Are you wondering how animal charities are faring in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic? In British Columbia, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SCPA) is trying its best to rethink their strategies and campaigns so that they can continue to be of service despite the challenges. The pandemic is a tough time for charities, who are struggling to reconcile the increased demand of their services with the potential loss of some of their fund sources. Chief Development Officer Shoni Field joins Douglas Nelson on this episode to talk about how the organization is responding to these challenges. A big part of this is building a culture of digital maturity and adopting a lower risk model of operations. Listen and learn more about who BC SCPA used these pivots to thrive in the midst of crisis.
Listen to the podcast here:
BC SPCA With Shoni Field
Our guest is Shoni Field, Chief Development Officer of the BC SPCA. We’re pleased to have her to talk about the way the sector is changing as a result of this pandemic. Welcome, Shoni.
Thank you for having me.
You’re the Chief Development Officer of one of the largest animal charities in the province, one of the largest in the country. How does your organization go about responding, raising money as the need remains in the face of a pandemic?
None of us expected the pandemic to happen, but we’ve been fortunate. Our donors have been generous and the animal lovers are committed to helping animals. For one thing right away, we needed to look at how does our work change? What can we still do? That first week, we weren’t sure how big a lockdown there was going to be, whether we’d be considered an essential service or whether we had to get all the animals out of shelter because we wouldn’t be able to continue to operate. There was some uncertainty in figuring out how we were going to help people. We knew from places that were a bit further along that surrendered and people giving up their animals because they could no longer afford to keep them, had increased that people needing to go into hospital needed safe places for other animals.
We were sadly anticipating that the domestic violence would increase as it often does in a crisis. People often don’t leave unsafe situations if they don’t have a safe place for their animal. We knew people would need help with food for their animals. We were reworking what we were doing. We needed to be able to figure that out quickly before we go out and ask for money. One of the reasons why once we figured that out, why we were able to respond quickly is we’ve been working over the last number of years to build up our digital maturity. When I say digital maturity and people think, “They have a big email list.”
I’m guessing that’s not what that means.
It goes far beyond that. Some of the characteristics of digital maturity means that our whole fundraising department is able to respond and pivot quickly, not worry about perfect getting in the way of getting out there, iterate and change as we go. All of that culture building that we’ve done over the last couple of years meant that we were able to get out quickly. Our first fundraising ask within 24 hours and we weren’t running anything of a long period. Things were lasting 24, 48, 72 hours, and then we’d come out with some new content. All of that cultural stuff helped us be ready to respond quickly to get concentrate our resources where we needed it and be ready to change quickly.
It sounds like you had a lot of the infrastructure in place, but hadn’t deployed it in a pandemic before. How did your donors respond the way they gave to support your organization shifts through March, April and May 2020?
People have been incredibly generous. For a lot of people, their home, the location in their community had shut down and people often prefer to give going in and visiting the animals and leaving their gifts. A lot of people who would have given at an event or given by going into their local branch, their local SPCA shifted to giving online. We say we practice this all the time. There have been wildfires where we’ve deployed our emergency resources. We’ve had big cruelty cases that we’ve responded in an emergency. We’re always practicing this and these are same things.
These are part of our end of year fundraising model as well. What we knew is that not only as an emergency, a great time to talk to your current donors about how they can help the animals that they passionately believe in, but also a good time for growth because we know that a lot of donors give during an emergency. They mean to give, they have the best of intentions, but their life gets busy. We knew that and we’re ready to start inviting animal lovers who had never supported us before to come in and help as well.
Through our work with organizations across the country and working with clients we saw a large surge of donations in March and April 2020 to frontline social service organizations, food banks, homelessness shelters, isolated seniors. I assume your organization was a beneficiary of that as well. After that initial surge, have the donations continued? Have your donors stayed with you through this crisis as it has extended much longer than any of us may have expected?
We did certainly see a surge in March and April 2020. March and April 2020 when we were doing those 24, 48 hours help for a certain area. As we started to shift into mid-May 2020 and into the summer, we started running longer campaigns. We ran our usual Lock-In for Love, which is people go to their local shelter and they get locked in and they raise funds from their friends and family for the animals. We did that virtually and that was running for two weeks. That was our longest one.
