How to Connect With Prospective Major-Gift Donors Now

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Cultivating and communicating with prospective major-gift donors isn’t easy in the best of times. Trying to do so during ongoing social distancing can seem particularly daunting. In the latest installment of our Ask an Expert series, we track down answers to reader questions about how to connect with new big donor prospects at a time when in-person visits remain tricky and virtual meetings are still the most common way to gather with donors.

Sarah Fonder-Kristy, chief development officer at the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Michael O’Neill, senior vice president of university advancement at Villanova University; and Rachael Rosselli, regional philanthropy officer at the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, provide the answers.

What strategies are most effective for acquiring new major donors during these virtual times?
— A director of development at a nonprofit that serves children

The way to acquire new major donors has shifted during Covid to the virtual realm, but the essential elements of stewarding and cultivating big donors remain intact, O’Neill says. He says the process still comes down to adhering to the basics: identification, qualification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.

O’Neill worries that the benefits of engaging new major-gift prospects will diminish over time if society doesn’t return to a sense of normalcy relatively soon. But right now, he says, “it is imperative not to be intimidated or hesitant to reach out to those who are not currently engaged in the life of your institution.”

Prospective donors may have more time on their hands due to a lack of travel and other work obligations, says O’Neill. He says people are still searching for ways to give back, so if your institution has a compelling mission to share with donors, don’t be afraid to connect with them. He recommends using internet technologies like Zoom or FaceTime to connect prospective donors with fellow philanthropists, program directors, and others who can shine a bright light on your nonprofit’s work.

However, Rosselli cautions that acquiring new big donors right now can take up to a year, so fundraisers should plan accordingly and manage expectations by setting realistic goals. Depending on the amount of money your nonprofit considers a major gift, you may have only two prospects, and that’s OK, says Rosselli. She says the qualifying phase is most important. Find out if your prospects are major donors at other nonprofits, and then try to find common program areas between your nonprofit and one that the donor has supported previously. A researcher or wealth-screening software can help.For example, if a major-donor prospect supports a charity that helps homeless children, let them know your charity has an after-school program for at-risk children, Rosselli says.

She says if your organization doesn’t have research capabilities, approach board members, current major donors, and your group’s volunteers for help. Find out if your prospective big donors are in their networks and ask how they know the prospect and when they last communicated with the person.

Some of a charity’s best major-gift prospects are people who have already demonstrated an interest in your nonprofit, says Fonder-Kristy. Now is a good time to review lapsed donors, she says, donors who have a strong affinity for your cause as well as “hidden gems” who show up in a nonprofit’s donor files in less direct ways, such as through corporate employee-giving campaigns. For example, a donor who made a high four- or five-figure gift through a payroll deduction could have the potential to give a major gift.

After you have identified the donors you want to approach and the kinds of programs a larger gift would help, look at ways you can connect with donors online, Fonder-Kristy says. For example, share with the potential donor a video that shows who your programs help or a note from a beneficiary on the impact of your charity’s services. You might also consider hosting an online presentation with your group’s executive director. If you sense the donor would feel uncomfortable one-on-one with the executive director, ask some of your charity’s board members to invite one or two friends to attend the presentation, too, suggests Fonder-Kristy.

Should fundraisers ask major donors they have never met for virtual meetings, or should they start with brief introductory phone calls first?
— An advancement director at a regional environmental group

First and foremost, fundraisers should use the word “visit” instead of “meeting” because it’s less intimidating, Rosselli says. If a fundraiser has a donor’s complete contact information, Rosselli thinks it’s best to start with a phone call, and if you have to leave a voicemail, follow up with an email. She suggests treating the call as a brief introduction.

“Make sure you’re smiling during the call because your positive mood will make your donor feel connected and valued,” Rosselli says. “During the call, expect the best, but prepare for the worst. A ‘No, I’m not interested’ might mean they’re not interested in a meeting at this moment in time, but you might find that your conversation gains momentum naturally and evolves into a long conversation ultimately.”

