Skip links


Surprising Pandemic Success for Nonprofits

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

Published on February 18, 2022, at 7:51 p.m.
by Alice Helms.

In the spring of 2020, many American households began to feel the impact of economic changes as the worldwide pandemic shut down day-to-day life. Organizations’ external publics, such as their donors, started to drop from active to aware. However, nonprofits like Step Up for Students and The Salvation Army were able to shift their communication and public relations tactics to respond to this donor change and still achieve their fundraising goals. The pandemic did not negatively impact these nonprofits’ revenue because of the hard work and creative thinking displayed.

According to a Forbes 2021 top 100 nonprofits list, “the nation’s top 100 charities reported a 10% increase” in donations. Step Up for Students saw a total revenue of $998 million, $976 million coming straight from donations, to be named No. 13 on the Forbes list. The Salvation Army exceeded its past year’s gifts and was named third on the list due to its significant increase in donations.

Step Up for Students is a nonprofit based in Florida that helps support students who are in pursuit of a better education. The nonprofit helps raise funds and then donate them to children and families in need, and it also helps celebrate students’ accomplishments. The Salvation Army is “a part of the universal Christian Church,” providing goods and services to those in need.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Gaining successes
Anne Francis, Step Up for Students’ vice president–development, spoke on her experience with the organization’s success. She said that she gathered her team and sat down to “map out each corporate donor with their best and worst situation” in preparation for a crisis. Step Up for Students’ top priority was to look at the worst-case scenario. When evaluating all of the current donors and potential threats to the organization, Francis and her team worked to “increase our relationship efforts with our strongest donors,” she explained. They knew the reality of losing a few support members and were ready to grow with those willing to step up more than before.

The Salvation Army’s southern territory divisional communication director, Aimee Murry, noted that her division’s success was due to the staff’s ability to pivot their training online quickly. Soon after the start of the pandemic, the organizational division was able to transition online for all meetings and donor meets.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The mission of The Salvation Army, “to meet human need wherever and however we can,” explains how it gained its increase in fundraising in 2021. Step Up for Students pursued its mission by preparing for the worst and exceeding expectations.

Maintaining relations
Not only did the pandemic change how nonprofits were able to operate, but key relationships struggled to survive, as well. Step Up for Students’ relationship with its donors did change over the pandemic. Its staff successfully thought outside the box to gain donations by organizing celebrations for students and streaming the events.

Francis stated that “the virtual celebrations allowed donors to participate from anywhere in the country.” The idea to livestream the celebrations improved donor relations due to donors being able to see their impact. However, Murry did notice a strain on the relationship between the organization and its donors. She noted that it was harder for her nonprofit to build and sustain “relationships in a virtual world due to the lack of personableness.”

Thinking outside the box
Step Up for Students and The Salvation Army became aware soon into the pandemic that their fundraising tactics needed to come from thinking creatively. For example, during the winter holiday season, the tried-and-true Salvation Army Santa kettles became virtual.

The online option was a communication strategy to meet its donors where they are. The Salvation Army created other online ways to give, too, such as quick links and QR codes because “so many people don’t carry change on them anymore,” stated Murry.

Photo by Lucas Hoang on Unsplash

The professionals attribute their companies’ donation successes amidst a pandemic to the public relations and communication efforts the organizations worked to implement. The Salvation Army, for example, began to expand its communications to online. Murry recognized that “being a donor means that they are sacrificing for something bigger than themselves.” She knew that her organization was making a difference with its increase in funding following the recent tornado disaster in Kentucky and surrounding areas. With its partnership with Grey Canada, the organization raised half a million dollars and gave it directly to those in need. She stated that within the Salvation Army, “we strive every day to do better than before.”

Step Up for Students’ and The Salvation Army’s communication departments worked hard to exceed donation goals amidst the pandemic. While experiencing difficulty during the pandemic, both nonprofits were able to adjust and realign to their mission while keeping up with the ever-changing world.

Return to top of page