The idea of that fundraiser is you would be locked up in the animal cages and your friends and family would have to make a donation to get you out?
It’s like a jail cell but the kennel.Domestic animal violence is expected to increase as it often does in a crisis. Click To Tweet
I’m familiar with the crime stoppers. I’ve never heard it for the SPCA.
We do it as an in-person event and we had to pivot to do it digitally where they’d like, “If there’s ever a year where we can Lock-In for Love Home Edition is going to fly is this year because we’re all locked in with our animals.” People were sending pictures of them and their animals at home not being able to go out rather than pictures of them and their animals in a shelter and a kennel. We started moving to those longer campaigns.
We added a 50/50 charitable lottery in the starting launch in August 2020 that we’ve never run before, but we needed to replace revenue from our canceled walk and our canceled gala. We’ve seen not necessarily at the peak of late March 2020, early April 2020, but still growing which is great because we have some unusual expenses and we’re starting to be able to look at the more long-term resilience now. Talking to those new donors who came in and asking them to consider becoming monthly donors. Looking at how we can set ourselves up for 2021. We’re still able to take care of the animals. None of us know what 2021 is going to look like.
I think a lot of the language of the sector has shifted from what we’ll see where we are in the fall as we’re probably going to be almost done with this to now, maybe it’s the end 2020 or 2021. Who knows? Planning has been thrown out the window for a lot of organizations. How have you been able to keep your team focused on the mission on the intense work of raising money in this time?
It’s been hard for everybody. People who work for nonprofits are almost entirely doing it because they believe in making the world a better place, and whether it’s a strong calling to that charity or strong calling to community build and make our world better. They’re already passionately committed to their work and we’re doing it at a time where the need and demand is ratcheted up and the potential resources to do. It appears under threat. It’s hugely an overwhelming time for fundraisers. At the first six weeks, we are focused on, “What can we do this week to make a difference?” Let’s not even start thinking about long-term and beyond some things like we had to cancel some event bookings. Let’s talk about what can make the biggest difference this week because everything is going to be different next week. We need to see how it unfolds.
We started getting into being able to see a bit closer out. We worked on having regular huddles that in an emergency, it’s easy, all good breaking down silos work can easily get pushed aside as everyone’s coping with all this change and they stopped talking to each other. Right from, as an organization from senior management to my program managers, to them working with their teams, making sure we have regular huddles. Everyone had as much information as possible of how we were changing quickly.
You’ve touched on something that is the hallmark of organizations that have responded well or as best as they could to this pandemic is focusing on the actions you can take as an individual professional, as a team, as an organization and for your mission. Rather than spending a lot of time wondering what’s going to happen or reforecasting revenue three times in a month. Keeping people focused on how they are impacting that mission makes it a lot easier to keep donors’ attention on the importance of the mission and therefore to keep giving.
We’ve done some work that was helpful for us as a department having two key performance indicators that we were all working towards. One was the acquisition and retention of new donors and one was raising the lifetime value of our donors. Having those two things, it sounds simple and they’ll sound super obvious, but there’s always way more work than there are resources. Especially when there’s much change during an emergency, being able to keep things coming back to, “Are these the best things we can do to drive these two things forward?” We’re going to keep changing and we’re not going to get it right the first time. We’re not going to say we failed. We’re going to say we learned about how we’re going to change that the next time and we’re going to keep trying and do a lot of things in small iterative ways.
One of the things that broke my heart in those first couple of months, knowing that it was a fragile time for charities is the fear of asking and not knowing how to test the waters with donors. We found people desperately wanted to feel in control of something and when they were able to give, that was the way they could feel thankful for all of an uncontrollable time. Also, people spending all of March and April 2020 building out a perfect campaign that they were going to launch in May 2020. It’s taking much time and not being out there asking. I feel that being able to do small, quick things and then iterate and learn and build the next small quick thing is a much lower risk model.
You use the phrase lower risk there and I like how you’re applying that because what you’re suggesting is that you do a lot of things. Some of them are going to work. Some of them are not going to work, but you’re going to learn from them and you’re going to do something else. The risk of failure is much higher in the individual case of each test that you’re running or each small campaign you’re running, but overall for your program, you’re enhancing the sustainability and the growth of the program.
