Check-Up Clinic: Donor Communications

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Rethink How You Are Communicating With Donors During Today’s Pandemic

by Pamela Barden

It’s been quite a while since I wrote an article about fundraising, having decided it was time for younger voices to take over. But as I think about the current pandemic, I realize that younger fundraisers may not have a lot of experience raising money during a major crisis or national disaster.

In my 41 years of fundraising, I have raised money during wars, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, genocides, earthquakes… and in the quiet, “routine” times, as well. In recent weeks, I have helped nonprofits navigate postponed capital campaigns, cancelled events, a semi-annual “routine” mailing and emergency needs — all a direct result of COVID-19.

So it seemed time for me to come out of my self-imposed “article-writing retirement” and offer some wisdom only learned over four decades of constant fundraising, through good times and bad, recessions and economic booms, celebrations and crises… and now a pandemic.

Focus on What You Can Do, Not on What You Can’t

Right now, cancelling things seems to be the norm. Whether it’s the vacation we’ve been planning for months or the annual event that raises half our income, we’re having to suck it up and pull the plug. All the energy we put into planning is now going toward renegotiating contracts, begging for refunds and worrying about how we are going to replace the revenue.

Your donors are just as frustrated as you are as their own plans crumble. They feel isolated and are missing social interaction. Take time to reach out to them. Call them up just to see how they are doing. Send a handwritten note to tell them how much they are appreciated. (A computer has nothing over handwritten when it comes to being personal.) Send out a letter with something that isn’t just “business as usual” — for example, enclose a great recipe that your family appreciated during these unusual days, a video “fireside chat” or photos of your staff working from home.

What matters right now is the human touch — and since we can’t do it in person, make sure you are being creative and communicating one person to another with your donors. They will remember this special effort when they’re again able to support your events, campaigns and appeals.

Your Donors Know You Need Money. Tell Them You Need Them

Now is the time to talk to your donors via mail or electronic means and tell them how important their support is. Don’t whine; we all know things are out of control. But let them know what you are doing, why it matters and why it can’t happen without “you” (that’s the reader/listener, not your organization).

You may choose to reference the pandemic, but don’t make it the focus (unless the work you do is related to responding to COVID-19 or people who are impacted by it). For example, one nonprofit that only mails two appeals a year was about to mail when their state shut down. They inserted a brief note that referenced the pandemic, but mailed as planned. The mailing is doing extremely well, and they are getting notes of encouragement from donors along with checks.

Another nonprofit that is seeing increased requests for help, because they provide services to people out of work or struggling to pay bills, chose to mail out a special emergency appeal explaining just that. They needed support from their donors because requests for their help were multiplying because of COVID-19.

Fundraising Is Not About Percentages or Pie Charts — It’s About People

Even with everything topsy-turvy, take time to find a few good stories about how your (the donor’s) gift is making a difference. Most of us relate better to a story than we do to stats, and with all the added stress of balancing life during a pandemic, engaging hearts becomes critical. I don’t know about you, but my brain is on overload. What I need is a story that makes me feel good — and it just may make me want to give a gift, so I can help write more stories.

The people that supported you before the pandemic still care. They haven’t forgotten you. But you might have to work harder to get a few minutes of their time. Doing things differently to give them a few minutes break from video meetings, homeschooling, strategizing grocery shopping or figuring out what’s for dinner may be just what it takes to remind them how good it feels to support your organization.

American actor John Krasinski said, “When everything gets turned upside down, it only leads to better quality stuff.” Perhaps a different kind of fundraising today will prove better for developing donors who stick with you, even after a pandemic.

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