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Clear Communication Is Essential to Keep Pandemic-Weary Big Donors Engaged and Giving

Posted: 11/29/2021

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

By Maria Di Mento

The pandemic and other crises of the past 20 months have left many people emotionally tapped out. It's no different for wealthy donors who have been asked to give again and again to help charities struggling after the economic fallout of the pandemic and in the face of catastrophic fires, floods, and other disasters.

"The sentiment that I'm hearing when I talk to families is that they're exhausted," says Danielle Oristian York, executive director of 21/64, a nonprofit that advises philanthropists and an expert on multigenerational philanthropy. "People are emotionally tired of consuming how much is happening in the world. On top of it, they are oftentimes approached in a transactional way."

Some wealthy donors have started to feel like nonprofits view them as "check-writing machines," she says, when what these donors really want is to understand charities' work on a "human level."

Many affluent philanthropists who gave often and significantly during the worst months of the pandemic are starting to transition away from supporting basic needs. They're now looking at how they can give more to groups that work on the root causes of problems like persistent poverty and financial instability among working families, experts say.

For example, Oristian York knows a donor who gave several rounds of big donations to food banks last year. Over time, the donor began to feel the needs were so great that giving to local food banks was in some ways just a "Band-Aid" on the larger problem of widespread hunger. Now the donor is pausing giving to food banks and increasing support to groups that are working to eliminate the root causes that lead to hunger.

But it is still possible for direct-service charities to bring those donors back, says Amy Basore Murphy, director of donor relations at the St. Louis Community Foundation who works with her organization's affluent donor-advised fund holders. The key is for organizations to communicate clearly about how a donor's gifts are helping to solve broader problems and what the charities are learning about how to better address those problems.

"Our very top donors who give the most, they have continued to support the nonprofits that have provided them with clear and compelling reports about the emergencies that were averted or the broader impact that their gift made," Basore Murphy says. "When the donor feels that they made a big difference and that the individuals were helped, then they've continued to support those nonprofits."

The St. Louis Community Foundation can provide that extensive information to its wealthy DAF holders about what local charities are doing. Why? Because last year it brought together a large group of nonprofits, local government agencies, and experts to jointly coordinate efforts to help area residents hit hard by the pandemic's economic fallout. Once immediate needs were met, the collaborative group worked to make sure families don't end up a desperate situation again, as some parts of the economy recover more slowly.

"Our donors responded to that, and because it was this collaborative effort, then the reports back to them on what was done and why presented a more coordinated picture," Basore Murphy says.

She says the reports have helped many of her organization's wealthiest donors gain a deeper understanding of the hard-to-see problems charities work on. For people who are poor, housing can be precarious. People who are homebound because of age or illness struggle with isolation. And the pandemic revealed how many low-income families lacked adequate technology for remote learning. Basore Murphy says the information in the reports helped donors think about what their next giving steps could be.

"What they want to hear now is how you are effectively going out and making a difference for people in the community," she says. "The [nonprofits] that can figure out that message and how to convey it are the ones that are continuing to receive funding from their biggest donors."

Stark Numbers

Direct communication through phone calls or in-person or virtual meetings is also critical.

For Brian Molohon, executive director of development at the Salvation Army Northern Division, sitting down and talking with his group's biggest donors about how the organization is making a difference means sharing some stark numbers. He tells them how his division is sheltering more people than it ever has, its affordable-housing programs are nearly overwhelmed with clients, and the need for the organization's food programs has increased significantly. He and his team also gave out more than $4 million in emergency financial assistance over the last year and served 63 percent more people overall during the past year than it did before the pandemic hit.

"Our donors have told me when they hear from me, it makes a difference and that they know I'm not just blowing smoke at them," Molohon says. "They can see the service level is staying high and that the needs are real."

He recently had lunch with a longtime affluent donor who told him she continues to get bombarded by charities asking for support. While it can be overwhelming, she told Molohon, she plans to give just as much as she did last year to his group and other frontline charities that provide basic services because they have been clear about how her gifts helped last year and can continue to help those most in need now.

When major-gifts officers talk with donors, they should acknowledge upfront that they know donors are getting a flurry of direct mail and phone calls from multiple charities, Molohon says. He says he encourages donors to continue to support all of their usual causes, then "re-articulates and reinforces" how their gifts helped his group carry out its mission last year and how another gift can continue to help right now. Sometimes he even tells them he is going to ask them for more.

"I really have a boldness when I sit down with a donor and say, 'You know what, I'm going to ask you for more money than I've ever asked you for, and we're asking boldly because the needs are still so significant,'" Molohon says.

Molohon, Basore Murphy, and Oristian York all say that clear communication about the impact of gifts and connecting with donors on a human level are critical. They say that's the reason wealthy donors keep giving even when they're overwhelmed or fatigued by all of the requests for support over the last 20 months and by the constant drumbeat of bad news.

"I see donors really having a reckoning around their own exhaustion and their own frustration and difficulties of how life is today," Oristian York says. "It opens them up empathically to the people whose lives they want to help improve because the exhaustion of living in poverty is real — not only in the time of a pandemic."

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