people.
Julia: Thank you so much for having us. It was a pleasure to meet you virtually, Steven.
Steven: Yeah, you too.
Julia: Thank you.
Steven: And maybe we’ll check in after that virtual event, because I’m curious how that goes. I think it’ll be dynamite, for sure.
Julia: Awesome. That’d be great.
Steven: Well, thanks. Hang in there.
Julia: Thank you so much.
Steven: Stay healthy, and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Steven: And thanks to all of you for watching this.