Keeping Near, Dear & Clear with Major Supporters

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Keeping Near, Dear & Clear with Major Supporters

Originally posted 4/21/20 | by Clare Jordan

Since the spread of the coronavirus began to change all our lives, nonprofits everywhere have been responding to the crisis and assessing their approach to fundraising. The pandemic has both disrupted many nonprofits service delivery, and created confusion and disruption in their engaging their dedicated and loyal supporters:

  • Some want to hibernate and refuse to consider asking for contributions at a time like this. (This is not a recommended approach.)
  • Many who are considered “essential” (e.g., health, human service, food banks, etc.) are deep in the throes of relief response, and actively seeking support in every way possible.
  • Others who are not considered “essential services” are devising creative ways to stay connected to their supporters.

Many CapDev clients were starting or in the midst of significant campaigns when the pandemic hit and have to make major decisions about how best to move ahead in this unprecedented time. What are these CapDev clients doing now?

We hope you can glean some ideas from the following examples shared by some of our Senior Counsel:

Arts & Cultural Organizations in Campaigns

Often during natural disasters, attention is focused on nonprofits providing immediate relief. We are accustomed to stories of huge donations from corporations after hurricanes, for example. But arts and cultural institutions – without proper and appropriate donor engagement strategy – can take a hit in years where major support is dedicated more toward basic human needs.

The North Carolina Zoological Society

CapDev partnered with the NC Zoo to begin campaign planning in 2019. The Zoo Society has enlisted campaign leadership and is keeping them near and dear with Facetime calls as they work to prepare them for major gift asks as soon as the pandemic crisis lifts.

Senior Counsel, Ann Thomas, explains what that looks like:

  • Staff is conducting research on top tier donor prospects and preparing a profile on each one to share over Zoom or Facetime with the assigned leader, then getting the leadership feedback.
  • The campaign team is developing strategies for early engagement, such as a note or call from a campaign leader to a prospective donor for cultivation/engagement purposes only, but setting the stage. They might say: “When this lifts, I’d like to come see you to talk more about my involvement with….”
  • Staff is also preparing call sheets now for that future meeting while the campaign leadership is feeling connected and motivated.
  • All the while, the NC Zoo is using social media during this closure and connecting with the state virtually through online educational programs.

The North Carolina Museum of Art

In a brand new engagement begun in March, CapDev has been working with the NC Museum of Art to assess its preparedness and start planning for a significant campaign. With the onset of this crisis, the museum is working closely with Senior Counsel, Ann Thomas, to construct a new strategy focused on what can happen right now:

  • Plans are underway for an “impact fund” major gifts campaign with major donors who are the most near and dear to the institution. Staff and leaders have prepared a compelling and urgent case for support, which they will share with the donor to get their feedback, and will ask the donor’s permission to ask for a gift – all over the phone or video conferencing.
  • Additionally the museum is asking board members to reach out to higher level annual givers to support an unrestricted fund that is needed now, and to also engage their own networks and personally ask for support. Board members are sharing “why this matters to me,” and asking, “would you consider renewing your gift at this time?”
  • All these activities are equally being supported by new and engaging virtual tours of the NC Museum of Art with interactive programs and online exhibits.

Higher Education Institutions in Campaigns

University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)

Somewhat of a hybrid between arts/culture and higher ed. is the UNC School of the Arts, a CapDev campaign client since undertaking a feasibility study in early 2017. Now in its public phase, UNCSA’s Powering Creativity campaign announced exciting progress toward its $65 million goal last fall, and continues partnering with CapDev’s Senior Counsel, Lilly Bunch.

Like many in higher education, a big part of this campaign is scholarships. Unable to hold the school’s annual scholarship event for students to personally greet and thank donors, they took the creative approach of sharing student-made videos of their personal thanks with each scholarship donor in customized emails with video messages. These have been a huge hit!

Edward J. Lewis, III, Vice Chancellor for Advancement, said, “UNCSA’s donors are extraordinarily generous, caring and supportive of our emerging artists. It was heartbreaking to have to cancel one of our most beloved events, the Annual Scholarship Luncheon, but important to express our deep gratitude to donors for their investment in the future of the arts. Technology has enabled our small fundraising team to be efficient and highly effective. On the day of the canceled event, we sent an email with a link to the scholarship video we would have shared that afternoon. ThankView, in particular, has allowed us to continue to nurture the strong connection between our students and donors. This was done in addition to mailing copies of the event program and notes of thanks from our students. Feedback from our donors has been tremendous. We’re grateful to have a new tool that adds depth to our stewardship program.”

