What Do You Do in a Period of Philanthropy Triage?

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By Claire Axelrad

I’m about to hit you with a big Truth Bomb: Your donors are confused during this period of philanthropy triage.

The past year changed everything they thought they knew about the world – and that includes you, your nonprofit’s place in the world, and your nonprofit’s mission among their list of priority philanthropies.

And as much as you may believe you’ve communicated and connected with them, chances are it hasn’t been enough.

Sure, maybe you sent some emails. Maybe you even called them. Was it last spring? Last November?

It’s too little. Do you even know they opened the emails? Is what you talked about last spring even relevant today?

It’s very likely your donors don’t know as much as you think they know about the state of your nonprofit today.

You live and breathe this stuff daily; they don’t.

And guess what else?

You likely don’t know your donor’s minds and hearts as well as you did a year ago.

Inevitably, some donors have moved to a somewhat different place.

They may still love your mission, but their giving behavior may have shifted. The urgent may have pushed the important to the back burner.

It doesn’t mean they won’t still give to you. But you have to make your case anew. You have to demonstrate your current relevance. Whatever these donors were “sold” on pre-pandemic, they need to be re-sold on now.

Change is today’s reality.

We’re in a period of philanthropy triage.

You can’t assume your donors will stick with you. Or at least stick with you at the same level of commitment. Not even the most loyal monthly supporters or most passionate major donors can be counted on to be completely consistent right now.

How do I know this? I’ve had philanthropists in my own community – folks I used to work with when they were donors to nonprofits where I worked – reach out to me for recommendations as to where they should direct their giving this year. They were reducing commitments elsewhere; looking to redistribute the money that otherwise would have gone to previously favorite charities to places with newly urgent needs. I’ve adjusted my own philanthropy similarly.

You must do something proactive to address giving changes squarely in the face.

It’s tempting, and human, to use this time to focus on sustaining or ramping up programs and services.

And, of course, you must. But you won’t be able to do this for long if you don’t simultaneously focus on sustaining and building critical donor relationships.

If last year you cut back on development (i.e., fundraising and marketing), make this the month you commit to ramping back up. Figure out a way! Approach a major donor for a gift. Ask board members for a special group commitment. Ask a foundation for a capacity building grant. Allocate some resources from your reserve if you have one. Or simply reallocate time and deploy some of the program staff still on your payroll to making donor calls.

Checking in with donors right now is mission critical work.

Donors are reevaluating giving priorities as they dig deep to explore their own values.

As I’ve written many times, all of philanthropy is a value-for-value exchange. The donor gives your nonprofit something of value (i.e., time and/or money) and you give back something of value (usually an intangible, like a ‘feel good’ of having fulfilled a moral or religious obligation, righted a perceived wrong, given back or paid it forward).

People give to organizations they believe are enacting their values. And as their core values shift, so does their giving.

Might your donors’ core values have shifted? It’s incumbent on you to find out!

Call your donors. Now.

Take a deep breath and commit to making some targeted phone calls. Start next week. Heck, start tomorrow!

Don’t. Put. This. Off.

People are home. They are isolated. They are love-starved. I heard Vice President Kamala Harris say the other day she’s stopped texting folks because they’re all so much more accessible. She calls instead.

People pick up if they see who the call is coming from. So make sure you’re not calling from an unidentified phone number. Let caller ID work in your favor.

Calling donors should not be seen as a chore.

You need to reframe this job. Consider that rather than checking a task off your list:

  • You’re making someone else’s day.
  • You’re giving a gift of connection.
  • You’re bringing the opportunity for meaning, purpose and joy.

Begin by reminding your donor how much they mean to you. This will feel good to them, and they’ll become more receptive to continuing the conversation.

Move on from there by asking open-ended check-in questions that enable the donor to talk more than you do. Heed the old adage: “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.”

Whatever the donor says, try to learn more. Tell them what they’ve said is very interesting (flattery gets you everywhere); then continue with:

  • Why do you think that?
  • What makes you feel that way?
  • Can you elaborate on that?
  • Can you tell me more?
  • Can you give me an example?

If you listen, you’ll learn.

Avoid the rookie mistake of simply calling to offer “an update.” Relationships are not built by reporting; they’re built through conversation and leisured listening.

Plus by assuming the donor even wants an update you’re failing to recognize the possibility that their interest in updates from you may have waned. So it’s important to re-start at the “getting to know you” beginning again.

