Operation Smile Plans on Maintaining Strong Donor Communication for Year-End Success
Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing safe surgeries for those born with cleft lip and cleft palate, like all other nonprofit organizations, has been weathering the pandemic storm that has taken precedence since March.
Like all nonprofits, the organization had to pivot its overall strategy to better adjust to the economic climate that we all find ourselves in. And further, it had to retool and restructure, as well as move its staff around and consolidate.
In this exclusive interview with NonProfit PRO, Kendra E. Davenport, CFRE, chief development officer at Operation Smile, shares more on how the organization had to change and adapt during COVID-19 and also how the team is strategizing for the year-end giving season.
How has fundraising at Operation Smile evolved over the years?
Initially, it was very grassroots. It was the Magee’s going out to their network — the medical network that Co-Founder and CEO Dr. William P. Magee was tied into as a surgeon in the Virginia Beach area, and then gradually bringing on corporate supporters and foundation supporters. Winning the Hilton Humanitarian Prize really helped catapult the organization in terms of credibility among major funders and institutional funders. From there, the fundraising evolved into major gifts, and it expanded into mass market, DRTV and direct mail; from there, into digital, and now we're really looking to move into government funding. We're just under a $100 million operation, and we rely almost exclusively on the support of individuals, companies and some foundations.
We currently have no government support, and we're looking to change that. We dipped our toe into the USAID pool, which is a pool I'm very familiar with, having worked very closely with USAID in other roles in previous times in my career. So I know we're a compelling organization. The work we do alone, as well as with partners in various places around the world — we're currently in 33 countries — can garner that support, and that will really be another way our fundraising program will grow. We need to grow to sustain ourselves and to be able to expand the number of surgeries we're doing annually and where we're working.
How did Operation Smile pivot its strategy when COVID-19 hit?
For somebody like me who's been at this for so long, this was definitely a new and unprecedented challenge. I've lived through different global and national challenges, but not necessarily a global challenge like this. The way it impacted our fundraising immediately was that we really pulled back on the programmatic side. We pulled in our American employees who were out in the field. We curtailed missions the second week in March. We went remote on March 18. That will forever live in infamy in my mind because I actually had a child on one of our missions. And I'm still hearing about that from my child who was on a mission in Morocco, which was our first ever all-women's mission — and just a phenomenal coalescence of female surgeons, female volunteers. Everyone on the mission was female, and we've never done that in our history. That's just one of many missions that were curtailed, and we brought people in. How that impacts fundraising is that you don't have stories from the field anymore. We go from having 20 or 30 missions ongoing in 33 different countries at any given time to having nothing going on. The shift from how do we move products and equipment into countries, how do we move staff there safely, how do we bring in this large pool of volunteers, which is how we operate and how we are able to provide free surgery, is that we count on a core of more than 6,000 medical volunteers from all over the world.
And oftentimes, prior to COVID, it involved bringing in a surgeon, bringing in an anesthetist, depending on where we were operating. So the pivot was more about, “OK, how do we protect our in-country staff? We're a federated model. We have more than 30 centers, which are centers of excellence where surgery is done. But in addition, we have foundation offices in this federated model in multiple countries. How do we protect them? How do we ensure our staff is safe?" And that forced us into an area we aren't familiar with and we don't do routinely. We're not a disaster response organization, but we did want to mobilize assets and get PPE in the hands of the people who needed it.
So we started to partner with organizations to get PPE in, and we started to buy it, we started to take some of the assets we would have allocated to doing missions and threw them into acquisition of PPE and distribution. And our message to our donors shifted from "help us do this surgery" to "help us ensure when we can go back in the fields that the backlog of children, adolescents and adults waiting for surgery can be addressed."
How have you been preparing for #GivingTuesday?
It's not a traditional year. But I am happy to say our fundraising has remained strong. We ended the fiscal year just basically at plan for the past two years prior to this past year. We exceeded our plan by a considerable amount, so as a manager of a big fundraising team, we were having a stellar year, another really tremendous year — and then breaks on, everything stops. I remain most proud of my team. April through June — that sector of time will really remain in my mind for the rest of my career because I think we repurposed funds that would have been used, for example, to help us do special events. That revenue was gone, so how do we make back that revenue? And fortunately for us, it was only a few million dollars, but we took, for example, a quarter of a million dollars that we would have spent on events, and we dumped it into mass market and saw a 33% above plan for the month of May.
I think we reacted quickly, so continuing to do that and continuing to maximize our resources, synthesize our messages and really stay in close touch with our donors about what we're doing COVID-wise and about how we are starting to operate again in several countries. Everyone else around the world is starting to get back in a way that the U.S., unfortunately, has not managed to do. So we are doing surgery in China, in Morocco, in Italy, in Vietnam. And increasingly, we're doing disparate surgeries, one to eight surgeries, in countries like Panama and Paraguay. We're very encouraged, and our donors are very encouraged. We've used each little win like that..
That's our message: "Help us continue to move squarely into the countries where it is safe to operate." I think more than 10,000 people were waiting to get surgery in the last three months of our fiscal year. Now we're in September, it's likely another 10,000 to 15,000 more.
We're asking our donors to help ensure that we can provide surgery for them as soon as it's safe to do so. And I have to say our donors are responding. We've seen no drop in our sustainers, for example. Typically in difficult times when the economy starts to turn down, we see a little bit of pull back. With COVID-19, our donors are even more committed, and I think that's due to the positivity of our message and to our commitment to the people we exist to serve.
What’s your advice for other nonprofits that are now planning for year-end?
Donor communication. Relevant communication. In times like this, while we all like to have very polished, synthesized messages, sometimes reverting back to person-to-person communication — sending a donor a note or making a phone call — is more effective. I can remember very distinctly after COVID hit and we went remote, we really questioned (my major gifts team in particular) and I really questioned: Well, do we call people? Do people want to be called? They're working from home. This is so uncertain. People are so frightened about what was coming down the pike, and so we held back. And we held back for about two weeks, and then it just didn't seem right, and I said: "Let's start making some test calls and see what we get." Just telling people, not asking for anything, just telling people, we're thinking of you. And this is what we're doing, and this is how COVID has impacted us.
And the response was tremendous. People really just wanted to talk. And the relationships my major gift officers had with people, I think in many ways, deepened because they reverted back to just that human, interpersonal, one-on-one, I'm a person, you're a person. I have children running around my house, screaming now because they're out of school, and so do you. I think just that human touch has really helped. So I think fundraisers need to not abandon that necessarily, especially in this time where people seem to be so isolated because we are all working from home.
Nhu Te is senior content manager at Fundraise Up, the AI-powered online donation platform for enterprise nonprofits. In her work, she focuses on helping nonprofits create more impact through personalized donor relations, digital fundraising and thoughtful use of technology.