Rosselli says it’s OK to ask donors if they’re comfortable having a physically distanced outdoor visit and suggests ending the call with a date and time for such a visit. She stresses that it’s important to follow up with a thank-you email or hand-written note that reminds the potential donor of the upcoming visit.

Some donors will never want to have a Zoom meeting but could talk on the phone for hours.

Fonder-Kristy says her organization follows donors’ leads and engages with them however they want to be reached, whether that’s email, text, a phone call, or a web call. She says regardless of the medium, the first contact should focus on cultivation and relationship building. Find out during that conversation if the donor would prefer virtual meetings or phone calls in the future, she says.

Fonder-Kristy suggests focusing on getting to know the donor first but says fundraisers should always be prepared to name what the organization needs and how much it will cost.

“Build nimble and responsive relationships. Some donors will never want to have a Zoom meeting but could talk on the phone for hours,” Fonder-Kristy says. “Some will want a lot of information via email but are hard to otherwise get on the schedule. The format is less important than getting to know their interests and passions for your mission. It makes for more complex moves-management tracking, but keeps the donor at the heart of your contact planning.”

Should fundraisers hold a virtual meeting with several major donors to explain the organization’s needs even though they might not know each other? If so, what are some tips for holding virtual meetings with groups of major donors in a way that won’t make them uncomfortable?
— Director of development at a social-service organization

Bigger is not always better, O’Neill says. He recommends making the virtual experience as special as possible. One way to do that, he explains, is by assembling a select cadre of like-minded donors from the same industry so they feel the invitation is special, limited, and well-thought-out. Another possibility: Fundraisers could create small, invitation-only opportunities to connect with one of your charity’s “stars,” whether that’s the CEO, a distinguished expert, or others. You can also use virtual meetings to showcase how your institution has been creative in responding to needs brought on by the pandemic, O’Neill says.

Some donors feel like small groups are less pressure than a one-on-one meeting with a gift officer or the charity’s leader, says Fonder-Kristy. Her nonprofit now hosts monthly virtual coffee chats with its current major donors; it limits the group to eight to 12 people for a 45-minute gathering.

“A simple yet powerful icebreaker is to go around and ask each person to share their name, how long they have been supporting our organization, and why they started giving,” she says. “We are always so inspired hearing about the different reasons people give, and by learning more about their motivations, we can better connect with them in the future through that quick exercise.”

One of the organization’s leaders then gives a 10- to 15-minute update, followed by a question-and-answer period for the donors. This gives everyone a chance to talk. If there are questions afterward, it’s a good way to follow up and continue the conversation either then or later.

What if your major donors are mostly older and uncomfortable with virtual meetings? What strategies can make phone calls just as effective as a virtual meeting?
— An official at a Jewish federation

Rosselli says it is best to mail the donor a packet with information ahead of the call so that that person can prepare for the conversation. The packet should include a fact sheet about your group’s mission, any recent news, photos and stories about the people you serve, and a gift or pledge form and envelope. Most important, she says, be sure to include a cover sheet for your packet that has your most professional-looking photo and professional biography to put a face to your name.

Fonder-Kristy says she has noticed many of her nonprofit’s older donors have gotten more comfortable with virtual meetings as they have started using that format for telehealth and to stay connected with family and friends across the country.

“Don’t underestimate their willingness to join a virtual meeting,” she says. “But try to use a format that they can join via a weblink instead of downloading a specific platform.”

If donors prefer a phone call, then Fonder-Kristy recommends fundraisers approach the calls with the same energy and preparation that they would for a virtual meeting. She stresses that it’s important to be completely focused on the call. Don’t try to multitask or go for a walk while you’re talking to the donor. If you are going to refer to materials, send them the day before by email or a couple of weeks before by regular mail.

She suggests using the latter part of the call as a time to ask “clarifying” questions, such as what part of the conversation excited or interested the donor most, whether the donor has more questions or wants you to send a video afterward that shows the nonprofit’s programs in action.

But the conversation shouldn’t be all business.

“Still spend time on rapport building — how is their health, how are they doing, what are they ready to get back to in a few months,” Fonder-Kristy says. “Staying connected, no matter the format, is what counts these days.”

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