Do this via the “check in.” Ask folks about themselves. Here are some useful conversation starters:

  • How have you been feeling this past year?
  • What has changed about how you experience the world?
  • What seems more important than in the past?
  • What problems today are keeping you up at night?
  • What are you more dedicated to as a result of the experiences last year?
  • What have you learned about yourself this year?
  • What do you want to spend more time doing this year?
  • Is there a way we can be helpful to you?
  • What do you find yourself being most grateful for?

Be patient in attending to their answers. Show curiosity. Probe further by asking them to explain more fully. “Can you tell me more about that?” Embrace their new revelations and goals. These are good people trying to do the right thing!

Creatively reframe donors’ connections with your mission based on what you learn.

Reflect back to the donor what you’ve heard. Here is what you can say:

  • I hear ______ is important to you right now. I’m wondering if there’s a way we might readjust your giving here to better meet your current goals?

You absolutely must demonstrate your relevance! It’s never been good practice to say “We do good work; please send money.” Today, it is insufficient to say “You know we’ve always done good work; despite the changing times, please send money.”

The more you connect what makes your donors tick today to how you’re evolving what you do to address emerging realities, the bigger gifts you’ll receive.

EXAMPLE: You’re a small theater. You call a major donor who says their priorities this year have shifted to protecting civil liberties. After thoroughly listening and applauding their commitment, you say: “You’ve just reminded me of something about which you may not be aware. Did you know we’re currently commissioning a virtual play that deals with issues of social justice?” They’ve always liked the way live theater has the capacity to make people think about things differently and bring people of diverse viewpoints together. You’ve now melded their older interest with their newer interest, and are ready to ask if they’d consider underwriting this new initiative. Maybe they’ll give less than they would have to underwrite a live play, but you’ll keep them connected to you in an active way that keeps your charity at the top of their list.

EXAMPLE: You’re a children’s literacy program. You call a monthly donor who says their priorities this year have shifted to alleviating hunger. After affirming the importance of their new commitment, you say: “Wow, brilliant minds think alike. Did you know we’ve recently initiated a food pantry program to deliver nutritious food and supplies to the families of the children we serve?” You can now ask them if they’d like to shift their monthly commitment, as needed, from the literacy program to the food program. Charities often have many programs and services of which donors are not aware. If donors knew they could ‘kill two birds with one stone,’ more would do so. Why? Donors love to leverage their giving.

EXAMPLE: You’re an independent private school. You call a major donor who annually has given a gift for scholarships. During your conversation, they inform you they’re concerned about the lack of civics education in the schools. Collaborate with your donor. Consider exploring with your leadership the opportunity to kick off such a program. You can now ask your donor to be the seed funder.

Match donors’ evolving passions to your nonprofit’s evolving passions.

No nonprofit has come through the past year unchanged.

But too many nonprofits have not been particularly clear with their donors about how these changes have manifest themselves.

Before you make your calls and other connections, take some time to consider how what you do aligns with what is top of mind for donors today. Look at the news headlines. Look at what’s trending on social media. How does what you do address these issues, even if indirectly?

Donors can’t know what you don’t tell them. And an email here and there won’t do the trick (trust me, I’ve tried that with my adult son and he regularly claims to never have heard from me)!

Connect with donors as directly as possible.

Call, text, message folks on social media, email, and mail. Always address donors by their first name. You want to make this personal, because that’s what will make folks pay attention.

I still recommend the phone, or Zoom, as the priority strategy because these enable conversations. The written word has no tone of voice, does not effectively build relationships, and is open to misinterpretation.

Yet for folks you don’t know that well, hedging your bets is an essential strategy. There’s plenty of research that multi-channel marketing is the most effective way to assure your donors receive and read your communications. Where you do know your donor’s preferred mode of communication, use that one!

What Do You Do in a Period of Philanthropy Triage?

You take stock of where you are.

  • How has your nonprofit evolved in response to recent and current events? Where are your weaknesses? Where are your strengths?
  • How have your key loyal and passionate donors (i.e., major donors; above-average mid-level donors; monthly donors) evolved in their thinking about their philanthropy? Find out by connecting with them as directly and personally as possible.

Read and heed the tea leaves.

  • Ask questions; listen to the answers.
  • Don’t bury your head in the sand and hope things will just blow over. They will, but you might be blown away with the sand!
  • Hold up your head, look at your donors directly in the face, and ask them what they’re thinking and feeling.
  • Get to know your donors all over again. They’re likely not the same people you knew a year, or even four months, ago.

Your job as a philanthropy facilitator is to help donors fulfill their dreams.

  • These dreams may have changed.
  • Change is constant.
  • Change is to be honored.

Honor your donors as their thinking and priorities shift.

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