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  • Writer's pictureLisa Smith

From Crisis to Connection: Behavioral Science Approaches to Post-Pandemic Fundraising

Understanding Post-Pandemic Donor Behavior

Human decision-making during periods of stress or trauma is profoundly influenced by biological and psychological responses. Two critical hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, play significant roles in these processes.

Adrenaline (Epinephrine)

Immediate Response:

  • Fight or Flight: Adrenaline, released by the adrenal glands, prepares the body for a rapid response. This "fight or flight" reaction is triggered by the perception of a threat, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and energy supplies​.

  • Heightened Arousal: It enhances alertness and arousal, making individuals more aware of their surroundings and capable of quick reactions. This can be beneficial in situations requiring immediate action but can impair complex decision-making processes.

Impact on Decision Making:

  • Focus on Immediate Survival: Adrenaline shifts the focus towards immediate survival, often at the expense of long-term planning and logical reasoning. Decisions made under its influence are typically faster but may be less rational and more emotionally driven.

  • Risk Perception: Increased adrenaline can alter risk perception, leading individuals to either overestimate or underestimate dangers. This can result in more aggressive or overly cautious behaviors.


Sustained Stress Response:

  • Energy Regulation: Cortisol helps regulate metabolism and provides a steady supply of glucose to the brain during prolonged stress, ensuring sustained energy levels.

  • Homeostasis: It helps maintain homeostasis by controlling various functions such as blood pressure, immune response, and anti-inflammatory actions.

Impact on Cognitive Functions:

  • Memory and Learning: Chronic exposure to cortisol can impair cognitive functions, particularly memory and learning. High cortisol levels can damage the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for these processes.

  • Decision-Making and Emotional Regulation: Elevated cortisol levels can affect the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, emotional regulation, and executive functions. This can lead to difficulties in making reasoned decisions and controlling emotional responses.

Psychological Implications

Heightened Emotional Responses:

  • Anxiety and Fear: Stress and trauma heighten emotional responses such as anxiety and fear, which can dominate rational thought processes. This often results in decisions driven more by emotion than by logic.

  • Tunnel Vision: Under stress, individuals may develop tunnel vision, focusing narrowly on certain aspects of a situation while neglecting others. This can lead to suboptimal decision-making due to a lack of comprehensive situational awareness.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Thinking:

  • Immediate Rewards: In stressful situations, individuals are more likely to prioritize immediate rewards or relief over long-term benefits. This can manifest in impulsive decisions that may not align with their long-term goals or values.

  • Impaired Judgement: The combined effects of adrenaline and cortisol can impair judgement, making it harder to weigh options effectively and consider future consequences.

Understanding the roles of adrenaline and cortisol in decision-making during periods of stress and trauma provides valuable insights into human behavior. These hormones prepare the body to respond to threats but can also impair cognitive functions and lead to emotionally-driven decisions. Recognizing these effects can help in developing strategies to manage stress responses and improve decision-making under pressure.

These insights are particularly relevant for nonprofits and organizations in 2020 and early 2021, where we saw increased giving, often by donors that may not have been in a position to give but dug into their reserves because they wanted to help in whatever way they could.

Prolonged exposure to stress and trauma

Prolonged exposure to stress and trauma over a couple of years can significantly affect the regulation and functioning of both adrenaline and cortisol in the body. We continue to be under sustained stress through the long effects of Covid-19 and other illnesses, the cost of living crisis and global unease and war, to name a few. Here’s an overview of what happens:

Prolonged Stress and Adrenaline 

Chronic Overactivation:

  • Adrenaline Fatigue: Continuous stress can lead to a state known as "adrenal fatigue," where the adrenal glands become overworked and less effective at producing adrenaline. This can result in decreased energy levels and impaired stress response​.

  • Heightened Baseline Levels: Prolonged stress can also lead to consistently elevated levels of adrenaline, keeping the body in a constant state of alertness. This can contribute to chronic anxiety, hypertension, and other cardiovascular issues.

Psychological Impact:

  • Anxiety and Hypervigilance: Persistent high levels of adrenaline are associated with chronic anxiety and hypervigilance, where individuals are constantly on edge and expecting potential threats.

  • Reduced Cognitive Function: Continuous adrenaline release can impair cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and decision-making, leading to difficulties in daily functioning and mental fatigue.

Prolonged Stress and Cortisol

Dysregulation of Cortisol Production:

  • Hyperactivation: Initially, prolonged stress leads to elevated cortisol levels, which help the body cope with the stressor by providing necessary energy and modulating the immune response.

  • Hypocortisolism: Over time, the body’s feedback mechanisms can become disrupted, potentially leading to "hypocortisolism," a condition where the body’s ability to produce cortisol becomes blunted. This is often seen in conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) .

