Connection Counts: 5 Ways to Increase Donor Engagement and Donations

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by Jeff Jowdy

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still feeling the weight of loss of life and livelihood.

As governments on all levels debate how to open their economies back up — a daunting task made even more so with the latest surges in the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths — questions remain on the pandemic’s impact on charitable giving.

Many nonprofits face severe cutbacks on earned income and will implement budget cuts to survive. Like the last recession, there are organizations that are taking a hit in donations, and there are other organizations exceeding their goals.

Those organizations that provide services to mitigate needs that are intensified by the pandemic have built-in relevance. Many anti-hunger organizations, for example, as well as other social services, are receiving great support from donors and are thriving, even as the needs they serve increase.

We have found that other organizations, outside of those services, are excelling as well. Despite many donors taking financial hits, they are still supporting their favorite charities: as long as those organizations nurture donor-centric relationships, reach out to show concern and keep donors informed and engaged.

And of course, those organizations connected and asked for support.

For those of us who are passionate about philanthropy, we can’t deny that the statistics around giving in this country are not encouraging right now. Donor retention rates are falling, and the percentage of giving as a part of GDP has been relatively stuck for decades.

Overall, the nonprofit sector has failed at seriously raising the bar in fundraising. In far too many organizations, there is too little commitment to fundraising and doing it correctly; too little strategic planning; too much internal speak; and far too much distance between the organization, mission and donor.

At a recent board meeting of The Giving Institute, there was a serious conversation about how nonprofits should act and react during these challenging times. One member noted that people remember the organizations that don’t reach out and don’t ask in times of crisis.

That comment led me to some introspection. Over the past few months, I’ve taken inventory of the five organizations that receive 90% of my philanthropic support. Several are the beneficiaries of legacy gifts in addition to current giving. I would give an A to only one of the five. Both the CEO of that organization and a board member reached out to check on me. That relationship is personal.

Another organization recently sent me a mask with a wonderful note — a nice touch. However, the organization with the most resources would receive a failing grade. I have received no outreach. When I made a gift to a fund that I established, I was thanked for “answering the call” — I did not answer any call. The thank-you email was not even personalized — it referred to me and “other donors.” I, frankly, don’t care about other donors when you are thanking me. A friend, who is a seven-figure donor to this same institution, called me in frustration after receiving what basically was a “past due” notice from a smaller, but still significant, multi-year commitment. Organizations, no matter how big or small, must know their donors and make communication personal and accurate.

So what can we learn from this pandemic in regard to fundraising and donor engagement? It’s basic, and it’s simple: Donor relationships matter.

  1. Ongoing donor engagement is critical. It should be personal and year-round, allowing for the growth of mutual trust, respect and appreciation between donors and organizations. Getting chummy all of a sudden during a crisis is shallow and can come across as manipulative and opportunistic. Donors will see right through it.
  2. During a crisis of any kind, be sure to reach out in a genuine and caring way. Show concern for your donor and prospective donors, and value their long-term relationships.
  3. Remind donors of the impact they can have through your mission. Some donors have shifted their support. Others have maintained their support to the organizations closest to them, and some have maintained their traditional giving and added support for organizations on the front lines of the pandemic and racial equality.
  4. Always know your donors — especially your major donors. Who is impacted by the pandemic and who is unfazed, looking for something to do and make a difference?
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask. For dedicated donors, it’s almost an insult not to. They want to help. Let them. Don’t presume that someone will not give. Ask them in the most personal and tailored manner possible.

One thing is for sure: If you don’t forget your donors, they won’t forget you!

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