Five Tips for Keeping Key Supporters Close During the COVID-19 Crisis

By susanlienau | April 20, 2020 | Uncategorized
Learn how to communicate with key supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic through this guide.

At Averill Fundraising Solutions, we’ve seen our nonprofit clients struggle with how best to maintain connections with supporters while being sensitive to the stress and uncertainty of these times. To help, we’ve pulled together four quick “Dos” and one “Don’t” for communicating with your most important constituents during COVID-19.  (There are already too many restrictions on daily living these days to allow the “Don’ts” to outnumber the “Dos”!)

1. Even in unprecedented times, DO remember fundamental truths about fundraising.

In the new reality in which we’re all living, it’s understandable to focus on everything that’s different.  Indeed, so much is different, from our work routines, to the way we maintain our personal relationships, to the way we do our grocery shopping.  More sobering are the new stories of anxiety, trauma and loss to which we’re increasingly subjected on a daily basis. When it comes to fundraising, however, it’s useful to be mindful of things that haven’t changed:

  • People give to people.  You’ve heard that said many times, and with good reason:  It’s true! It’s no less true in the case of fundraising during the COVID-19 crisis.  Your supporters, especially your most high-impact supporters, need to hear from you – not just your organization, but you.  (That means you, Ms. Executive Director, or Mr. Major Gifts Officer, or Dr. Program Director . . . .)
  • People want to help.  Indeed, especially in times of crisis, it’s a natural and beautiful human inclination to want to contribute to solutions and to alleviate pain.
  • Fundraising is a highly competitive sport.  For decades, philanthropy has consistently made up 2% of total U.S. GDP, yet the number of nonprofit organizations has increased exponentially. In a time of crisis, the competition for limited dollars is only going to get more fierce, so it’s more important than ever for your organization to be on your supporters’ minds.

2. DO be assured that your constituents want to hear from you, so reach out – now!

The current crisis is causing business leaders of every kind to struggle to keep up with unfolding information and cope with new problems that seem to emerge by the hour.  Even as we all get a little better at home cooking and perhaps find time to watch that Netflix series we’ve been meaning to get to, cell phones are ringing and email inboxes are being stuffed as never before.  Moreover, dealing with painful realities such as having to lay off employees, watch as sales revenues plummet, or see retirement savings take a nosedive is enough to make even the most stalwart among us anxious.  So, it’s understandable if you’re hesitant to reach out to folks who are likely busier and stressed, and a bit less wealthy (at least for now, on paper) than they were just a couple of months ago. However, bear in mind that:

  • The supporters who really cared about you before the crisis still care about you! They may even care more than ever.
  • Most people who are financially successful are good at – and enjoy – solving problems, especially when it’s for a good cause.
  • There’s every chance that your supporters will see a call from you as a welcome opportunity to take focused action, even in a time when many of us feel less empowered than we’re accustomed to.
  • And don’t forget, in this period of social isolation, the chance to connect will likely be greeted with enthusiasm.

In times of crisis, awareness of the vital role that nonprofit organizations play in maintaining the fabric of our society increases.  Think back to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. We wager that there were many among your constituents who reached out to you and your colleagues, asking questions about how the downturn affected your essential work.  They wanted to help

So don’t fade into the background. Leverage your supporters’ desire for engagement and connection, and empower them to make a positive impact.

3. DO prioritize (giving and friendship).

You’re not a bad person if, in calling a supporter, part of the reason for your outreach is that you’re hoping they’ll make a gift.  (Your constituents won’t be surprised – or at least they shouldn’t be – to learn that you want them to contribute financially to your organization!)  That said, being a good fundraiser doesn’t preclude being a good, genuinely concerned friend. 

To help you decide whom to call first and what to cover, we recommend taking a look at your prospect list – including and especially your board members – and noting where each falls in the continuum of cultivating, asking and stewardship.  Determine:

  • Whom do I simply want to check in on, and thank again? (Stewardship)
  • Whom were we going to ask sometime in the near future? (Asking)
  • Who needs to know more about our organization? (Cultivation)

We recommend contacting folks in stewardship first, asking second and cultivation third.  Regardless of what stage they’re in, begin every conversation with questions such as:

  • I’ve been thinking about you.  How are you and your family coping?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your business?
  • How do you see things unfolding? 