Health Implications:

  • Immune System Suppression: Prolonged high cortisol levels can suppress the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and slower to heal from injuries.

  • Metabolic Changes: Chronic cortisol elevation is linked to metabolic syndrome, characterized by increased abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol levels. This raises the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

  • Mental Health Issues: Prolonged high cortisol levels are associated with depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairments. Cortisol can damage the hippocampus, a brain area critical for learning and memory, leading to long-term cognitive decline.

Psychological and Behavioral Effects

Chronic Stress and Trauma:

  • PTSD and Anxiety Disorders: Prolonged trauma can lead to the development of PTSD and other anxiety disorders, characterized by persistent fear, flashbacks, and avoidance behaviors.

  • Depression: Continuous stress can contribute to the onset of depression, with symptoms such as persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, and fatigue.

Behavioral Changes:

  • Substance Use: To cope with chronic stress, individuals might turn to substance use, which can further exacerbate health issues.

  • Social Withdrawal: Ongoing trauma can lead to social withdrawal and isolation, reducing social support and exacerbating mental health problems.

Impact of Long-Term Societal Stress on Donors and Fundraising

Psychological and Behavioral Changes in Donors

Decreased Cognitive Function:

  • Decision-Making Impairment: Chronic stress can impair cognitive functions, making it harder for individuals to make thoughtful, deliberate decisions. Donors may find it challenging to decide on contributions or to process complex information about organizational impact and needs.

  • Reduced Attention Span: With impaired cognitive abilities, donors may have shorter attention spans and less patience for long fundraising appeals or detailed explanations of projects and needs.

Emotional Exhaustion and Compassion Fatigue:

  • Decreased Empathy: Prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can lead to compassion fatigue, where donors become emotionally exhausted and less able to empathize with others’ suffering. This can reduce their motivation to give to causes that rely heavily on emotional appeals.

  • Apathy and Withdrawal: Chronic stress may lead to apathy, where potential donors withdraw from social causes and disengage from activities they previously supported, including charitable donations and volunteerism.

Increased Risk Aversion:

  • Conservative Financial Behavior: Stressed individuals may become more risk-averse, preferring to hold onto their resources rather than donating them. This conservative approach to finances can significantly impact donation levels to organizations like Doctors Without Borders that rely on consistent financial support.

  • Preference for Stability: Donors may favor organizations that demonstrate strong stability and transparency, reducing their willingness to support newer or less established causes that might appear riskier.


The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed a rapid technological advancement, effectively pushing society forward by nearly a decade within the span of a single year. As remote work and virtual communication became necessities, businesses and individuals alike had to adapt swiftly to new digital tools and platforms. This accelerated the adoption of technologies such as video conferencing, cloud computing, and e-commerce. For example, Zoom saw an exponential increase in daily meeting participants, from 10 million in December 2019 to over 300 million by April 2020. Similarly, online shopping surged as consumers turned to digital solutions to meet their needs, with e-commerce seeing unprecedented growth. These changes not only highlighted the importance of technology in maintaining social and economic functions during crises but also set new standards for its use in everyday life moving forward.

For donors, this means everyone young and older are comfortable engaging online.

How does Long Term Stress and Community Trauma Impact Fundraising Strategies

Need for Enhanced Communication:
  • Clear and Concise Messaging: Given the reduced attention span and cognitive capacity, fundraising messages need to be clear, concise, and direct. Avoiding overly complex information and focusing on key points can help maintain donor engagement.

  • Emphasizing Impact and Transparency: Regular updates and transparent reporting on how donations are used can build trust and reassure donors about the effectiveness and necessity of their contributions.

  • Personalized Communication, Tailor messages to individual donors

    • Use donor data to personalize conversations, referencing previous donations, specific interests, or past interactions with the organization. This creates a sense of recognition and appreciation, making donors feel valued and understood.

    • Address donors by their names and acknowledge their past contributions. Personalized greetings can make a significant difference in how connected and appreciated donors feel.

  • Nudging for Commitment: Behavioral nudges, such as default options and suggested giving amounts, can encourage donors to commit to monthly giving. For example, defaulting to a monthly giving option has significantly increased recurring donations. This also helps mitigate decision fatigue.

    • Keep in mind a softer worded ask encourages empathy help people stay engaged, for instance "Would you consider become a monthly donor with a suggested amount of $xx" is empathetic to the cost of living crisis instead of a straightforward ask "Become a monthly donor with a gift of $xx"


Focus on Emotional Resilience:

  • Positive Storytelling: Sharing positive stories of impact and resilience can help counteract compassion fatigue by highlighting successful outcomes and the tangible difference donations make.

