Check-Up Clinic: Donor Engagement

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7 Low-Cost Ways to Stay Connected With Donors

by Isa Catto

There is no doubt that this global pandemic has ushered in an era of turmoil that will affect every one of us. As a steward of a small family foundation, I have been inundated with emails from current and past grantees, as well as many other nonprofits with which we have no relationship.

All of us are worried and in shock. The best way to cut through the chaos is to communicate and to do it well. Here are a few tips from one donor’s perspective on how to talk to your donors and strengthen relationships during this crisis.

Check in with donors. If you haven’t already done so, craft a newsletter addressing the Covid crisis and conveying the spirit that we are all in this together. Don’t ask for money, initially, just check in. For example, here’s a note that my husband, chair of the board for a local environmental group, sent to supporters.

One of the best newsletters I received reassured supporters and well-wishers that the organization was shifting to an off-site workspace. Another shared a story about staffers working from home and struggling to remember to dress for Zoom meetings. It’s always a good idea to tuck in some inspiration. People are online like never before, and they’re reading. This is a time for both organizations and donors to be gracious, to say “I see you,” and not to panic.

Next, share stories about how the crisis is affecting those you serve. Don’t avoid sharing hard news. The best newsletter I received featured a case study of a single mother whose housekeeping job had vanished. It outlined how the organization could support her and other unemployed undocumented immigrants. Another described the anxiety of an undocumented worker entering a packed bank to withdraw cash. Stories work.

Look for off-mission giving. As donors, many of us are moving away from our stated missions to address the fallout from the crisis in our communities. For example, we live in a high alpine valley of Colorado that has a very fragile infrastructure and a large immigrant work force that is economically vulnerable and under-served in terms of health care. Addressing some of these needs is a priority for us right now even though it is not part of our mission. I know we are not alone. It’s a good idea to look for donors who might be one-time givers to your organization because of the unprecedented circumstances. If you aren’t sure of their interest, just ask.

And don’t forget to harness the energy of your trustees by asking them to identify more potential donors. Finally, this crisis might be an opportunity for potential donors to support and learn more about an issue, community, or population.

Some foundations may be anxious about their bottom line. Foundations don’t always have a lot of leeway: I know one family foundation that is low on cash and another that is laden with multiyear commitments. Unfortunately, many other foundation stewards are loath to grant beyond the required minimum 5 percent of their assets each year, even during a crisis. I have hope that most grant makers will shift away from that mind-set, but it’s difficult when market fluctuations look like the flight pattern of a drunk honeybee.

So when engaging with potential new donors, avoid the big ask. Everyone is edgy about the markets, so it would be wise to ask for smaller incremental donations, like a steady drip from a faucet, especially with a new donor. The idea is to get money flowing right away. Be persuasive and calm, and think small and often.

The exception to this case is with your core existing donors. They already know your good work and should be inclined to give more.

Ask for help, but don’t sound panicked. When you communicate, pay close attention to tone. Run the newsletter or a conversation script by someone outside your organization or by a board member to be sure there is no hint of shaming or doomsday language.

Return emails, answer phones, and don’t abandon protocols. We recently added a new organization to our grantee family. Right before the pandemic overtook us, the “newish” director and I had lunch. I didn’t receive a follow-up from that meeting or a thank-you for our donation. Naturally, I know the whole world is catawampus, yet I wondered if he was OK, so I emailed again. I never heard back. Most of us are overwhelmed with many added responsibilities on the home front, so I understand the need for elasticity when it comes to expectations. Still, a lack of response does not inspire confidence. Communication should be a priority.

Email, pick up the phone, or send a note. We received the loveliest thank-you from a nonprofit leader who asked me to call back simply because she wanted “as much human connection as possible these days” and to hear how we were doing as a family with two teenagers. Her graciousness made my day.

If a gift is in the works, ask donors to consider sending it by wire. Many of our checks and letters either haven’t made it or can’t be picked up from shuttered offices. So we have shifted to making phone calls and then wiring funds.

Look to the future. Craft your communications to help donors envision how their dollars can help you — not only to weather this crisis but also to come out stronger on the other side. Give your supporters hope, and inspire their imaginations.

We all must lead with kindness and stay patient. We cannot see the horizon yet, but we will.

Isa Catto Shaw is an artist and executive director of the Catto Shaw Foundation.

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