If we test something out in one eBlast, to use a micro example, we know what the risk is if we get it wrong. We’re not losing enough that it’s going to be sink or swim for the organization, but then we can get it better the next week and better the next week. If we spend eight weeks building up a pandemic emergency landing page and purpose-built giving form and tried to predict in our heads all of the things that would be important to donors without ever testing, having any proof of concept for that. We then may find that eight weeks later, we’ve made an expensive mistake.The key to having a growth mindset is to start building digital maturity up in the organization. Click To Tweet
That doesn’t appeal to our donors and we’ve invested so much in it that it’s hard to iterate and change it now. That becomes a big risk. I know it’s uncomfortable for charities. We want to look professional and that means often we take that to mean we have to put something out that looks entirely polished and done and perfect, but sometimes that perfect doesn’t work. We’ve wasted time and resources. We have to be comfortable putting out something that looks a little less polished, learning from it and making it better the next time.
That orientation of perfect being the enemy, not of good but perfect being the enemy of done is quite strong in the sector. When you describe this to colleagues in other organizations that this is how you’re moving forward, do they look sideways at you and wonder how you’re pulling it off or how you’re able to take those risks on such a consistent basis?
We have a luxury of having a strong supporter base that we can take small risks. The hardest position to be in and that I’ve certainly been in is working for a small nonprofit. Whereas, the fundraising resource you’re doing everything. Every single thing you do is literally the difference between the doors being open next month. That’s a hard position to be in. I don’t want to set myself up of when you’re in that position, you can’t necessarily take the risks that I’m talking about, but when you do have a little bit more leeway. When I talk to people, I think the sector is moving, but the traditional fundraising shop has been built around direct mail, major gifts model.
That doesn’t necessarily always have to change as fast. The lead times are far bigger and you’re investing a lot more either in money or relationship building before every ask. There is more of a feeling that you have to get it right. I think that the key to being able to have this more growth mindset is to start building digital maturity up in the organization. Because it does give you that flexibility, we’ll test things on Facebook before we’ll go to print with them to make sure that we’re not making an expensive print mistake and it cost us $10 on Facebook. As an example, that digital maturity doesn’t grow our digital fundraising, it helps inform all of our fundraising and our culture. Getting there is not a case of buying the all the bells and whistles CRM or the fancy piece of technology.
It’s about of how you are organizing your workforce and breaking down silos. It’s about connecting your use of technology to your long-term organizational strategic goals. Taking small experiments and then scaling them off into enterprise wide initiatives. Those are changes that are hard for organizations to make. I hear a lot of people say, “Digital is cannibalizing direct mail. It’s a payment platform of people who would give in another way. We’re not seeing significant growth in digital.” Those things are holding people back from starting to make this cultural change. I think it’s a bit of chicken and egg and that we started to see exponential growth in our digital revenue streams once we started making those cultural changes.
I think the biggest challenge facing the social profit sector in its entirety is that the world outside of our sector is changing much more quickly than the work of our sector. How we operate as organizations is quickly going to be under pressure, under threat in the last 6 or 7 months of the pandemic, if shown that to be true, you’re describing the ideal of digital maturity. I like the way you’re talking about it. I’m sure everybody has heard board members in particular saying, “We’re digital now. We have salesforce.”
That to me is usually, at least, a yellow flag. Usually, a red flag is there’s going to be a problem. How are you working within the much larger organization been able to make the case for this digital maturity? While it’s not just about the CRM, I know there’s a lot of significant investment that goes into creating that culture of iteration and reforming and pushing things out. How have you brought your colleagues around that executive table together around this significant investment?
One of the key things is a lot of nonprofits are based in science. They’re medical or social services where they have a lot of data about why they do what they do programmatically and everyone’s got an opinion about fundraising. Everyone will tell you, “I think you should have this event and we’ll make a lot of money.”
The first gala worked well. We should have a second one.