  • Supportive Community Engagement: Creating a supportive community where donors feel connected and valued can enhance their emotional resilience and commitment to the cause. This can be achieved through virtual events, personalized thank-you notes, and regular communication.

  • Show Empathy and Build Trust when having 2 way conversations:

  • Train fundraisers to listen actively and empathetically. Recognize the donor’s emotional state and respond with genuine concern and understanding. This approach can help build stronger emotional connections.

  • Share personal stories or testimonials that highlight the human impact of donations. This can help donors feel the tangible effects of their contributions, fostering a deeper emotional connection with the cause.

  • Enhance Donor Experience Create a Supportive Community:

  • Build a sense of community among donors by organizing virtual events, webinars, or Q&A sessions with organizational leaders. These events can help donors feel more connected to the cause and the organization​.

  • Offer exclusive content or access to behind-the-scenes information to monthly or recurring donors. This special treatment can increase their loyalty and commitment.

  • Psychological Ownership: donors feel a sense of ownership over the cause. Monthly updates and personalized impact stories can foster this sense, leading to higher retention rates.

Utilizing Technology and Personalization:

  • AI and Predictive Analytics: Leveraging AI to predict donor behavior and personalize communication can ensure that messages are relevant and timely, improving engagement and retention.

  • Data Analysis: AI algorithms can sift through vast amounts of data, including donation history, demographic information, online behavior, and engagement metrics. By analyzing this data, AI can identify patterns and trends that human analysts might miss, providing valuable insights into donor behavior.

  • Predictive Modeling: Using machine learning techniques, AI can build predictive models to forecast donor behavior. These models can predict the likelihood of donors making future contributions, the amount they might donate, and their preferred channels of communication.

  • Segmentation: AI can segment donors into distinct groups based on their characteristics and behaviors. This segmentation allows organizations to tailor their communication strategies to different donor segments, ensuring that messages resonate with each group's interests and preferences.

  • Personalization: AI enables nonprofits to personalize communication with donors on a large scale. By analyzing donor data, AI can create personalized messages, recommendations, and appeals tailored to each donor's interests, motivations, and giving history. Personalized communication fosters a deeper connection with donors, increasing engagement and retention.

  • Optimization: AI can continually optimize communication strategies based on real-time data and feedback. By analyzing the effectiveness of different messages, channels, and timing, AI can identify the most effective approaches for engaging donors and driving donations.

  • Automation: AI-powered tools can automate various tasks, such as sending personalized emails, updating donor profiles, and tracking engagement metrics. Automation frees up staff time and resources, allowing organizations to focus on building relationships with donors and delivering impactful programs.

CRM and Data Analytics:

  • Implement and continue to track donor interactions, preferences, and history including interactions on petitions or events in your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems. This data can help tailor future interactions and ensure consistency in communication.

Long-term stress and trauma have profound effects on donor behavior, including reduced cognitive function, emotional exhaustion, and increased risk aversion. Adapting fundraising strategies to address these challenges is crucial. This involves clear and concise communication, emphasizing transparency and positive impact, fostering emotional resilience, and leveraging technology for personalized engagement. By understanding and mitigating the effects of prolonged stress on donors, these organizations can sustain and potentially enhance their fundraising efforts in challenging times.

Enhancing a telefundraising campaign in light of long-term stress requires a multifaceted approach that prioritizes personalization, empathy, transparency, and the strategic use of technology. By creating a supportive and engaging donor experience, organizations can effectively mitigate the negative impacts of stress and foster stronger, more resilient donor relationships. These efforts can lead to sustained and even increased fundraising success, ensuring continued support for vital causes.


What are the most effective ways to fundraise currently?

To effectively target monthly conversion and retention in fundraising campaigns, especially considering the prolonged stress and trauma affecting potential donors, it's essential to focus on channels that offer personalization, convenience, and strong emotional engagement. Here are the best fundraising channels for this purpose:



  • Direct Engagement: Allows for real-time, personalized interactions where fundraisers can explain the benefits of monthly giving and address any concerns immediately.

  • Relationship Building: Builds stronger relationships with donors through empathetic and engaging conversations.


  • Empathy and Understanding: Train fundraisers to approach conversations with empathy, acknowledging the stress and trauma donors may be experiencing.

  • Highlight Benefits: Clearly communicate the benefits of monthly giving, such as providing reliable support for ongoing projects and creating a greater impact over time​ (McKinsey & Company)​.


Email Campaigns


  • Personalization: Emails can be tailored to individual donors, acknowledging their past contributions and showing appreciation for their ongoing support.

  • Automation: Email platforms allow for automated sequences that can nurture donors over time, making it easier to convert one-time donors into monthly supporters.


