When Can We Meet With Donors Again?

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By Jim Eskin

I’ve always loved the axiom: “Get donors within our nonprofit hug!” Before 2020, we meant that both literally and figuratively. But last year, we pivoted (there’s that word again) to virtually and figuratively.

For most of the past year, the question of donor meetings was a no-brainer. We just couldn’t meet with donors and prospects face-to-face, which had, for so long, served as the gold standard in desired engagement, especially when soliciting major gifts.

With more and more of the nation being vaccinated, ever so gradually, the environment is changing — and for the better.

But decision-making is much more complicated than it was last year and there are no one-size-fits-all answers. Whether we like it or not, there are many layers to this hugely important onion. So, let’s begin to peel them off.

  1. The donor might not always be right, but they’re always the donor. Just as it was pre-COVID-19, we left it up to the donor to tell us where, when and with whom they would like to meet. In the same spirit, right after CDC and local authorities, donors and prospects can and should dictate their preferences and comfort zones. Let’s stay close to the truth that major gift donors still tend to be older and likely are, or should be, more cautious in their lifestyle choices during this uncertain phase.
  2. The experts are experts for good reason — they know the science best. Their guidance on safety precautions — wearing masks, social distancing, meeting outdoors, avoiding crowds and other measures — rule the day. If we need any other motivation, donors and prospects will have more respect for nonprofits that rigidly hold to the letter of CDC guidelines.
  3. Health/safety situations differ, and in some instances, significantly across the country. What do the key indicators in your area and/or where the donor resides look like? These include vaccination rates, hospitalizations, testing positivity rates, deaths and other metrics. Before exploring interest in face-to-face (or mask-to-mask), trends need to be moving in the right direction.
  4. The strength of the relationship weighs heavily. Long-standing donors will lend themselves to having virtual meetings since nonprofit awareness, affinity and trust will likely already be in place. A prospect with no giving history and no engagement with the nonprofit will benefit more from the intimacy of in-person meetings. But virtual fundraising clearly works. We’ve learned from the past year that when properly executed, even major gift solicitations can be successfully made virtually.
  5. If the donor is open to an in-person meeting and local health trends have moved in the right direction, I strongly recommend keeping the venue to the donor’s choice of their home or office, better yet in an outdoor space close by. This is where the donor prospect can be absolutely certain of the safety of the space. Video technology can do a wonderful job of fulfilling the important roles that have been previously played by tours and site visits.
  6. We need to raise our technology game. Computer screen fatigue might have overtaken pivot in our daily vocabulary. We have to work overtime in making our video visits more creative, interactive and stimulating. Start with the premise that they should be no longer than two-thirds the length of an in-person meeting. They’re simply more exhausting. We need to keep to the agenda and strategically make use of every minute including sharing strong graphics and compelling stories, all while respecting the Laura Fredricks formula for productive visits: The donor speaks 75% of the time and the nonprofit only speaks 25% of the time. Be sure to dress appropriately, business casual or better.

In conclusion, if anything, err on the side of caution and prudence. More than 500,000 Americans have lost their lives. I seriously doubt any nonprofit is going to be criticized for not being aggressive enough in returning to life the way it used to be and, instead, clinging to the safety of virtual meetings for the foreseeable future.

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