Scroll up

Embracing uncertainty. The surest way to have a successful fundraising Christmas

Everybody is now busy starting their Christmas campaigns. Right?

But how do we plan for something none of us has ever known before – a post-Covid Christmas? Which may – who knows? – actually turn out to be a Covid strikes back Christmas? Will we all be out celebrating the restoration of our liberty? Or will we be enduring lockdown number two?

Whichever way it goes, it’s likely to be a fiercely competitive time. If the country has opened up again, every charity in the land is going to be out there asking for the support that will set them on the long path back to recovery.

And that’s just the start.

Because all those big commercial brands who have been holding off on their marketing budgets for months will be back in the arena with a vengeance. And they will all be riffing on our shared trials and tribulations, trying to suggest that buying their product will somehow heal the damage done by the pandemic and bring us all back together.

Some will get it right and some will get it horribly wrong. But subtly, many of them will again be inching into that emotional territory within the consumer’s personal landscape that once belonged to the charity sector. From John Lewis to Sainsbury’s, those big boys could be claiming pounds and pennies that might once have been given in donations.

And what if the country hasn’t opened up? What if we are all back in lockdown?

I suspect the landscape will be just as competitive. No organisation – profit or non-profit – can stay silent for the best part of a year and expect to survive. Yes, available marketing channels will be limited by a second lockdown. But that will just make the ones that are available, all the more ferociously competitive.

So what’s to be done? Doing nothing is not an option – charities must be out there raising money this Christmas. But how are we to do that in a world where the only thing that’s (almost) certain is that it’s going to be tough?

Based on our experience of working with a wide range of different causes over the last few months and (perhaps more importantly) over the last 20 plus years, here are a few thoughts, learnings and suggestions for making sure your post-Covid Christmas campaign is a success.

Embrace uncertainty

The fact is, everything is – and always has been – uncertain. The pandemic has just given us a rude reminder of the way things are. We plan and strategise to create a sense of certainty. But in practice, the best plans are the ones that can flex and respond to what we couldn’t predict.

So get used to not knowing. It’s when we embrace uncertainty – when we accept ‘I don’t know’ as a perfectly sane place to be – that we can be at our most creative. And it is creative thinking that will be your most valuable ally this Christmas.

Tell the truth, the whole truth…

And once you’ve got used to not knowing, get used to admitting you don’t know. Admit it to yourself. Your boss. Your trustees. And, yes, to your supporters. For one thing it takes an impossible pressure off your shoulders. More importantly, they will respond to your honesty.

In the early days of the crisis, The Gurkha Welfare Trust wrote to its supporters to let them know how Covid-19 was affecting their work. The truth is, at that stage it wasn’t affecting their work very much at all. Although an early lockdown in Nepal was making it harder than usual for GWT’s mobile team to visit the more remote communities, it had succeeded in keeping Covid out of the country all together. And because the Trust is a well-managed organisation, there was no immediate threat to their funds – they would be able to carry on their important work for the foreseeable future.

So that’s exactly what we told the Trust’s supporters. No whipping up of hysteria. No screaming about an emergency. No trying to connect our cause to a crisis that was not affecting it. Instead we gave them an honest, open, adult to adult appraisal that included an acknowledgement of our own ignorance.  ‘We are in deeply uncharted territory,’ we admitted.

We included an ask – but only a soft one. Nonetheless, supporters have responded to this truthful, measured approach with extraordinary generosity.

Start now (or better still, four months ago)

In an earlier blog back at the start of lockdown, I said how important it was going to be to look after supporters in the months ahead. I suggested it was the organisations who kept in touch – who kept understanding, informing, entertaining and caring for their supporters – who would reap the rewards further down the line.

True to our word, we’ve been working with a range of clients on lockdown stewardship programmes that have done just that. For UNHCR, for example, we spoke to a number of people who really know a thing or two about living with uncertainty – refugees whose entire world has been turned upside down by war or persecution. In a regular, ongoing series of blogs and emails, we brought together some of the hard lessons and practical tips these courageous people have learned, and shared them with UNHCR supporters around the world.

There was no ask of any kind, because this wasn’t about donors giving to refugees. It was a unique opportunity for refugees to give something back to donors. By bringing supporters and beneficiaries together on something much closer than usual to a shared, common ground, we’ve helped to build an empathetic bond that I’m confident will be reflected in responses to this year’s winter appeal.

So don’t go quiet on your supporters and then just expect them to be there when you need them at Christmas. Strengthen that bond now.

No formulas…

As fundraisers – and especially as direct marketers –  we all love a proven formula. When something’s worked before, it will seem that the safest option is to do it again. But now is not the time for formulas (you’re embracing uncertainty, remember).

We’ve been talking this week to a client about their upcoming winter appeal. They were struggling, given the environment, to find one fully rounded case study that would best tell their story. When we asked them why they needed one single case study, they said it was because that’s the way they’ve always done their winter campaigns. We told them how we’d had a similar challenge last year with Macmillan’s Christmas warm appeal. So instead of trying to find the impossibly perfect case study, we told the same core story through three partial, but interlocking case studies. The appeal broke the formula – and it still stormed.

