Stop Assuming Your Donors Are Well

fundraising heart

You have almost certainly received an email that opens with some version of, “I hope this message finds you well,” or concludes with, “Hope you’re well.” Odds are, you have sent a few (or a few thousand) of these same messages to coworkers, donors, friends, and family. It’s a lovely sentiment at first blush.  You’re thinking about someone and want to convey that you care. But we can do better, specifically when it comes to donor outreach.

The act of imposing a state of being on someone else, rather than asking and allowing space for an answer, doesn’t connect us to donors nearly as much as we think it does. Especially now, when it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 crisis has left everyone pretty far from “well,” it’s crucial that we forge and foster authentic connections with donors.

The distinction between, “I hope you’re well,” and “How are you?” may seem trivial, but it is not. A one-sided wish for wellness, no matter how neatly wrapped in good intentions, is a full stop. It’s an entire conversation, the journey and the destination all at once, and it does more to stifle connection than to foster it. But there’s an easy fix: change the statement to a question, and the journey just begins.

The risk of asking can feel daunting, especially if the response is tepid, or, even worse, negative. As fundraisers, we often perceive that donor happiness correlates to increased giving, and that’s true to an extent. But it’s important to distinguish donor feelings toward the mission of your organization from their emotions generally. And that’s where we can truly serve donors and grow relationships through difficult conversations, genuine interactions, and mutual vulnerability. The following simple, subtle tips for donor communications can make a world of difference.

  1. Open AND close with simple, open-ended questions. Messages like, “How are you holding up?” and “How are you feeling about X/Y/Z?” give your communications room to breathe, and allow them to be a jumping-off point for future communications.
  2. Use your questions as signposts on the donor journey. If you haven’t connected with a particular donor, keep it straightforward: “How are you?” is enough. As you move into an ongoing conversation, keep asking questions to engage more deeply with donors. “How has your daily routine changed?” is a great way to get to know not just what donors are doing in these uncertain times, but to take their pulse on their stress level/capacity to engage further/willingness to open up.
  3. Don’t forget the mission. Ask donors about how they’re thinking about philanthropy, where they perceive need, and if and how they’d like to be involved. This is a crucial point at which the, “I hope you’re well” approach breaks down. Rather than wishing well and leaving it at that, reassure donors that you’re on the path with them.
  4. Answer your own questions honestly. It’s tempting to appear strong during trying times, but donors are perceptive. “I hope you’re well” automatically puts you in a position of apparent power – it says, “I’ve got this, and I assume you do, too.” But there’s more connective power in being honest. If you’re scared and uncertain, say it. Be mindful about the professional boundaries of the fundraiser-donor relationship, but don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
  5. Save the hopeful statements for your shared goals. Instead of the vague, “I hope you’re well,” be more specific and tie any statements to the answers you received from your simple, straightforward questions. “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I hope we can connect and discuss how we can help you find somewhere to volunteer while maintaining social distancing. Can I set up a virtual coffee break for Tuesday at 10:00?” will resonate much more powerfully than a diffuse hope for the future.

There’s nothing wrong with hoping people are well (we’d be lousy fundraisers if we didn’t care about our donors). But in light of these scary, world-altering, unpredictable, but hopeful, times, we can still connect with donors and each other in ways that help people feel less isolated, grow relationships and a sense of shared mission, and relate to each other more organically. Next time you’re tempted to hope someone is well, why not ask instead?

donor love and loyalty

Drew Coursin, J.D., CFRE
Drew Coursin is a Senior Donor Advisor at Greater Twin Cities United Way. He focuses on building authentic, lasting relationships by listening carefully, meeting donors where they are most comfortable, and understanding what inspires people to give from the heart. Prior to becoming a nonprofit fundraiser, Drew provided legal services and strategic advice to early-stage companies and entrepreneurs as they turned their innovative ideas into viable businesses.
Drew Coursin, J.D., CFRE
Drew Coursin, J.D., CFRE

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One Comment

  1. Terry Knox Ramseur May 29, 2020 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Yes! I’ve been writing grants for some years now but in these unprecedented times, I found it easy, if not safe, to say the “I hope this finds you well….. ” We claim to want to connect with our donors but it can be a bit intimidating. After all, we might find out they’re human too. Asking right out How are you? really cuts it all back and leans in – just where you want to be. Thank you for the insight.

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