Adapting your Major Donor Stewardship in response to Coronavirus
Major donor fundraising has always been, and always will be, principally about developing and maintaining relationships with the supporters who can make a significant gift to your cause. But nurturing and maintaining those relationships has been quite difficult over the past few months, as we haven’t been able to meet with philanthropists face-to-face during lockdown – and so we’ve all had to think differently about engagement and communication.
This blog will collate some of the lessons we have learnt in recent months about major donor fundraising – and will highlight which of these learnings we could usefully employ into the future, when the COVID-19 lockdown and pressures have all eased.
As fundraisers, part of our art is in the skills we acquire as communicators – and typically, you will already know your major donors’ preferred method of engagement with your cause. Because of the high value of their giving, it can be tempting to stick with how you’ve always communicated – maybe quarterly updates, an annual call from the Chief Executive and similar. Afterall, this is safer – the communications schedule you’ve developed over time has worked so far.
However, the ‘new normal’ in terms of the fundraising landscape and methodology, including philanthropy, is very different and may remain like this for some time, perhaps indefinitely. We hope this article serves to offer some food for thought about how the new, innovative ways major donor fundraisers have been engaging with High Net Worth Individuals can be replicated, refined and adopted into the future – whilst also ensuring that the increased good will and community spirit can be channelled in a positive way.
Rethinking Your Major Donor Communication
Perhaps it is stating the obvious to say that many of our usual methods of donor stewardship and relationship cultivation have been unavailable.
The lockdown restrictions have meant that we have been unable to offer to visit our major donors at home or their place of work for a coffee and a catch up. We haven’t been able to invite them to visit the project that they’ve funded – and meet the beneficiaries. To compound the issue, many face-to-face charitable services have been paused – and some of your staff team may have been furloughed – so we appreciate that contemplating a new strategy may seem like a daunting task.
However, as voluntary sector services start to reopen and resume, now is a good time to consider developing your strategy for the next year. At a basic level this means planning out your messaging and identifying who you will be communicating with and when.
Some of the less personal modes of communication may be the most oft used options going forward – email, letter and telephone – so we will also be thinking creatively about how we might utilise these channels in the most effective way to build rapport with your major donors. For instance, you could send them project photographs that really demonstrate everything you have achieved in the last few months. An accompanying hand written note, just a few lines explaining the photo, can be posted and will almost certainly bring your philanthropists a smile and great ‘feel good’ moment. This practice can be adopted in your long term fundraising too – it’s a simple, effective way to add a new dimension to your relationship developing efforts both now and in the future.
Philanthropy fundraisers will already be aware that many major donors appreciate ‘insider’ or ‘exclusive’ updates that have been prepared especially for them. It demonstrates your organisation’s appreciation of their support – whilst also helping them feel closer to the work of their favourite charity or project they’ve funded. So, if we trust in this wisdom as a guiding principle around developing major donor communications, we can begin to get creative around the conversations that we can be initiating.
Before making any approaches to major donors about the impact of coronavirus on your charity and the people you support, it perhaps goes without saying that there’ll be a good amount of preparation that needs to be undertaken. In order to tell a complete, accurate and impactful story, we will first need the facts. This will include some frank and open internal conversations:
- What precisely has the impact to beneficiaries been and what data do you have available to support this? Perhaps you might include information that the donor might not have thought about, particularly new emerging needs that the crisis has amplified or any innovative solutions you deployed to overcome challenges to face-to-face service delivery during lockdown and beyond.
- To support your narrative, it would be well worth speaking with some service users and asking them to put into their own words how COVID-19 has impacted their lives, and what their hopes and aspirations are for the recovery. Oftentimes, a short passage from a beneficiary is incredibly powerful, as it comes from the heart, and can work a whole lot better than the tightly-controlled, sometimes stifled wording we as fundraisers spend hours poring over!
- What are your six–month and 12-month financial forecasts looking like, how bad/good is the picture it portrays, can you quantify how much fundraising income has been lost in the last few months, and what is being done to mitigate the financial impact?
- How will your services adapt to this next phase of the crisis? How have you maintained engagement with beneficiaries?
- How many staff have been furloughed and what has the human impact of that been as well as the operational impact on your charity. Have conversations been planned out around how your charity is managing team morale, any ‘furloughteering’ or innovative approaches – your major donors are likely keen to know that you as one of their favourite charities, rose to the challenge COVID-19 has brought us with determination and positivity!
- Information on your charities medium– and long- term plans. This may include how you propose to resume Business As Usual once the COVID-19 crisis is over and what fundraising measures and other planning is being put in place right now. You could also relay any information on partnerships or coalitions that are in the process of being brokered. Details about any new collaborations with voluntary, statutory or corporate bodies pertaining to a coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be of genuine interest to your major donors and may help them think about your charity in a different but positive way
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that major donors give generously to our cause because they are passionate about the work and genuinely interested in the charity’s activities, development and financial wellbeing. So, as counterintuitive as it may seem to be taking a not-particularly-good news story about the colossal challenges that coronavirus has brought with it, as we are naturally inclined as fundraisers to be positive, our advice is to report the situation, impact and supporting figures accurately to our philanthropists. Chances are, they won’t be calling up to see how everything is going with the project they funded last year. They’ll most likely not wish to add to the challenging workload they envisage you have at the present time. With this in mind, any call you make, or offer to make via email, is likely to be met with enthusiasm and appreciation.
Being mindful of the fact that your major donors may have a lot on their plate to deal with too will be central to this communications phase. Issues ranging from (their) business continuity, family illness, or any multitude of problems may result in their philanthropy taking a back seat for the time being. This does not mean that they would not wish to hear from you though – as long as the contact is personalised, well-intentioned and in the right tone – as your charity will be close to their heart and, by-and-large, they will appreciate that you have thought to convey with them updates, adaptations, issues and developments.
