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9 Donor Stewardship Ideas To Keep Your Donors Feeling Connected While Practicing Social Distancing

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Fresh donor stewardship ideas are incredibly important for any nonprofit in the best of times — it makes your donors feel appreciated and engaged, establishes a stronger emotional tie with your organization and could make or break their decision to make another gift.

In the worst of times — say, for example, in the midst of a global pandemic like COVID-19 — donor stewardship is absolutely essential.

While everyone is practicing social distancing and face-to-face communication is out of the question, it can be hard to engage with your donors and keep them feeling connected. Many of them, especially at the high levels of giving, are used to in-person interactions such as coming out to events, going to lunches, attending a personal tour of your facility, etc.

But what do you do when it’s simply too dangerous for anyone to leave their house?

Well thanks to technology (but also our good old friends the phone and snail mail), it can be pretty easy to stay in touch even when practicing social distancing.

In this post, we’ll go over some simple ideas of things you can do to reach out to your donors, let them know you’re thinking about them and keep them feeling appreciated.

These ideas aren’t ground-breaking — your organization may already be using some of these as part of your regular stewardship plans. But they are especially crucial during times like these when everyone is feeling anxious and confused.

So pull-out your data and start looking at how you can reach out to your community and offer a little pick-me-up during this difficult time.

1. Thank you call

It sometimes baffles me just how many organizations don’t ever call their donors to say thanks. It is by far the simplest and the most effective way to express your gratitude for their support.

You may think you don’t have the time or that your donors won’t care much for it, but once you start making phone calls, you’ll see just how delightful it can be for both parties.

I once worked for a charity where all donor-facing staff, myself included, were accustomed to spending a few hours each day making thank-you calls.

Was it worth our time? Absolutely!

The pleasant surprise you hear on the other line when they realize that you took time out of your day to call them just to say thank you is unlike anything else. Sometimes the conversations end there and sometimes you hear stories and establish long-term relationships with people that you otherwise never would have spoken to.

While we’re all practicing social distancing and staying home, your donors would be thrilled to hear from you. And it doesn’t just have to be a thank you call that immediately follows a donation. You can call them just because!

You can thank donors for their past support, ask them how they’re coping with the current COVID-19 situation, give an update on how your organization is doing and what measures you’re taking to ensure everyone’s safety and health, or simply let them know that you’re looking forward to seeing them once the craziness is over.

You likely (or hopefully) have too many donors to manage on your own, so get your co-workers to help. Assign a reasonable number of calls to each staff member per day and get calling. Even if everyone at your nonprofit is working from home during this time, this is still very much doable and could be a nice break from sitting at your dining room table and trying to focus on work.

2. Thank-you card

Another overlooked stewardship touch is a plain old thank you note sent by regular mail. There’s something so special about receiving a physical card in your mailbox and knowing that someone went through the trouble of handwriting it and sending it.

I used to send hundreds of handwritten notes each month and it does actually pay off — I even received a few thank you notes back… with checks attached to them, believe it or not.

Of course, getting another gift is not the objective. The point is to simply show your donors that you care about them and appreciate their generosity.

And what better time to do this than when we’re all stuck at home?

The note doesn’t have to be lengthy —  just make sure you’re addressing the donor by name, include a brief thanks for their recent or past gifts, and send your words of support during this time of crisis.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when writing these is to be brief but genuine. Don’t include any boilerplate language and please ­— and I can’t stress this enough — actually handwrite them. Whatever you do, do not print the cards or mass photocopy your handwriting. Donors can see right through this and the gesture will do more harm than if you hadn’t sent anything at all.

As with thank-you calls, feel free to enlist your coworkers to help. I used to host “card writing parties”, i.e. we would all get together in the boardroom with stacks of cards and some good music and get writing, but you can just as well do this from the comfort of your own homes.

And it’s not just fellow staff members who can help. Feel free to give stacks of blank cards to volunteers, board members, ambassadors and the beneficiaries of your nonprofit. It takes a little organizing but can absolutely be done and will be greatly appreciated by your donors.

3. Just because card

The wonderful thing about sending a note in the mail is that it doesn’t even have to be a thank you card. Maybe some of your donors haven’t made a gift in quite some time and it doesn’t make sense to send a gratitude message. In this case, it is still appropriate to send what I like to call “Just Because” or “Surprise & Delight” cards.

The messaging can still be similar – thank them for being a donor in the past and let them know you’re thinking about them. You can even go as far as checking if this might be an anniversary year for them — for example, it’s been 5 years since they made their first gift and became a member of your donor community.

I’ve definitely seen lapsed donors regain their active status after receiving a “Just Because” card, but again, that shouldn’t be your main goal. All you want to do is surprise your past supporters and remind them how important they are to your organization.

4. Personal email

Your nonprofit likely sends out a ton of emails already as part of your email marketing strategy. But how many of those emails actually get opened instead of just ending up in spam folders?

If your donors are accustomed to receiving generic emails from your organization, it will be a nice surprise for them to hear from you personally. Just like with the personal phone calls and cards, it means a lot to someone to know that you took time out of your day to reach out.

If you’re writing to a major gift or a long-time donor with whom you already have a relationship with, you can take time to customize your message. Say what you would say in a phone call – show that you remember details about what’s important to them and that you’re looking forward to seeing them in person soon.

Of course, the technology available to us today makes it possible to send mass emails that feel like personal outreach. Never use this strategy for the aforementioned group – if they somehow get the sense that you sent a mass email, it could hurt your relationship.