Of course all learning is good learning. But it can become a mental prison. If this is going to be a new kind of Christmas, it’s going to need new kinds of solutions.

…and no shortcuts

If you’ve got a creative campaign sitting around somewhere that was ready to go pre-Covid, it might be very tempting to dust it down and put it out there this Christmas. If so, take a completely fresh look at it first. It may have been a brilliant solution back then. But given how much has changed, it could be a disaster now.

So look again and consider how your supporter will see it in the current context, after everything they’ve been through. If you were starting with a blank page, would this still be your strongest solution? If not, why run it now?

Spending less money in order to run a weak appeal is bad economics. Of course, budgets are always tight (and may be tighter now than ever) but there are far more effective ways to cut your cloth.


A lot of the usual creative tools are not going to be available to you. Being unable to set up shoots and undertake case study visits might leave you working with poor quality images or no images at all.

So use this to your advantage. Don’t try to make your campaign look like it might have done in previous years – make a creative virtue of the poor quality or complete lack of images. If all you’ve got is a few Zoom screen grabs, don’t let your designers retouch them. The poor quality may be the most honest way to show your supporters the new conditions in which you are having to work.

Macmillan, like so many charities, has had to find whole new socially distanced ways of caring for people living with cancer. Including a set of grainy, unflattering Zoom portraits in their most recent appeal is one of the ways we’re bringing supporters closer to the new services we need them to support.

…but improvise creatively

And here’s why I always hesitate to offer creative suggestions. Because in some circumstances, they’re going to be wrong. Our Zoom portraits for Macmillan are doing a specific job at a specific time. But there’s a lot of Zoom and FaceTime ads out there now. So you need to find your own creative take to make sure you stand out.

Our recent Facebook and OOH campaign for the Bristol Hospitals charity, Above & Beyond, features nurses and doctors. But, as I am sure you’ve noticed, there’s been no shortage of them in the media recently. So we took a set of pretty bog standard, classic NHS staff shots, and  turned them into street art. Now, if you live in and around Bristol, these are not just NHS Heroes. They are your NHS Heroes.

Avoid cliché

Obviously this is a golden rule at any time and shouldn’t really need mentioning. Except that we’re entering a period when a whole new set of clichés are becoming almost impossible to avoid. A recent YouGov survey found message fatigue is already setting in for many consumers. 42% are fed up with hearing we are, ‘all in this together’, and 34% (if they’re anything like me) are ready to scream the next time someone refers to, ‘the new normal’.

I can’t stress enough how important it will be to place your communication in the context of your supporters’ lives. The challenge will be to do that without lapsing into lazy talk of ‘tough times’ and ‘unprecedented challenges’.

Stay flexible

I’ve already said that the best plans and strategies are the ones that can flex and respond to the unpredictable. So stay agile and be ready to change everything right up to the last minute. Whatever medium you’re working in, run a contingency schedule alongside your campaign schedule. Include all your latest possible delivery dates on it and calculate at what points you could still make amends, add a supplement or even scrap everything and start all over again.

And remember, being flexible isn’t just about avoiding problems. It’s about capitalising on opportunities. So make sure you’ll be able to scale up when things are going well. Flexible budgets will allow you to increase the spend when your digital test campaign takes off, or take advantage of last minute media opportunities when they present themselves. You’ll need a flexible sign off system too, so try to make sure the project team can give the go ahead without having to go through the SMT.

The past few months should have given you plenty of opportunity to test agility. Working with Southampton Hospitals Charity, we turned around a press and digital campaign – from brief to going live – in one week. So it can be done.

Assess everything through the eyes of your supporters

This is really the single most important piece of advice we can share. Although it looks like I’ve saved it until the end, in actual fact it is the one guiding principle that underpins all the others. And, also like all the others, it has always been true, long before Covid came on the scene.

But the current situation has made it more important than ever for us to think about our supporters before we think about ourselves, our cause and our pre-prepared boiler plate copy. We may, as YouGov’s most popular cliché would have us believe, be ‘all in this together’, but we are all having our own uniquely personal experience and response to it.

The organisations which get closest to understanding their supporters’ experience and reflecting it empathetically in their ongoing communications, are the ones who will reap the rewards this Christmas.

Have faith

And there are rewards to be reaped. As Nicola reported in another of our Covid era blogs, at Different Kettle we’ve seen, and continue to see, results from recent campaigns that have not just been successful, but in some cases positively spectacular. And that hasn’t just been for NHS charities, or even for Covid related causes. Our work with The Gurkha Welfare Trust and WWT, for example, where the Covid connection is slight to say the least, have performed way beyond target.

So don’t let the likely competition this Christmas put you off. The people who cared about your cause before all this kicked off, still care now.

And finally, let’s face it … nothing I’ve said here is original

Embrace uncertainty. Be honest. Avoid formulas. Tear down clichés. Always think of your audience.

These are all basic guidelines for sound creative marketing and fundraising. The trouble is, not all sound marketing and fundraising is creative. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it can get away with just being sound. But I don’t think this Christmas is going to be one of those times. I think this year, creativity will be king.