Check-Up Clinic: Donor Communications

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Communicating with Donors During a Maelstrom: Practical Wisdom on When, What, Who, How, and How Often

by Cheryl A. Clarke

The Covid-19 virus has upended every facet of our lives. For those of us in the nonprofit community, that has meant closing our facilities and offices, disrupting our delivery of services, and ceasing our communications with donors—

Wait a minute! While those first two are true, the third is decidedly not. If your nonprofit organization hopes to survive during this crisis and beyond, you must communicate, strategically with your supporters! In this article, we’ve compiled the main questions you, your executive director, and your board members are likely to ask at this time to offer guidance on how to answer them. At the end of the article, we’ve provided a useful checklist to make sure your communications to donors and supporters are ticking all the boxes.

Our donors don’t want to hear from us now. Shouldn’t we wait until later?

No! Your donors (as well as other key constituents like your clients, staff, and community partners) want to hear from you. As mental health experts advise, social distancing does not mean social separation. We need–and expect–to hear from others we care about during uncertain times. Your donors care about your organization. Communicate!

We acknowledge that it can be challenging to overcome an organization’s communications fears. Since the Covid-19 crisis started, we’ve encountered several nonprofit professionals (and some board members) who hesitate to contact their supporters. Early on, one seasoned executive director asserted that “most people are in shock” and, therefore, not able to take in any further communications. In reality, this was not the case.

What do our donors want to hear or know?

Trust your instincts. You know your organization, clients, and supporters best. They want to know you’re focused on the work, but also thinking about them. Your donors are people, and people want to hear from a friendly, trusting, and calm voice. Your agency can reach out, let supporters know you care about them and their families, and ideally provide news or a special and uplifting message.

What should we say?

You’ve determined what your donors want to know, which will change over the time of a prolonged crisis. Now, speak the truth. Share your expertise. Communicate only what you know. Be specific, if you can. Acknowledge what you don’t know.

Each nonprofit is different. Therefore, tailor your communications to best meet the information needs of your donors and supporters. For example, if your agency is a healthcare clinic and directly involved in meeting community health care needs, you’ll want to share the steps you’re taking to protect your clients and your staff. Since your agency has the expertise, consider providing your audience with tips on how they can stay healthy. Let them know if you are still serving clients.

If you work for a performing arts organization that has cancelled or postponed its performances, you’ve probably already notified ticket holders. If you don’t yet know the date when bans on public gatherings will be lifted in your area, it’s best not to make promises or representations about reopening until absolutely certain!

If you work for a social justice or advocacy organization, let your supporters know you are still advocating for the same issues, for the same reasons, while doing so safely from home. If closing your physical doors means you need to switch your approach from in-person meetings with allies to online, let your donors know you’ve had to change strategies but not goals.

You get the idea.

Make your communications personal. Find a way to include something you’re feeling or how you’re coping. Your recipients will benefit from knowing you too don’t know what’s ahead and are concerned about family members and friends. Don’t be afraid to say, I’m concerned about my aging mother who lives alone or my daughter who is an ER nurse. Let them see your humanity. Keep it short while humanizing your message.

Acknowledge the support your organization has received, from staff, volunteers, and donors. Thank the donors who have already reached out to support your organization, not by name but collectively. Urge them to drop you a line by email if they would like.

How frequently should we communicate?

The lingering effects of this public health crisis will last. We do not foresee a return to “business as usual” for a long time. No one knows how long we will need to shelter in place and when we can return to our offices and again gather in groups. Yet you will want to maintain communications with your supporters (and others). Our advice is to maintain at least the same frequency of communications during the crisis as you did before Covid-19. For example, if your agency had sent out a monthly e-newsletter, continue sending a monthly e-newsletter. While the content may differ to reflect these extraordinary circumstances, you should maintain the frequency. On the other hand, if your organization did not regularly communicate with donors, now is the time to start!

How should we communicate?