However, if you have a large group of donors that you haven’t spoken to enough times to have a relationship with, you can consider automating your outreach.  There are a few things you can do to make the message seem personal:

  • use a mail merge to insert their first name into the salutation
  • use simple language, not boilerplate messaging or jargon
  • be authentic and genuine
  • use your personal email signature, as well as your own email address in the “from” and “reply-to” address, not the generic company address

If you’re going this route, be open to the fact that this won’t be a hit-send-and-forget-it type of situation — some people will respond and you may need to carry a few conversations. This is a great thing and should be viewed as an opportunity to establish relationships with people who are clearly willing but haven’t otherwise had the chance.

Keeping this in mind, make sure you’re not sending this mass email to thousands of people. Only send it out if you’re willing to exchange a few emails with each person on your list.

5. Relevant news

Let’s go back for a minute to that special group of people – the major gift or long-time donors that you’ve established a great relationship with. One of the ways to show them you care is to share information you think they might find interesting, entertaining or relevant to their life.

You don’t have to actively seek this out, but say you come across a news article on how an organization is helping homeless people survive the COVID-19 pandemic, and you know that a certain donor in your community is extremely passionate about fighting homelessness.

Why not send them this article?

It will show the donor that you are thinking of them. They will appreciate the fact that you remember their interests and be happy to receive important information they may not have otherwise seen.

Your message doesn’t have to be lengthy or have any intent other than simply reaching out and checking in. Something like this will do just fine: “Saw this article and thought you might find it interesting. I hope you and your family are staying healthy and safe.”

You can, of course, count this as part of your personal email outreach from the section above. The reason why it’s in a separate section is because it doesn’t have to be done via email. In fact, you may have some donors who, for one reason or another, don’t use email. In this case, feel free to print out the article and send it via mail along with your “Thank You” or “Just Because” card.

6. Video update

While people are practicing social distancing and staying home, they likely have a lot more free time to consume content. However, companies, organizations, and internet personalities realize this, so your donors’ email inboxes and social media feeds are getting oversaturated with content. It can be especially hard now to break through the clutter.

Video has always been the number one medium for getting people’s attention and this is the case now more than ever. Take advantage of this and opt for sending out a video update via email or sharing it on your social media.

The production quality of your video doesn’t have to be amazing — people understand that we are living in unprecedented circumstances and their expectations for professional quality are lower than usual, if there at all.

In fact, it can be quite refreshing to receive something from your leadership filmed on their smartphone or laptop webcam, speaking authentically, and unscripted about how your organization is coping with the current situation.

A genuine message like this, filmed at home with no fancy equipment, can evoke feelings of solidarity and remind your community that we’re all in this together.

7. Beneficiary spotlight

It’s never a bad time to share a moving story about the people (or animals) who benefit from your organization’s work. It reminds your donors why they decided to give in the first place and makes them feel good about being a part of your community.

And right now, when we’re all practicing social distancing, it is more important than ever to give your donors a touch of positivity and hope.

Of course, under normal circumstances, you may choose to conduct a proper interview with a beneficiary or maybe even film it, but even the simplest methods will work wonders at this time.

See if you can reach out to a beneficiary of your organization via phone or email and have them write a brief story or answer a few questions that you can publish as a Q & A style piece. While you would normally aim to have a professional photo done to go along with this piece, there’s nothing wrong with having the beneficiary send in a photo they already have. Regardless of the quality, your donors will appreciate having a face to tie to the story.

You can share this with your donors by publishing it on your website, sending it in a newsletter or a standalone email or posting it on social media.

Do as many of these as you wish or can afford the time to coordinate. Your donors will never get tired of reading first-hand accounts of how their generosity helped change someone’s life for the better.

8. Impact report

If you have more substantial impact reporting to do, now is the perfect time to get working on these. Sending a customized report is one of the most effective ways to show a donor how important their support has been for your organization.

Every nonprofit I’ve ever worked at had ambitious goals about creating customized impact reports for key major gift donors, corporations, event attendees, and donor groups. However, we were always falling behind and not preparing these in a timely manner.

But if there’s one good thing about having to practice social distancing, it’s that hopefully you now have a lot more free time to work on those long term projects you never seem to be able to get to.

Make a list of key individuals, corporate partners, or groups of donors that you’ve been meaning to report back to or who are due for a major update. Each of them will want to read about the progress your organization has made in the past year or any achievements and milestones you’ve reached. If they support a specific program or aspect of your organization’s work, go into detail about where their gifts were used and what difference they made.

Traditionally, these kinds of personalized reports are printed as a small booklet and sent in the mail or given in-person. But more and more donors are indicating that they would rather receive digital PDFs via email, so choosing this option is both social distancing approved and preferred by your donors.

9. Survey

Hopefully, gathering feedback from members of your community is already a regular practice at your nonprofit. But if you haven’t done it in a while, sending out a survey or a poll is the perfect excuse to reach out and check-in. It will also help you get valuable information about how to continue operating while social distancing and what to focus on once the dust settles.

If you’re considering creating remote volunteer opportunities, this is a great chance to ask people if it’s something they would be interested in signing up for. Asking questions that get them thinking about what things will be like once the crisis is over — what they expect from you then, what they’re looking forward to the most, etc — will make them feel hopeful and assured that this situation won’t last forever and we will all come out of it on the other side.

Sending a survey will help your donors feel like they’re a part of the conversation, that their voice matters, and that you value their input.

So there you have it. Staying in touch with your community is more important than ever in a time of crisis and uncertainty. Whichever donor stewardship ideas you choose to go with, your donors will undoubtedly appreciate you reaching out and checking in on them. Stay connected, stay positive, and remember that we will all get through this together.

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