Major-Gift Fundraising During Crisis: Tips From Experts

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by Lisa Schohl

Well-run meetings with donors are the backbone of big-gift fundraising. But as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, and most in-person gatherings are still not possible, savvy fundraisers are finding creative ways to cultivate key supporters — and net large donations — despite these challenges.

Some fundraisers are even finding unexpected benefits of engaging key donors virtually.

The Vera Institute of Justice, which advocates for changes to the criminal-justice system, has been organizing webinars that connect its work to the Covid-19 crisis and the protests against police violence and racism. Vera has seen “tremendous” participation in these sessions, especially among top donors, says Jordan Kessler, vice president for development. Some webinars have attracted more people than the organization’s in-person events.

One reason for the success may be that Vera’s work has a clear tie-in to the current crises, Kessler says, but the virtual format also offers advantages. People can join these gatherings from any location and watch the recording at a time that works for them if they aren’t available to join live.

“In spite of the unfortunate circumstances, in some ways it’s been easier to connect with folks,” Kessler says.

Create a “feel-good file” in your email inbox to store positive feedback from your boss, donors, and others.

Here are tips from veteran fundraisers that can help you stay in touch with big donors online, bring them closer to your cause, and boost results over the long term.

Stress why you need support today — and share data that proves it. Communicate your specific needs, says Sunil Oommen, president of Oommen Consulting, a fundraising consultancy in New York. For example, an advocacy organization could explain that it needs to pay staff members to help urge members of Congress to pass an emergency bill.

Talk about the “predictable future,” he suggests.What will happen to your community if your organization doesn’t get these resources?

Prioritize donors most likely to give now, Oommen says, including those who already support your nonprofit and who are least affected by the economic crisis. Give these key individuals special attention, but don’t neglect your other contributors.

And don’t “turn off the spigot” of potential new donors, Oommen says. It may be difficult to engage prospective supporters virtually, but online gatherings such as webinars and small-group conference calls can serve as opportunities to start relationships, which you can deepen once social distancing ends.

Link your work to the crises. Consider holding a webinar or simple conference call to discuss a specific topic that relates to the current context and your cause, Oommen says. No matter your mission, articulate why your work is needed more than ever due to the challenges.

Think about how to position your organization as a “thought leader,” Oommen suggests, and bring on a diverse panel of experts to provide a rich discussion for donors.

To make the most of these calls, Oommen says, identify those who attend, assess their wealth, and determine with whom to follow up.

Reach out to those who hold donor-advised funds. “That is a fast way to see a little pick-up in revenue,” says Tiffanie Luckett, senior officer of individual giving at the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for immigrant rights.

In response to Covid-19, the center sent an appeal to donors who give through these accounts — and to the advisers who help manage their money — asking them to consider distributing the dollars now to make up for many smaller-dollar donors who had stopped giving. It was a “runaway success,” Luckett says. Although the mailing went to a small subset of donors, it raised more money than the group’s 2019 year-end direct-mail outreach.

reate experiences for donors online and offline. When Father Joe’s Villages, a homeless service charity in San Diego, took its gala online because of the coronavirus, the fundraisers did “door drops” for some key donors, says Wendy Endsley, associate director of development.

Endsley’s team left bottles of wine that the group would have served at the in-person gala on donors’ doorsteps with a note reminding them to participate in the online auction.

The nonprofit also began holding Zoom “investor calls” as a way to give contributors a “taste of being on site,” Endsley says. The first call, in which the CEO and medical director talked about the group’s work responding to Covid, prompted a $10,000 gift from a new supporter. The calls were so well received that Father Joe’s expanded the format to feature program leaders at different locations, showcasing various aspects of its work.

If you decide to try a new kind of live virtual event, Endsley says, practice as much as needed until you get it right, especially if you plan to alternate between several locations.

Enlist your board’s help with fundraising — and give them training and tools to ensure they succeed. The Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse, a domestic-violence charity, is building a training program to help members of its major-gift subcommittee feel comfortable serving as “ambassadors” for the organization and soliciting gifts, says Jennifer Dow Rowell, director of development and communications.

The goal is to prepare each participant to manage his or her own portfolio of major donors. To do so, the group is developing scripts and examples to guide the trustees and is defining metrics to motivate them and evaluate their progress.

Use new and old ways of staying in touch. A lot of donor communication has moved online during the pandemic, but longstanding approaches such as phone calls and handwritten cards are working, too, Oommen says. For example, a personalized notecard with an update about your work and a related photo is a simple, safe way of connecting with a supporter that can have an impact, he says.

Schedule time to call donors. “It’s really easy for these personal-touch elements to fall by the wayside when we’re in meetings all day or we don’t have time to eat or take a bathroom break,” Rowell says. She makes sure to put these calls on her calendar, and she starts by thanking donors and letting them know she has been thinking about them.

Be patient. Don’t take it personally — or push too hard — if a donor doesn’t respond or want to connect with you right now, Kessler says. Remember, supporters may be facing challenges you don’t know about and juggling even more priorities than usual. “To be politely persistent is important,” he says. “Maybe they’ll be more available at a later time.”

Focus on deepening connections rather than seeking donations. Luckett’s team at the National Immigration Law Center has been calling major donors just to check on them and show that the organization cares. “We’re really just kind of focusing on remembering that these people are human beings and they’re going through the same frustrations that we’re all going through,” she says.

People give generously when they know and value an organization, Kessler says, but forging a relationship takes time. Try to keep people engaged by sharing information about your work, but make sure to listen as well as speak so you can better understand their feelings and needs, he advises.

Send brief video messages to donors. Supporters appreciate seeing a fundraiser’s face during this time of social distancing, Oommen says, as well as other “humanizing” elements such as pets or kids. You could use a tool like Vidyard to create a 15-second “check-in” message, he says, and share it with a supporter by text or email.

Rowell is creating 60-second videos that she emails to big donors to thank them for giving and provide an update on the group’s work. “It kind of puts the ball in the donor’s court,” she says. “If they want to respond, they can, and very often they do — they think it’s really cute and personalized,” she says. “And if they don’t want to [respond], there’s no pressure.”

Be kind to yourself. Don’t feel like you should be able to work as productively or intensely as in pre-Covid times, Oommen says. Simply focus on doing your best given these unprecedented circumstances.

Oommen suggests creating a “feel-good file” in your email inbox to store positive feedback from your boss, donors, and others. Look through these notes when you need a reminder — and hard evidence — that you are a good fundraiser.

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