Many organizations that are directly responding to elevated community needs are seeing an influx of donors during the COVID-19 crisis. This includes (but isn’t limited to) hospitals and health providers, food banks, organizations working on equitable technology access for students, and organizations addressing domestic violence and homelessness.
Responding to donors during this chaotic time can be challenging—but bringing them into your community will be critical.
In 2016 and 2017, many organizations saw a post-election surge of new donors. We can draw similarities between the ’16 and ’17 giving surge and the current climate, but there are also marked differences:
Organizations that are seeing an influx of giving may be strapped for staff resources given they are serving a significantly higher number of people.
There aren’t as many opportunities for organizing or volunteering in person.
Donors themselves are facing unprecedented times and significant uncertainty about the financial impact on their households.
During this crisis, individual donors are considering shifting their giving priorities to meet immediate needs of community members. In a recent BBB Giving Alliance Survey, close to half of respondents indicated that they plan to support a nonprofit during this time, and a third want to give more than usual.
Organizations that are seeing increased donor interest will need a plan to retain these new supporters over the short and long term. Below, we outlined a series of strategies (starting with basic advice and moving to more advanced recommendations) to guide you along the way.
Acknowledge these donors and make a first impression.
If a new donor gives to your organization to support COVID-19 response efforts, they know enough about your organization to understand you are making an immediate impact, but they might not know much more.
Send an immediate acknowledgement email followed by a hard copy letter with a tax receipt. If physical mailings are challenging right now, you can email the tax receipt with the acknowledgment email.
Send a new donor welcome packet that includes an overview of your organization as well as a one-pager about your response to COVID-19. This will allow donors to see the impact they are helping to make immediately.
Under normal circumstances, a physical packet might include an annual report, a sticker or other piece of swag, a list of upcoming events, and maybe a short survey about why they chose to give. Right now, your welcome packet may be entirely digital, and that’s okay.
As time allows, invite volunteers and staff to make thank you calls to donors above a certain dollar amount. You may have volunteers who usually help your organization by showing up in person who’d love to help by making phone calls.
Use these conversations to express gratitude, answer any questions about the organization’s work, and ask a few specific questions of the donor, such as how they learned about the organization and what motivated them to give.
Consider how to engage these new donors meaningfully over the next six to nine months.
Our world looks much different than it did eight weeks ago. How can you adjust your engagement strategies to account for these changes?
Invite new donors to like your social media pages and sign up for your emails so they can see the work you are doing each day. Develop a communication calendar for the weeks ahead and consider how you can share impactful content each week:
Highlight a volunteer going above and beyond.
How many individuals have you served in a given week?
How many new donors have started to contribute to your mission?
What is your goal for the following week?
Hold more informal Facebook or Instagram live chats where staff can talk with volunteers about their experience and involvement. You can also feature or highlight the work being done in the community.
Host a fireside chat with your organizational leader and a board member. You can invite all donors who have given this year, and the organization can share the impact those dollars have had and the immediate gaps they have helped to fill. Take the opportunity to share what some of your short- and long-term plans are to address the COVID-19 crisis. This could set up donors nicely for a second ask.
Give donors a “peek behind the curtain” if it’s safe and appropriate to do so. A tour of how you’ve rearranged your food distribution setup or a video of a volunteer delivering laptops to students can help donors see your work in action and see how you have responded creatively to the ways the virus has reshaped your day-to-day operations.
Renew donors as quickly as possible.
Don’t wait to ask them for a second gift—if they remain in a position to continue to give, you want to capture the funding.
Offer new donors an opportunity to contribute monthly as your organization responds to the needs of the community. Now may not be the time to introduce a branded sustaining donor society if you don’t already have one, but you can still ask donors to consider a monthly recurring gift.
If a donor gave generally to support, is there a way to make a more specific follow-up ask 8 to 12 weeks later? Consider creating a special fund or initiative that would allow these donors to continue to give.
Conversely, if a donor gave in response to a campaign for a specific response fund, consider following up 8 to 12 weeks later asking for general operating support.
Think long term.
As donors opt in to a deeper relationship, it will be important for your staff to:
Understand why they started giving. How can you use what you know about the donor to encourage renewed and increased giving?
Research the prospect so you can develop an engagement plan.
Conduct a video or phone call meeting—try to meet the donor’s spouse and family. Make them feel like part of the community as quickly as possible.
Check in on your donors regularly. A quick “how are you doing?” can go a long way.
While these strategies will help increase donor retention, it is important for organizational leadership to set expectations with the board. Many of these first-time donors will not renew their gifts next year even with increased engagement efforts. Even organizations with strong retention of long-term donors will see their retention rate decrease next year if an influx of first-time donors shifts the typical donor make up this year.
Some organizations may have the staff power to expand donor retention and engagement strategies during this time, and others may only have the capacity to tackle the basics.
As you work to find the most appropriate and impactful ways to engage prospects digitally in the near term, consider how you can recognize the donors who came to you by the tens, hundreds, and thousands when this crisis has ended. How can you honor those who helped you serve others?
We will continue to monitor the rapidly changing environment, and we’ll share updates and new strategies as the situation evolves. In the meantime, visit our COVID-19 resource page and don’t hesitate to email us with questions, success stories, or your own experiences navigating this crisis.
About Sarah Anderson As Vice President, Sarah Anderson works with a wide variety of nonprofit organizations across the country. She brings to each engagement her expertise in strategic communications, a...