Staying Socially Distant – but Emotionally Close – to Donors During a Pandemic

In times of crisis, our first thoughts in the nonprofit sector are for the men, women and children we serve – our clients, patients, parishioners and friends. Perhaps our next thought is for the welfare of our employees and volunteers. Third in our list of priorities, but in no way less important, is the well being of our donors.

In a global pandemic, how do nonprofits stay socially distant, but emotionally close, to our supporters?

As we cancel galas, restructure capital campaigns and rush to rewrite traditional appeals, many are struggling to know how to engage key supporters in meaningful ways. Here are a few tips for navigating these rough waters.

Be in Touch With Donoros – Now

Let your key supporters know that they are among your first thoughts during in this crisis. By top donors, I mean the top 10 or 20, those who are key to your annual fundraising efforts. Let them know they are family. Call them and email them – personally, not en masse – to fill them in on how you are serving your clients, what’s happening with your staff, what your board is thinking. Let them know you’re concerned for their welfare.

Your supporters are, after all, people. They appreciate knowing what’s going on and being part of your early outreach. They are your closest friends – so be a good friend and be in touch right away.

Keep Your Nonprofit’s Values Center-Stage

It’s absolutely right to put your clients first. Their needs are your organization’s raison d’etre, even more so during a crisis. Tell your donors what you are doing to help your clients. Share how you are adapting, being creative and using technology to help your clients and keep them safe.

Your supporters will be proud of your work, inspired by your commitment, energized by your vision. Remember that list of values your team worked on at the last retreat? This is where you dust them off and put them into visible action.

Invite Your Nonprofit’s Supporters In

They may not be able to visit your organization (or even leave their house), but your supporters still want to help. Invite them to do something tangible to help you serve your clients. Something that doesn’t involve making a donation.

If your clients need home supplies, set up an Amazon list and invite donors to make a purchase. If one of your clients is having a birthday party or life event, invite your supporters to flood the client with emails of congratulations. If your clients are feeling lonely and shut in, arrange a phone call effort to brighten their day. Donors want to help and, like you, are feeling helpless at home. Invite them to be an active part of your bucket brigade.

Wow them with Your Nonprofit’s Ingenuity

There is always a silver lining. For nonprofits, the cancellation of life-as-we-know-it brings the opportunity to define the new normal. We’ve always done more with less. Why not lead the way in serving clients in inventive, original ways?

Unable to operate a soup kitchen? How about boxed supplies to go? Can’t open the diaper bank? What about patrolmen delivering in key neighborhoods? Show your donors that you have the spirit and resourcefulness to reach those in need. It’ll make your donors proud and deepen their commitment to your cause. Arm them with stories of your against-all-odds successes to share with others.

Cultivate with Care

It’s an international crisis….proceed with care. And this goes for direct solicitations. Right now – and for the immediate future – your supporters are getting their bearings. Yes, they want to help, but read the room carefully.

If the gala has just been cancelled, and you have a full website of online auction items to share, by all means have a virtual fundraiser. But keep the long view in mind. For many top donors, now is the time to invite them to strategize before investing. Which leads to the last tip . . .

Do Donor Engagement Differently

Here’s where you imaginative development professionals can shine! This is going to be a multi-month event – reinvent your donor outreach to fit the pandemic. Don’t scrap all contact until the curve flattens out. Develop ways that you can meet your donors’ needs – for information, social engagement, positive news – while promoting your nonprofit.

What does that look like? How about “Tuesday Teas” where donors get real-time, conference call updates regarding client outreach? Or Facebook Live tours of your under-construction new facility? Or Survey Monkey polls asking for thoughtful feedback about strategic questions?

Recognize what’s different that may be in your favor: donors have more attention to give; they may welcome a relief from forced family time; they are eager for upbeat news; they can absorb a greater depth of information; they want to help be part of your solution.

Engaging with Donoros Bonus: A Few Practical Tips

  • Be brief – a 2-hour in-person meeting translates to a 30-minute facetime meeting.
  • Brand it – whether it’s an activity for a client or a cultivation communication, give it a catchy name and look so it sticks in your donors’ minds.
  • Be the first – set yourself apart from your peers by being the first to do it that way.
  • Bring it back to mission – every conversation, every activity, every interaction should bring your donor back to your clients, your mission, the dent you want to make – with their help – on the world.

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