Then be prepared to share how the crisis is affecting your organization:

  • Here’s how we’re taking care of our staff . . . 
  • Here’s how we’re doing our best to continue core programs . . . 
  • Here’s what we’re doing for the most vulnerable among those we serve . . . 
  • Here’s how we’re being affected financially . . . 
  • Here’s what we need to do now . . . 

For a template to help your organization better navigate these conversations, read our latest One-Minute Memo, Fundraising in Uncertain Times: Phrases and Ideas to Convey Balanced Messages to Major Donors and Prospects.

4. DO get creative with digital tools.

We at Averill Fundraising Solutions have always advocated for face-to-face meetings above all other types.  Needless to say, current times call for adjustments, and videoconferencing is a strong substitute for nearly every type of fundraising meeting.  By now, you’ve doubtless seen numerous articles on how to hold effective videoconferences (here’s a good one).  Beyond the technical aspects (including making sure your internet connection is strong, microphones are working, and you’ve mastered basic skills such as screen sharing, etc.), remember that the most important principles for holding successful in-person fundraising meetings also hold true for videoconferences:

  • Be prepared! Know what you’re going to say, and rehearse it.
  • Have clear goals for the meeting.
  • Use the convenience of videoconferencing to introduce colleagues to your supporters, including those on the “front lines” such as healthcare providers, teachers, professors, and program directors.
  • If you’ll be joined by colleagues, agree on roles and rehearse them.
  • When appropriate, share collateral materials in advance.
  • Don’t let the meeting end without clear plans for follow-up! Here’s your communication checklist.

Beyond using videoconferencing to connect one-on-one with your constituents, there’s much more you can consider doing, and several tools you can use.  Before doing anything, though, determine what it is primarily that you want your target audience to do.  Is it to:

  • Give?
  • Learn about how you’re delivering on your mission amid COVID-19?
  • Be reassured?
  • See your organization in action?
  • Hear an inspirational story?
  • Share their own inspirational stories?

Using a strategic mix of all the major digital channels – email, your website, social media, texting – consider sharing other information via video:

  • A “Thank you for empowering us to do what we do” message delivered by one of your front-line staff.
  • A short interview with front-line staff.
  • A behind-the-scenes look at your team in action (just be mindful of privacy issues).
  • An update from one of your board members.
  • A live-streamed Q&A with your constituents. (This requires more planning as well as advance work to encourage participation, but it can be very effective.) You could also use live streaming services to host your events, a perfect example are the many churches leading the charge during Covid-19 by live-streaming their masses to support their communities. 

The current crisis is a terrific opportunity for your organization to hone its digital outreach practices.  Learn which strategies work best for your organization right now, and what you need to work on, and then continue building on them for future post-COVID-19 engagement.

5. DON’T assume you know what your supporters would be willing to consider. Instead, ask them!

“Can we ask for a gift now?” “Is it okay to follow up on a gift request we made before the crisis?” The answers to both questions are “Maybe.”  Often, the best way to find out is to go right to the source and say something along the lines of:

  • “While the current crisis is immediate, we also need to plan for the future. We’re moving ahead with our capital campaign. Before the crisis hit, we were thinking of asking you for a major gift. Do you think we should?”
  • “We realize you’re paying a generous capital campaign pledge – thank you! – but would you consider an additional gift to our emergency fund?”
  • “We’re so grateful for your past support.  We know that you typically make a wonderful gift at the end of the year, but our needs are urgent right now. Would you consider making a gift now?”
  • “Thank you for sharing some of the struggles you’re going through right now. We understand the timing isn’t good for you to consider a gift. Can you advise us as to when we should check in again with you?”

Remember, your supporters will almost never be put off if you ask with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, and if your request is based on sound rationale and provides donors with a chance to make an impact.  If you need a bit more encouragement, don’t forget that when donors are asked why they give, time and again their answer is “Because I was asked.” And be assured: If your organization isn’t asking, another one is.

At Averill Fundraising Solutions, we’re no stranger to helping organizations communicate during a crisis. From war to recession, we’ve helped organizations create communications and fundraising strategies to outlast even the most difficult of landscapes.

If your organization can use help navigating COVID-19 communications, contact Averill Fundraising Solutions today.

Averill Fundraising Solutions President, Bob Happy, has nearly 35 years of experience providing expert leadership and direction to clients across the not-for-profit sector. During his career, Bob has served more than 2,000 clients and has guided them to raise more than $3,500,000,000.

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