  • Personalized Appeals: Craft personalized email appeals that highlight the importance of consistent support and the impact of monthly donations.

  • Impact Stories: Regularly share stories and updates on how monthly donations are making a difference, reinforcing the value of sustained giving​.

Online Donation Platforms


  • Convenience: Online platforms make it easy for donors to set up recurring donations with just a few clicks.

  • Automated Reminders: These platforms can send automated reminders and updates, keeping donors engaged without overwhelming them.


  • Easy Setup: Ensure the donation process is simple and user-friendly, with a clear option for setting up monthly donations.

  • Transparency: Provide clear information on how monthly donations are used and the specific impacts they achieve​.

Social Media Campaigns


  • Wide Reach: Social media can engage a broad audience and share compelling stories and updates regularly.

  • Community Building: Fosters a sense of community and collective action, which can be comforting and motivating for donors under stress.


  • Regular Updates: Post regular updates and success stories that show the ongoing impact of monthly donations.

  • Interactive Content: Use interactive content such as live videos, Q&A sessions, and polls to engage donors and encourage monthly giving​​.

Direct Mail


  • Tangibility: Physical mail creates a personal touch and a tangible connection, which can be comforting to donors.

  • Detailed Messaging: Allows for comprehensive explanations of needs and impacts, making a strong case for monthly giving.


  • Personalized Letters: Send personalized letters with handwritten notes or signatures to make donors feel valued and appreciated.

  • Clear Call to Action: Include a clear and compelling call to action for setting up monthly donations, along with prepaid return envelopes for convenience.

Virtual Events and Webinars


  • Interactive Engagement: Provides a platform for real-time interaction and deeper engagement with donors.

  • Access to Leaders: Features organizational leaders or beneficiaries who can speak directly to the impact of monthly donations.


  • Engaging Content: Host virtual events that include testimonials, project updates, and Q&A sessions to keep donors informed and engaged.

  • Recognition: Recognize and thank monthly donors during these events to reinforce their importance and value to the organization.


Multi-Channel Approach:

 Integrating telefundraising with digital platforms can provide a seamless donor experience, allowing organizations to reach donors through their preferred channels and maintain consistent engagement. For example:

  • Combine telefundraising with other digital platforms such as email, social media, and SMS to create a cohesive and omnichannel donor experience. This ensures that donors can interact with the organization through their preferred channels.

  • Follow up on telefundraising calls with personalized emails summarizing the conversation and providing easy ways to donate online. This can reinforce the message and provide additional convenience for donors.


To effectively target monthly conversion and retention in a fundraising campaign, leverage channels that offer personalized, empathetic, and convenient interactions. Telefundraising, email campaigns, online donation platforms, social media campaigns, direct mail, and virtual events are all effective when tailored to the needs and emotional states of donors. By emphasizing the impact and benefits of monthly giving and providing a supportive and engaging donor experience, organizations can enhance donor loyalty and sustain long-term support.

List of Sources 

1.      Association of Fundraising Professionals. "COVID Era Fundraising Stalls as Donations Soften and Donors, Retention Rates Fall in First Quarter 2022." AFP Global, 12 July 2022,

2.      BDI Agency. "Post-Pandemic Giving: 4 Nonprofit Fundraising Trends to Watch in 2022." BDI Agency, Accessed May 2024.

3.      Blackbaud Institute. "Charitable Giving Report: How Fundraising Performed in 2020." Blackbaud Institute, . Accessed May 2024.

4.      Breeze, Beth, and Jon Dean. "The COVID-19 Crisis and Philanthropy: Temporary or Lasting Change?" International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 2022.

5.      DMFA. "Diversify, Diversify, Diversify. Investing Wisely in a Post-Pandemic World." DMFA, . Accessed May 2024.

6.      DonorSearch. "Finding Engaged Donors in Our Post-Pandemic World." DonorSearch, . Accessed May 2024.

7.      Dunham + Company. "2024 Donor Confidence Research." Dunham + Company, 16 Feb. 2024,

8.      Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. "COVID-19, Generosity, and Gender: How Giving Changed During the Early Months of a Global Pandemic." IUPUI ScholarWorks, Accessed May 2024.

9.      Multiple Contributors. "Understanding the Psychology of Donor Behavior During Crisis." Journal of Behavioral Public Administration, 2023.

10.  Osili, Una, et al. "The Long-term Impact of COVID-19 on Donor Behavior." Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University, 2023.

11.  The Behavioral Insights Team. "Behavioral Insights for Better Donor Engagement Post-COVID." The Behavioral Insights Team, 2023.

12.  Various Authors. "Digital Transformation in Nonprofit Fundraising: Post-Pandemic Trends." Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2023.




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