Giving during episodic events, such as to the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal, is truly extraordinary. It’s heartwarming to see the generosity from the American people when we rally behind a specific cause and show support through donations of time, money, and materials.

If you are reading this blog, then you most likely have some fundraising background. You also most likely have some experience with accepting and tracking financial gifts from donors to a charitable organization. No doubt you have seen some good, and probably bad, ways of tracking historical giving transactions.

In times of episodic giving—whether it is from a recent natural disaster, large in-person fundraising event, viral social media campaign, or your CEO was featured on the TODAY Show—your organization can see an influx of giving 2, 3, or even 100 times your normal volume. To help manage this influx and to help manage future donor cultivation, you should start planning for these events today rather than reacting in the moment of the event when there are more opportunities for missed steps.

1. Codify Your Coding

The best time to create a set of rules is when your organization has the time to review processes and agree upon a set of guidelines to capture, code, and acknowledge all gifts. Sure we are all busy all the time, but any database manager will tell you about the importance of consistent coding structures, and how a little time now will save even more time in the future.

To help plan for episodic event tracking, there are three basic options you can use to track these new types of donations.

  1. Accounting and/or Fund Codes: The first and most basic rule of fundraising – honor donor intent. If someone gives through your organization towards a specific mission or event and stipulates that designation on her check or donation page form, you need to honor that intent and be upfront with how your organization uses the money. A fundamental part of tracking financial gifts is through the use of accounting codes. These can track the destination point of the donation to segment the funds between an event and something else such as a building fund. Tracking donations down to the designation helps two-fold. First, it is extremely important for your organization’s accounting as you report your fundraising revenue vs specific program expenditures. Second, it allows you to better acknowledge and steward your donors based on how they gave, and to what initiatives or campaigns. Tracking donation intent by financial coding will allow you to segment future campaigns based on donor interests.
  2. Source Codes: The “frenemies” of any direct response program manager, source codes. These codes are extremely important to track how a person donated, to which campaigns, through which channel(s), and can be tracked down to specific donor segments. With most CRM databases accepting source codes from a couple to a dozen unique, alphanumeric characters, the total list of historical codes can become unwieldy very fast. This is why it is important to lay out a clear, understood—yet flexible—source coding scheme very early in your program. If donors are giving through your organization to an episodic event, create new dedicated source codes within your codified scheme and use these codes to track all donations. Holding a telethon? Track the gifts through source codes. Accepting checks at your headquarters? Use a source code. You will thank yourself next year as you try to figure out what to do with all the new donors when your renewal lists expand.
  3. Date Parameters: If accounting or source coding is not an option, then use date parameters as a last resort. Flag the donors and the timing in your database to keep track of who gave during the timeframe of a specific event. There is no exact science to date parameters, but you can review metrics such as counting in-bound calls, new donor increases, or even whitemail volume to help pull out the episodic spikes from within your historical day-to-day fundraising efforts. Similar to source codes, tracking the dates will be very helpful in later years when you are looking at renewal counts and trying to figure out which segments to mail and which segments to rest.

Disaster donors

2. Segment The Suspects

Ok, you coded all your donors, you tracked every dollar, it is a year since the event, and you are looking at mail counts twice as high as your campaign plan budget allows. Now what?

The instantaneous generosity of donors is truly astounding. However promoting the continuation of donor support – or mitigating the lack thereof – after a large event can be troublesome to figure out for even the largest organizations. This is where your historical coding and a little extra analysis will help.

  • Divide Your Data – First, pull the episodic donors by the coding parameter used during the event. Did they give again within the year? If so, did they give to another event or did they make a gift towards general support? Understanding a donor’s motivation through the use of transaction coding will help you segment the truly connected donors for future fundraising campaigns from the false friends that may only be giving through your organization towards a large public event. If someone only has episodic gifts on file, flag them as event-only and hold them for less expensive mail campaigns such as a year-end acquisition. If someone has a mix of event and general support gifts, flag them as cultivation prospects and reach out to them as they are truly engaged with your mission.
  • Apply Analytics – With the average donor giving to 19 other charities during a lifetime, chances are your new event donor is also giving to other charities. There is also the possibility your new event donor does not give to any other charity. Two donors may each give you $50 during an event. Both donors seem to be similar prospects for a renewal. However with applied analytics you can find out if one donor is more likely to give to you again vs one that may only be interested during specific episodes. Looking at a donor’s historical giving to both your organization as well as other similar organizations can help devise contact strategies for future cultivation and solicitations. If someone gave you twice as much as they have given other organizations recently, call them, thank them, make them feel valued. If someone gave you half as much and only appears to donate each decade, thank them, steward them, but do not include them in a monthly renewal mailing series. Focusing on the loyal and engaged donors will help you maintain your campaign fundraising revenue. In addition, you can increase your net income by limiting the expense of time and mail costs when you cull out less responsive segments.

Organizations of all missions and sizes will most likely see a spike in giving at some point. Human service organizations are well versed in collecting and tracking disaster response donors. Advocacy organizations can see spikes during political battles. Animal welfare organizations may be highlighted in a media event. A university could win a large tournament. Or a research organization may suddenly be part of a global social media movement. Whatever the “disaster” that spikes giving for a short time may be, make sure your organization is ready to accept the new donations, can track the gifts in the future, and manage donor relationships to ensure the best donor experience possible.


John Wilburn is currently a marketing manager for Target Analytics. In his prior career he managed direct response programs for a variety of nonprofits, resulting in countless donors and dollars going to fund some incredible missions.

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