Essentially, you are calling to ‘give’ (information and meaningful contact) rather than to ‘get’ (a major gift), which of course, is another central principle of developing those high value relationships. A charity that has liaised with their major donors, kept them in the loop, and extended personalised information regularly, is likely to be remembered for the right reasons and held in high regard. The positive outcome from that being, of course, your charity is front of mind when the philanthropist resumes their giving or decides upon their favourite beneficiary charities for the year.
The other option you may wish to consider alongside including within your communications plan is an invitation to a virtual event. Facilities like Zoom and Teams have been adopted as the new go-to method for video communications. Could your CEO host a session on the strategy for recovery? Could your service lead perhaps relay to supporters (not only major supporters) how your charity has adapted to supporting the beneficiaries and what the plan is for resuming different services and projects, perhaps? Anecdotal evidence suggests that major donor engagement in virtual events has been very good recently and in many cases surpassing engagement levels in previous face to face engagement.
Communicating with High Net Worth Individuals new to your cause
It is important to note that although the next 12 months can seem uncertain, it remains essential to try to recruit new major donors to your cause. Developing and implementing an innovative publicity campaign highlighting a powerful story about your charity’s efforts can be especially effective in engaging new major donors. A clear, compelling portrayal of your charity with a call to action by way of invitation to make contact is an effective method of bringing on new supporters – and in engaging philanthropists. PR activity can be done in a number of different ways and just a few suggestions include:
- Local press. During this period of disruption when fewer businesses are advertising, many of our clients are seeing significant discounts on media space purchase. If you have a marketing budget, now is a good time to have a ring-around to targeted media channels and see if the reduction in pricing fits within your expenditure plans.
- Targeted social media activity, with a call to action, can cost relatively little and is potentially a very effective communications channel. A regular flow of interesting, relevant content, including perhaps a volunteer spotlight or a thought piece from one of your Trustees, is a terrific way to raise the profile of your cause among specific groups, including those who may have capacity, propensity or interest in making a significant gift.
- Prospect research; as many fundraising avenues remain on pause, some fundraisers are finding themselves with additional capacity. Now is a good time to dedicate efforts to researching public domain information about major local companies – we especially recommend family-led businesses, those which are achieving significant or year-on-year growth, and those with a solid track record of corporate social responsibility. If you can identify a small number of local successful business owners, that you think could be interested in becoming involved in your charity, then consider reaching out with an invitation for them and their staff team to find out more about your charity via a virtual event.
Resiliency and recovery planning
We appreciate that it is difficult to think of recovery, building your organisation’s resilience and planning at this time. Everyone is busy adapting and focusing on dealing with immediate pressures. However, engaging current and prospective major supporters in helping your charity to strategise for the recovery can give you both valuable advice and support as well as strengthening their understanding of the challenges you and your service users face.
This initiative could be something akin to a development board, but less formal. It could be an advisory panel, or a friends group with a dedicated objective to help put into practice new ways of working to help the charity recover in the medium- and long-term future. By bringing in additional skills and expertise in this way, you might create some tremendously innovative and useful ideas that, when put into practice, could make a real, positive difference to your recovery plans over the next 12 months.
Activities that were previously not feasible or impractical could now be tabled again for consideration. For instance, perhaps a collaboration with another local charity, or a national charity with similar aims, could be explored with a view to forming a partnership or consortium? A joint effort has three-fold effect;
- You can amplify your message to a greater audience by combining voices and resources
- You can pique more supporter interest by working collaboratively to tackle a new issue arising from coronavirus, whilst also instilling a sense of confidence amongst new supporters that your charities have thought creatively about how best to respond.
- You could genuinely enhance both your service provision for beneficiaries and develop your fundraising team as a result of cooperative working and joint communications.
Whichever way you decide to progress the recovery and a return to business as usual, it strikes us that there is significant good will amongst the public that could be harnessed to help you in your work and getting back onto an even keel.
In summary, our central recommendations on major donor fundraising are to be as proactive in your communications as you possibly can be, as creative and engaging as your imagination allows, and entirely frank about COVID-19’s impact with your current major donors and potential supporters.
Anything that you can do to bring your stories ‘from the field’ to life in vivid colour is likely to be a refreshing communication for your philanthropists. If you can also include an invitation to an online/virtual engagement event or a even personalised video – perhaps an interview with in-house service delivery lead, volunteer or beneficiary – then so much the better for your relationship development efforts.
As nobody knows the potential impact of a second wave in the coronavirus pandemic, we can usefully be drawing upon all of the lessons we have learnt in the past few months – both internally as individual organisations and as a wider fundraising community. As a sector, there’s a lot that can be done to capture and share all the great ideas and innovation that we’ve seen during this lockdown. Much of this innovation has the potential to achieve a positive long term impact on major donor fundraising regardless of what the aftermath of the pandemic will look like.
Here at Charity Fundraising Ltd, we have been trying to support charities affected by Coronavirus through free advice sessions over telephone, email and Zoom. We have been assisting charities of all sizes with numerous issues, including trust fundraising, major donor fundraising, individual giving and digital fundraising. If you would like to request a free advice session then please complete the form on our Free Fundraising Consultation page and one of our friendly, knowledgeable consultants will be pleased to contact you for a free Q&A session and advice tailored specifically to your charity and your present needs.
If you’d like support to develop your major donor fundraising strategy or with identifying prospective supporters, or if you would just like to bounce a few ideas around, please do get in touch – we’d be delighted to hear from you.