Nonprofit news coronavirus fundraising tips

Keeping Up Relationships in Times of Crisis is Good Business

As featured in NewStart Alliance newsletter

Good ideas frequently come from making connections in parallel fields. There is a fair amount of research about this and even a Steve Jobs quote.

As local news organizations face critical times, perhaps the following tips from the nonprofit fundraising field will help you. The tips here are most obviously helpful to nonprofit newsrooms, but can also help for-profit organizations since the goal should be to maximize revenue, independently of where it comes from (companies, donations, sponsorships, advertising, subscriptions) or it’s legal status (donation or fees).

While you are probably carefully looking at emergency financial resources for COVID-19 hardship, keeping up relationships -‒ especially in times like these -‒ is good business practice.

News Nonprofits: All About Relationships?

Thinking of your audience in lifetime relationship value terms (i.e. as much more than subscribers) can open paths to higher-value offerings, whether they be a donation or a cruise (like The Nation cruises).

Not every nonprofit’s business model needs to be based on building strong relationships with its beneficiaries (read this for a definitive overview of nonprofit business models), but for local news it makes a lot of sense. Is this how you are thinking about local news organizations?

  • Some nonprofits, such as the Cleveland Clinic, are reimbursed for services that they provide to specific individuals, but rely on people who have benefited in the past from these services for additional donations. We call the funding model that these organizations use the Beneficiary Builder. Two of the best examples of Beneficiary Builders are hospitals and universities. Generally, the vast majority of these nonprofits’ funding comes from fees that beneficiaries pay for the services the nonprofits provide. But the total cost of delivering the benefit is not covered by the fees. As a result, the nonprofit tries to build long-term relationships with people who have benefited from the service to provide supplemental support, hence the name Beneficiary Builder.

The consequence for you – right now – in crisis mode?

Find out who your most loyal advertisers, subscribers, and donors are. A good proxy to measure “depth” of the relationship is the date of their most recent transaction, how many times they’ve interacted with you, as well as how much they’ve spent/given. This is called RFM or Recency-Frequency-Money. These individuals and organizations should be your top priority as you implement the strategies below.

Reach out to your Community

Mark Cuban has said that response to Coronavirus will define companies’ brands for decades. I believe this will be a similarly pivotal moment for journalism nonprofits and for-profits, alike. 

Now is the time to be reaching out to your closest friends and supporters: check in with them, ask them if they are alright, make sure you have updated contact information, share resources that your news organization is making available to the community. Potentially, invite them to partner with you on fundraising initiatives related to the crisis (more on that below).

Does this sound too ‘feely touchy’?  

Never mind how much relationships matter in business, if you’re going to do it, do it well and efficiently. 

Develop an outreach template but do not send a blast email. Use templates if you are using Gmail or AutoText if you are in Outlook, then personalize each one. File the responses and then evaluate them to determine which ones may require additional contact or even potentially a conversation about making a significant gift.

Partner, Do Not Plead

In crisis times, should we be asking or not? 

Nonprofits that are building sustainable organizations are sensitively inviting their communities to join them in building solutions that alleviate societal problems. It is not about desperately asking for pennies to keep the doors open.

For-profit newsrooms can fundraise and run crowdfunding initiatives, even if the gifts are not tax-deductible (see here and here). The principles are the same.

Losing a trusted pillar of the community that is critical to disseminating potentially life-saving information during emergencies definitively qualifies as a worthy cause. Some fantastic initiatives have been shared in the NewStart Alliance newsletter. Giving your closest (organizational) friends the opportunity to join you by investing in them should be a no-brainer.

Yes, but how?

1. Make sure your infrastructure is in place. At its simplest, this is a decent online gift form and mass email-sending capability. I recently shared this presentation with high impact, free or low-cost digital fundraising resources.

2. Determine your “case for support” and “giving levels.” Are you fundraising to keep local covid-19 coverage available to all, to provide digital subscriptions to students, or to provide free physical copies to digitally underserved audiences? You’ll have to marry your priorities with donor interest.

You should also provide giving levels, as a way of framing the impact of different donation amounts. Framing is an important effect in behavioral finance, and it will be harder to reach your goals without it.

3. Start with your most loyal supporters. If you’ve gone through the outreach exercise above, you will already know who your most engaged supporters are and will be in touch with them. Share your fundraising initiative with them and invite them to join you. Explain that their early support will be critical in achieving the necessary momentum.

4. Launch a crowdfunding campaign. Use your own platform or third-party resources (some free ones available here) to set up a fundraising page. Engineer your goals to utilize the goal proximity and urgency effects as well as matches. Your most effective communication medium will be email but make sure to use all available channels and leverage the “big names” in your community, including editorial staff.

5. Thank. Do this well to guarantee the sustainability of your organization. Most critically, use the post-gift communication to build relationships with your supporters.


For the last 10 years, Louis Diez worked at and consulted for higher education, cultural, and news organizations including nonprofit giants such as Lincoln Center, the Johns Hopkins University, and the American Journalism Project. You can read his resume here or connect on LinkedIn. He’s passionate about local news and is offering pro bono assistance for coronavirus-related fundraising. Send him an email at: louis@marktlab.com or a text message at 865-630-0626 to brainstorm.