The secret of record-breaking Christmas appeals in a pandemic

Joe Nicholson By Joe Nicholson

Think back to Christmas 2020. For charities, things weren’t looking great.

They’d been rising valiantly to the challenges of the pandemic – helped by the incredible outpouring of public generosity in March and April.

But a few months later, the squeeze was tightening. Mass participation events, face-to-face fundraising and other key income streams were gone. As economic hardship worsened, many fundraisers eyed the new year nervously – anxious that loyal donors just wouldn’t be able to give.

This meant 2020’s Christmas appeals were critically important. Christmas is already the lifeblood of many charities, and with two in three worrying that they couldn’t afford to deliver all their services in 2021, the pressure was on. We felt it too.

That’s why we were thrilled that the Christmas appeals we worked on for Mind and for the Motor Neurone Disease Association far exceeded their targets.

And what we learned from them will change how we approach Christmas fundraising forever.

For both appeals, our creative strategy was complete honesty. And it worked.

Because when everyone’s lives had changed so dramatically, 2019’s approach just wasn’t going to cut it.

For Mind, that frankness looked like telling people that, in this most extraordinary of years, this was no normal Christmas appeal.

We didn’t need to spell it out. The UK’s mental health crisis had exploded during the pandemic, affecting a huge proportion of British adults – including, no doubt, many of Mind’s supporters.

So – across digital channels and print – we invited people in. We said: this is your chance to be part of the change we all need. To make sure there’s mental health support for everyone who needs it, that anyone who’s struggling has somewhere to turn.

Our mail appeal came from one of Mind’s Infoline Advisors – the kind, expert folk who take calls from those who really need help, every day. We did what Mind does best: speaking to people as people, not as a faceless organisation soliciting its donors.

We focused on the experiences we’ve all shared during the pandemic – loneliness, uncertainty, stress – but gave our audiences an alternative.

With the end of 2020 came an opportunity: a new year. The chance to rebuild. A donation to Mind meant the promise of hope.

And people gave in their thousands.

For the Motor Neurone Disease Association, we found that honesty by stripping our appeal back to a four page letter, with minimal design. We made it a candid message from the CEO – blunt about the finances, and honest about how people in the MND community were hit so hard by Covid-19.

We knew that our audience would feel deep solidarity with the MND community. After all, many of them feel part of it themselves. That’s why we told supporters about the resilience the community had shown in 2020 – and we offered them a way to take part.

Our appeal was a way for our audiences to reach out when they felt isolated, to hold out a hand to people struggling unimaginably.

And, like Mind’s appeal, we looked forward. What comes after the pandemic? There’s a chance to rewrite the future. To ensure that, once coronavirus is beaten, scientists have the funding to one day beat MND, too.

These appeals proved the power of radical authenticity, and how, by connecting bravely to the experiences your audiences are having, you unlock their empathy.

So how did they do? Mind’s appeal, the fifth one we’ve worked on with them, was their best result ever – raising a quarter more income, year on year. And the MND Association raised £276,000 – almost double their target.

Of course, no matter what happens in the coming months, this Christmas will again be difficult. The charity sector’s financial problems haven’t gone away.

But the lessons we learnt in 2020 haven’t gone away, either.

We’ll be putting radical authenticity at the core of our Christmas appeals this year, too. And after 2020, we’re confident that they’ll fly.

Joe Nicholson

Joe Nicholson

Head of Copy

Joe’s a big thinker who understands the power of words. As Head of Copy, he combines consistent creative magic with cross-channel expertise and rock-solid strategic thinking. Joe’s an experienced fundraiser, who also serves as a Trustee for homelessness charity, Housing Justice – you can read more about him here