It’s about with your colleagues and senior management level is seeing in animal welfare, we’re science-based at the SPCA. There’s science to this too. There are numbers. We do a lot of testing. Your gut is a bad decision-maker for fundraising. It’s probably a good decision-maker for whether you decide whether to donate or not, but saying, “I have a feeling that this is going to work,” doesn’t lead to good decision-making. We’ve built up this culture within the organization, they’re familiar with the fact that we’re using data to make our decisions as well, but we do test that we will start with pilots, learn from them, and then scale up. There’s reasoning behind it and we’re not going from zero to a big shiny bells and whistles CRM or campaign or whatever, that it is iterative. We can take people along the path of how we got here, why these things are important, and how they fit into feeding the rest of the organizational goals. How advocacy and social change can work with fundraising in a cyclical way.
You’ve been in your role for a number of years. How long into your journey did you start this cultural change at the BC SPCA? It’s been strategically iterative.
Sometimes accidentally iterative. Sometimes you learn the best things by accident. We’ve done other emergency fundraising whether it’s a big cruelty case or when our staff were deployed helping animals who had been evacuated during wildfires in 2017 and 2018. We’ve had these emergencies and we’ve learned from them, but the way we started thinking about needing to learn in emergencies and having a different model of operating during emergencies for fundraising went back to a story that I’m sure a lot of your readers will remember, the Whistler sled dogs case. This was our most involved cruelty investigation ever when we had forensic investigators from across North America and a horrific and sad case.
From that, we didn’t know in the first days, weeks how to fundraise in an emergency, how to go out to donors and ask for funds in this tragic case where none of the animals were alive to need help. There were lots of questions about how the sled dog industry had been able to get to this point. Out of that, we came this realization. We need a way to test donor appetite and test what feelings are. We’ve used various mechanisms since then to do it. Now we use Facebook, we can go out and have a good sense with it with 3 or 4 hours, how our donors are feeling about something and whether we should go out more broadly. That I look at as being the basis for us learning how to respond in emergencies.
We’ve built on that over the years and then from learning how to respond during emergencies saying, “A lot of these things we do during emergency are helpful for us during regular day-to-day life in terms of decision-making, of how we develop a new campaign, how we budget for it and invest in it, and having that minimum viable product that we get out and then iterate.” When I look back, we learned a lot from that about being agile, data-driven and comfortable with change.
You’ve done great work over the last number of years to set the standard when it comes to digital maturity. What advice would you give to someone who is relatively new to the role, knowing that their organization needs to get going on their digital maturity? How do they start?
Start by trying stuff out and not trying to get to that perfect. Not trying to justify the $20,000 investment in web development or more or whatever’s a big amount for them at that time. When we started, we had a campaign for medical emergency, which are animals who need extra ordinary help with that cost of emergency surgeries more than our usual health budget for animals. It’s like a crowdfunding model. People are familiar with the concept. They can donate to help Hagrid the dog or Milo the cat who’s had them. There’s a little bit about their story and there’s the actual vet costs and the cost of care for that animal, so these mini campaigns. When we first started that, we didn’t invest the time in developing it. We found off the shelf third-party application that we could run that people left our website, which goes against all the rules.Don’t wait for it to be perfect. Just get started. Click To Tweet
The first iteration wasn’t even branded with a wrapper that was BC SPCA, but it got this idea of being able to quickly, without a lot of technical skill, put up these micro campaigns. As we ran that for a year and we made enough money that we were like, “There’s an appetite for this.” The second year we invested in having a branded wrapper and some improvements and then we did third round of improvements. It was only the fourth time we iterated on it that we built it out in our eCRM and spent money on the development of it. I would say, start small and don’t ask for the big budget asks right away, but look and see what you can do that may not look perfect on the cheap and when you have a case that this is a viable concept that your donors support, then develop further.
Get started is your advice. Don’t wait for it to be perfect. Keep going.
When you have something that converts and makes money as a fundraising piece, then you have to look at, “How am I going to feed the funnel? How am I going to get people into it?” You need to start looking about lead generation, “How can I build my list? What things do I have that people, we, I as an organization have, that potential donors would be interested in giving us their email for?” It’s that value exchange, “Can we give you something? Can we give you a PDF packing list for how to pack for your pet during an evacuation? For that, you’d be willing to give us your email.” You’ve got a group of people that you’re feeding into what you know is now a viable concept for your fundraising ask.