Whether you want to generate a good mass email or make a video for your donors, if you are at a loss for how to begin, our friends at bloomerang offers a video on how to start up some strong and appropriate donor communications for this time.

Tusculum University

Having partnered with CapDev for a campaign feasibility study about a year ago, Tusculum University’s Institutional Advancement team is now accelerating its personal outreach to its President’s Circle donors with phone calls and proposals centered on student and faculty needs in response to COVID-19. Currently celebrating its 225th year, the university in Greeneville, TN has shifted its priorities to more frequent communication vs. events to engage the university community, as advised by Senior Counsel, Kevin Jacques.

Averett University

Kevin Jacques also serves as Senior Counsel, where COVID-19 concerns emerged just as Averett University in Danville, VA was conducting a feasibility study to test capital priorities for a future campaign. The discovery was that interviewees welcomed the opportunity to talk about both current needs responding to COVID-19 and future needs that would expand enrollment and academic programs including substantial growth online. In the meantime, the President’s Cabinet has made donor contact calls a high priority to stay informed and engaged.


Environmental Campaigns

CapDev’s clients working in the world of the environment, conservation, and parks have continued sharing ways their supporters can stay connected both to their work and to nature during this time in several creative digital and social media outreaches to supporters.

Piedmont Land Conservancy

Following the recent completion of the first phase of their successful “Peace of Land” campaign, working with Senior Counsel, Lilly Bunch, Piedmont Land Conservancy is now in a public phase of their campaign. As an immediate response to pandemic concerns, they sent a mass email to all supporters with the subject line: Nature Is Still Here For Us. It is a sensitive and resourceful connection with their donors.

Dix Park Conservancy

Since embarking on a feasibility study for a major campaign almost five years ago, Dix Park Conservancy has engaged top leaders in Raleigh, NC for a project that is changing the shape and activities of the city’s downtown landscape. CapDev Senior Counsel, Betsy Bennett, describes their work, now deep into its campaign planning and implementation with CapDev:

The staff is using this time to focus on donor research and cultivation

A letter was sent to all donors ensuring supporters that the project is moving forward during this time with Phase One design of Dix Park and Phase Now, early impact initiatives, and expressing a positive tone.

People are currently using Dix Park while practicing social distancing to nurture mental and physical health. Plus, to continue to provide programming, Dix Park is offering a virtual wellness program, Get Fit at Dix.

The bottom line: CapDev always advises keeping “near, dear and clear” with your top supporters, advice that is especially true now. For more advice and strategies you can use, see the list we’ve compiled from our consultants’ input below.

More to come: a future article will address how healthcare sector clients are managing through this crisis.

Takeaway Advice:

  • Stay “near, dear and clear” with your top donors and leadership, especially during a campaign
  • Don’t stop. Do be deliberate. Adapt plans with new strategies as needed.
  • Consider developing a 90-day plan of donor engagement to include elements such as:
    • Communication: identify top donors to communicate with first; then develop a strategy for the next tier of outreach to major donors
    • Retention: engage monthly and annual donors for needed long-time support
    • Events: make decisions about plans and compensating for lost revenue
    • Stewardship plans
    • Sustainability: consider potential new revenue sources
  • Engage the board: ask them to make calls, write thank you notes, sign letters
  • Engage donors by setting up frequent, personalized updates and articles or items of real interest. This former CapDev client’s profile of its CEO from Garden and Gun was shared by Old Salem Museums & Gardens and is a great example.
  • Focus on donor retention: don’t lose sight of who matters most to you, and don’t be afraid to tell them. Do it with empathy and innovation.
  • Stewardship is more than just saying thanks. Developing a multi-touch point plan, such as six weeks or three months of what, when and how will help structure stewardship planning. Be creative, engage board leaders for their advice and help too.
  • Don’t overlook the value of direct mail messaging now. Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro is doing this well with a matching gift appeal, and getting results.
  • Digital is king. Use your website and social media applications, and share links with donors by email to keep in touch. The SPCA of Wake County is sharing their work online, and raised $139,000 in one week alone.
  • Communicate with funders. Foundations want to hear from you and many are relaxing application or grant requirements to help.
  • Consider if setting up an emergency relief fund makes sense for your organization.


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