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Check-Up Clinic: Donor Engagement

Posted: 4/9/2020

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Essential Tactics to Connect with Donors During the Coronavirus

by Tim Forbes, March 23, 2020

We are living in uncertain times as we deal with a pandemic that's radically impacting how we live everyday life! No doubt, most of us are feeling stressed, unsure of what will happen next, and how we should respond.

You and many of your supporters are probably working from home, and most of us are trying to reinvent how we work and communicate. Compounding the problem is the constantly updating news cycle about the coronavirus.

Like most fundraisers and development professionals, you're probably trying to figure out how to salvage your fundraising plan for the spring, summer, and maybe even the fall. It's true, we are in uncharted waters, but that doesn't mean we have to totally reinvent the wheel. Here are some guidelines that will help you communicate with your donors and adjust your fundraising goals.

Communication With Your Donors Matters Now More Than Ever

From first-time donors to age-old supporters, your donors are probably overwhelmed with questions, concerns, fears, and radically altered lives. Imagine your average donor who is now trying to figure out how to simultaneously keep their children occupied, work from home, and maybe even homeschool their kids for the first time ever!

Needless to say, charitable giving is probably not top of mind right now. But, they're not heartless or calloused! They do want to hear from you. They want to be reassured that you're ok and that your nonprofit is also working to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's critical to give your donors updates that are sensitive, compassionate, and very aware of the context of everything going on in the world. Sending relevant updates that provide encouragement and draw on the current situation can actually strengthen your relationship with your donors.

"First, do no harm" with your communication

I recently heard of a small business that, in an effort to use a little comic relief in the midst of the crisis, proposed running a promotion in which they would include a 12-pack of toilet paper with the purchase of an air purification system. Thankfully, level heads prevailed and the company did not go through with their idea.

I'm sure the marketing department didn't mean to be insensitive. Still, many of their customers probably wouldn't have appreciated the poorly-timed humor.

Our inboxes are full of examples of businesses and organizations trying their best to communicate with customers and donors in unprecedented times.

The first rule of communication in times of hardship is, "do no harm." During even the best of times, a tone-deaf email can damage a business or organization's name and reputation. During a crisis when everyone is on edge, the damage from poor communications can be devastating.

Before you send any communication to your donors, supporters, volunteers, social media following--anyone--have at least two people read the content and give feedback. Read it from the perspective of your average donor AND from the perspective of a family member who's loved one might be fighting for their life in this pandemic.

If the message still sounds hopeful, encouraging, honest, and caring from those perspectives, then you're probably ok. If any part of your message causes you to pause or might be taken the wrong way, scratch it. It's better to do no harm than to take a risk.

Be factual and avoid politically charged phrases

There's a lot of misinformation floating around on the wild wild web. It's critical to share reliable, factual information from trustworthy sources.

When you share information, cite your original source. Make sure it's aligned with trustworthy sources like the CDC or Johns Hopkins and local health and safety authorities. Avoid any media sources that might be viewed as biased.

Avoid any language that might be politically charged. One helpful way to avoid accidentally offending people is to have someone who holds different socio-political views than you review content before you share it. Everyone is on edge, so it's best to take every possible precaution to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Don't make it about you! Make it about them

In the last week, I've received an email from practically every business, organization, and nonprofit that I've ever given my email address to. All of them are trying to reassure people that they're doing what they can to make their stores safe, care for their customers and employees, and respond in helpful ways to the global crisis.

It's critical to communicate and reassure your supporters, but don't make the message about you! Make it about your reader.

Remember, one of the most powerful words in fundraising vocabulary is "you." That didn't change! Focus on donor care above all else. Put the donor at the center of all your communication, whether it's about how you're changing your plans in response to the pandemic or it's about what you're accomplishing with their donations.

Provide useful content

Focus on providing updated, useful information. Your nonprofit has a unique platform to help communicate critical (and accurate) information. Things are constantly changing as local and global leaders respond to the pandemic. Do your part by vetting all the information you link to and share. Make sure it's accurate, up-to-date, and helpful to the general public.

We don't mean to be depressing or morbid, but this is a season of fear, anxiety, and stress. Beyond details about your nonprofit, share resources that can help your donors navigate social isolation, city lock-downs, and other dramatic life changes. Connect your network with services your donors might need.

Provide details for the suicide prevention hotline, online alcoholics anonymous options, local testing sites for COVID-19, resources for food banks, and a host of other services and options that, sadly, some people in your network will need for themselves or someone they love.

Offer social opportunities (from home, of course)

We've never had to navigate a pandemic before, so it's time to think way outside the box and meet people's basic needs for connectedness and compassion.

In addition to very practical resources, consider offering tips and resources to equip people to work from home, teach their kids, and survive long-term social isolation.

Have your staff share work-from-home-hacks they've discovered. Open your platform to allow people within your network to connect with each other. Leverage your social media pages in creative ways.

We heard of one book club that hosted a virtual wine and cheese party in leu of their weekly gathering! Another nonprofit had a "zoom coffee date" with some of its donors. You might need to cancel your events, but you don't need to cancel social opportunities altogether.

Prepare To Be Digital Fundraising Masters

As the saying goes, "failing to plan is planning to fail." We understand that things are constantly changing and you've probably started (and scrapped) at least three plans in the last two weeks. But, develop a one-week action plan to keep your organization and fundraising moving forward.

Drop all non-essential operations, fundraising, and activity. Set aside all your previous processes and expectations. Create a "COVID-19 process" for making decisions and setting goals. If you assess everything and decide that there's not much your fundraising team can do right now, shift focus. Don't waste the downtime.

Care for your donors however you can. Make sure they're safe, healthy, and comforted by your organization, then focus on preparing for future fundraising.

Do what you can now to prepare for future fundraising

A significant portion of the global population is stuck at home right now. We have no way of knowing how the coronavirus pandemic will alter life as we know it going forward. But, one thing is certain, digital fundraising is more important now than ever… and it's here to stay.

Spend time (and even valuable resources) preparing to heavily rely on digital fundraising for the foreseeable future. Make sure your website is up to date. Test all your donation pages (or create new ones if necessary). Make sure every call to action button works properly.

Use your unplanned down-time to assess your website's effectiveness using Google Analytics to identify ways you can improve your website function and online fundraising. Clean up your CRM system (or get one if you don't already have one). Spend time troubleshooting fundraising problems that you've ignored in the past. Create a new, revised fundraising plan that you can implement as soon as the coronavirus pandemic is under control.

We may be caught in a season of uncertainty and unanswered questions, but that doesn't mean we need to stop moving forward. These proactive steps to care for your donors and prepare for future fundraising will put your nonprofit in a good position to survive this coronavirus pandemic.

As you prepare, here are three resources to help you become masters of digital fundraising.

  • 3 Affordable Website Builders Nonprofits Should Consider: If you don't already have a website, now is the time to get one! If your website is old, outdated, or poorly designed, it's time for an upgrade. One possible outcome of the coronavirus is that more business and networking is done online. Prepare your nonprofit for excellent digital fundraising with a functional website.
  • 5 Easy Steps to Create A Monthly Giving Program: People might need to reduce the size and frequency of major gifts, but that makes monthly giving even more essential! Establish a monthly giving program so your donors who used to be able to give large year-end gifts can support you throughout the fiscal year.
  • Peer-to-Peer Fundraising: What You Should Know And A Quick-Start Guide: P2P fundraising was one of the fastest-growing forms of crowdfunding before the coronavirus. Now that many nonprofits are scrapping their in-person fundraising events, we believe crowdfunding and online fundraising will be more important than ever. Learn how to launch your first peer-to-peer crowdfunding campaign.
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