What I like about all of the stories you’ve shared with us in this conversation is that the mission is right under there. It’s right below the surface all the way through and the confidence of knowing that what you’re putting in front of your donors reflects the mission of your organization and that they’re going to respond to it allows you this flexibility. When I see organizations trying to do a lot of digital fundraising and trying them like tricks or extensions of their missions or, “We’ll try this over here and it’s not part of the core mission,” they don’t see that value. They don’t learn from it, but you’re describing a way of iterating and building program that has the mission at the core all the way through. How do you keep that mission in focus as you build these programs out?
We have a great mission. When I speak at conferences, stand up and I can see the eyes rolling of like, “You can give me my ten steps of what I shouldn’t be doing, but you have puppies and kittens. I’ve got this obscure disease that I’m fundraising for.” We’re certainly fortunate in the mission we have. Having said that though, we’ve got better over time.
The accountability for having a mission where it’s taken for granted that people will give means you need to encourage them to give and keep giving. It’s not easy.
We’ve had puppies and kittens for 125 years. That’s our 125th year in 2020. We’ve got better at connecting to animal lovers. None of this is rocket science, but making it tangible, there’s a reason why our medical emergency campaigns where people can give to one animal and then get an email update about how surgery went for that one animal. That they’ve been adopted and they’re now in their forever home. There’s a reason why that works because it’s super tangible, personal and our supporters have a strong personal connection to their animals. That empathy either imagining an animal in distress and imagining their own animal in that situation or they’re angry that humans have done this to animals. In a case of cruelty, there’s that strong connection with animal bond. By making it tangible and micro, people think they have to do big things and we make things micro.
I like the way that comes through because one of the unasked questions that many donors have is, “What are you going to do with my money? Does my gift make a difference?” That direct connection to an animal, hearing how the surgery went hearing that they were adopted is a perfect example of how to make donors feel like they’re helping to advance the mission in partnership with the organization.
Fundraisers have a love-hate relationship with charity water and they do all this fancy stuff, but there’s that power of knowing I put that pump on that well and I can use my webcam to go look at that. When I got the idea for doing the medical emergency, I was at a conference and Stephen Pidgeon, a fundraiser in UK. He was sharing a story about an organization that would raise funds for medical equipment for children. He was showing an example of a fundraiser for a wheelchair for a young boy. This is a small fraction of the organization’s budget, but how powerful you feel that you gave this young boy a wheelchair. Those connections work because people like to feel they’re part of the team, that they are not able to do this in their 9:00 to 5:00 job.
For whatever reason of they don’t feel they can translate their skills to helping the animals or the charity or for financial reasons, they need to be somewhere else. This is their way of being part of that team to say, “The cruelty investigator, the animal care attended and I saved this animal, got them to the vet. The vet helped with the injury they’d been given and together now this animal’s in a happy home when we did this together.” That’s what gets missed a lot, especially in digital is the attention to the big and glossy huge gold campaign where it’s hard to figure out what you did.
I love that your final message in our conversation is that people should go digital by making things far more human. Thank you for being on the show. We appreciate the great advice and the messages you’ve shared. I wish you and your team all the best.
Thank you. It was a pleasure.
About Shoni Field
Shoni Field has 20 years of experience in fundraising, specializing in direct response. She has fundraised for a variety of non-profits in environment, youth, health and international development. She first worked with the BC SPCA in 2010 as an independent consultant, and took on the staff position of Director, Fundraising in 2014. In January 2017, she was appointed as the BC SPCA’s Chief Development Officer.
“Everybody remembers that first important animal in their lives. And that profound connection between human and animal never diminishes. My team and I are tremendously fortunate to be able to spend each day helping our supporters do something they are passionate about: rescue and care for those animals less fortunate.”
Shoni is a graduate of Simon Fraser University. She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and presents at industry conferences on digital and multi-vehicle fundraising. Since 2004 she has been widely involved in citizen engagement and democratic reform.
Shoni lives in Vancouver with her husband and two sons.