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Lessons learned - an interview with Mandy Hughes of American Rivers

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Mandy Hughes recently shared some observations and lessons she learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and how the recent past could inform future activities. As the Senior Director of Philanthropy for American Rivers, she is focused on connecting individual donors with their conservation work. Mandy’s interview with Juli Pattison, Consultant at Arthur Alley, follows.

What were some of the most obvious or surprising ways that COVID-19 has affected your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic put an immediate hold or cancelation on planning and scheduling special events and travel. Yet, spending less time traveling and planning special events, we’ve had more time to focus on donor stewardship and communication as well as planning creative ways to continue to engage donors in our mission.

How did contributions to your organization compare March - May, 2020 to the same period in 2019?

Another surprise! Individual giving (major, mid-level and membership) are all up over the same period last year, and we expect to exceed our goal at fiscal year end of June 30. While several mid-level donors have indicated they would not be giving this year due to pandemic, we’ve been pleased to find many of our major donors continuing at previous levels or increasing their gifts.

While this trend has been promising, we are uncertain how the economic and the COVID crisis will impact giving in November and December, when most individual donors give, and have therefore budgeted conservatively for the coming fiscal year.

How did/will you respond to the giving trends?

Growth is a key word here. During the COVID crisis, we acknowledged the need to ramp up future giving, and we added a senior level major gifts officer to our staff. We plan to grow our portfolio of annual donors, while increasing our focus on identifying and engaging donors with the ability to make transformational gifts. I guess you could say our response is to onboard and sustain good people who can implement growth and sustainability.

Did your online/email/digital engagement increase during the Pandemic?

From a digital fundraising perspective, we continued to build on our record-setting 2019 end of calendar year return with a strong start to 2020. As expected, we did see a Covid-19 slowdown in giving in March. Following that, online spring fundraising went well, and we took advantage of the “Giving Tuesday Now” event on May 5 designed to help non-profits during the pandemic. With social media promotion, a targeted series of emails, and a matching gifts provided by a major donor, we far exceeded our goal for that day.

Since our shift to a much more homebound culture nationally, we’ve adjusted the focus of some of our content to provide more outlets for our supporters, creating a campaign around “Stay home, we’ll bring the rivers to you” content. This includes pointing supporters to our movies and video content, promoting our podcast content more broadly, and creating blog content that helps our readers deal with the reality of limited outdoor recreation opportunities.

How will this engagement inform your future plans?

During the COVID-19 crisis, our major gifts team is developing creative ways to engage donors virtually. In addition to connecting personally with donors via phone and Zoom, we are engaging small groups of donors through educational webinars and insider briefings. We are looking to develop opportunities for virtual site visits and field talks with conservation colleagues. And with our work being on rivers, we’ll fish, hike and visit sites where we work with donors as it’s safe to do so.

Was/were your strategic plan and/or development plan helpful in your organization’s pandemic response?

We’re in the first year of our strategic plan and having a plan in place was very helpful. A major piece was to place a greater emphasis on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in programming. Therefore, this important piece of our plan was front and center in our discussions surrounding the pandemic response.

What new habits/strategies/tactics will you bring with you into the post-COVID-19 era?

We are letting go of fundraising events and will continue to focus more on individual donors and building and strengthening relationships.

We’re taking advantage so much (home) office time, by finally tackling items that have been on our to do lists for too long. Among our team’s summer activities will be assessing our volunteer programs, developing strategies for donors who give through DAFs and refining our major gifts portfolio/moves management system. By refining and in some cases rebuilding current systems, we’ll be equipped for success now and in the future.

This interview was conducted by Arthur Alley as part of our efforts to share what we learn. Arthur Alley fundraising & mission development counsel empowers you to craft a meaningful story firmly rooted in your organization’s purpose and to effectively secure resources. Arthur Alley has the experience and insight to help you achieve your career goals and for your organization to thrive.

Want to learn more? Contact us here and we’ll be in touch.


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