Consider using one or more of the available platforms or methods at your disposal:

  • Email – consider segmenting your list with different messages. Keep your emails short.
  • Blog – 300-600 words. Include an image.
  • E-Newsletter
  • Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  • Video – create short (45 sec or less) videos featuring your ED or board chair/president talking directly to supporters about your work and response to the crisis. Tailor the message for different audience segments. If you’re a performing arts organization, consider adding clips from performances or a statement from a beloved performer. Seeing a friendly and familiar face will provide comfort and temper alienation and distancing.
  • Call donors – this is a good time to reach out to your donors, particularly your most loyal supporters, to see how they are doing and to answer any questions they may have about your agency and your clients
  • Write personal notes – similarly, now may be an excellent time to send a warm, personal note to one or more special segments of supporters

Sending a mass mailing via the US postal service may prove challenging without access to copy machines or print shops.

When can we again ask people for money?

Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. If your organization had to cancel a spring gala, and therefore lost projected revenue, you’ve probably already been asking sponsors, ticket buyers and others to continue their support. But what about planned spring appeals, major donor asks, and social media fundraisers? The reality is your organization probably cannot afford to wait for a “perfect moment” to resume these activities because there never is one, even in “normal” times. Our advice is communicatefirst, then ask. For most agencies, staying the course with the existing fundraising plan is probably best. (Though due to logistics challenges, you may be switching methods from a snail mail to an email appeal letter.) The importance of your agency’s mission and work has not changed since Covid-19. In fact, for many nonprofits, particularly those serving the most vulnerable, the needs have only increased. Giving your donors an opportunity to support a cause they care about is your gift to them.

Our Final Message. In closing, take the time to craft a thoughtful message that reflects your organization’s mission, values and your response or approach to this crisis. Use your organization’s unique role and place in the community to reassure your donors and other supporters that despite the crisis you’re still functioning. Invite their support. Silence does not serve your agency. Communications connects us all. Be sure to use the checklist below to help you craft messages that effectively communicate pertinent information to your supporters.

Checklist for Donor Communications During a Crisis

1. Identify your audience (entire database or segmented list)

2. Message

– Ask how the reader/recipient is doing.

– Tell them what your agency is doing for clients, staff and volunteers

– Consider sharing your personal experience or concerns.

– Present new, useful information or agency-created content (i.e., health care information, videos of past performances, music and the like).

– Share what lies ahead, at least with what you know right now.

– Share your expertise.

– Tell them how they can help.

– Thank your donors for showing their support.

– Include photographs and other visual/graphic images to liven the message.

– Consider making an ask (see below).

3. Method of Communication

For those living and working in communities with a shelter-in-place order, preparing and sending snail mail communications will be difficult, if not impossible, since printers and mail houses will be closed. Determine how best to reach your intended audience:

– Consider making check-in phone calls to major donors.

– Consider writing personal notes to major donors (you’ll need note cards and stamps!).

– E-blasts to a more general audience, such as your full data base.

– Use social media to reach an even broader audience and create a community through engagement; ask questions in your content to solicit responses.

– Post blog posts on website and social media.

– Consider filming short videos (45 seconds!) with a message from your agency’s Executive Director or CEO, artistic director, program director or other spokesperson. These can be posted on your agency website, sent directly to your intended audience and/or uploaded to YouTube.

4. The Communicator is . . .

– Your Executive Director or CEO for your initial message and for all critical communications

– Others within your agency with special expertise (i.e., Artistic Director, Program Director, Volunteer Coordinator, etc.) or direct experience (a client, volunteer or donor)

5. The Frequency is . . .

– As often as your agency has something important to say, most likely not more than once a week (though a quickly-evolving situation may require more frequent messages uses one or more communications channels)

– Consider every two weeks

– Certainly at least every month

6. Asking for Donations

– Ask immediately for agencies on the frontline of the covid-19 crisis and those who have had to cancel or postpone galas.

– Other nonprofits will need to assess appropriate timing based on what’s happening in their community (effective shelter-in-place order), their field/mission (clients being served), the strength of their case for support, time of year (can your nonprofit “afford” to skip a spring appeal?) and special circumstances (such as a matching grant with a short deadline).

Cheryl A. Clarke is an author, trainer and fundraising consultant. She is the author of Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising. A natural-born storyteller, Cheryl integrates stories in her work assisting amazing nonprofit organizations to excel at raising funds. She is the founder and principal of The Clarke Group. Before starting her consulting practice, Cheryl held senior development positions at the University of California-San Francisco and the University of San Francisco School of Law. Cheryl has a law degree from the University of San Francisco and a BSJ from Northwestern University.

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