This is part 3 of 3 in a series. For the first post, go here and for the second post, go here.

5. Engage and offer, don’t ask

We’ve been hearing from a lot of organizations over the past few weeks, and many are putting a total hold on communications to their donors. I would encourage you to do the exact opposite. 

Donors are getting bombarded with information and opinions from the media, the government, their friends, their family, social media — you name it! They need clarity from you, the boots on the ground. They want to hear about the real tangible needs of their community and our country. In a recent article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nicholas Tedesco, who leads the National Center for Family Philanthropy said, “We’re certainly hearing from wealthy donors and families who are feeling compelled to address this crisis, but there’s a lot of uncertainty of how to do that.”

There you have it! And the National Center for Family Philanthropy is not the only organization hearing this. In many cases, nonprofits are telling us that donors are calling them. So I ask you, do you have a compelling case for support? Do you have new and urgent needs right now? Are you facing shortfalls? Are you at risk of closing your doors permanently or laying off your staff? 

Offer your donors opportunities to help. There are very few times in your major donors’ lives when they are given the opportunity to be truly heroic. Don’t deny them that opportunity by stopping the flow of communication. They want to assist you right now, so let them know how they can be the hero you need. Of course, you must be sensitive to the current climate, so I would encourage you to take the following approach that involves gently offering instead of harshly soliciting.

Step 1: Get your head straight. Remember, your mindset before engaging is absolutely crucial. You are not a beggar, a manipulator, or an arm twister. You are, instead, a great person — you are a loving, caring, helpful, generous, joyful value-creator and facilitator. Your role is to help your donors be the heroes in this crisis situation, and to assist them on their journey towards self-actualization.  

Step 2: Offer empathy. First and foremost when you call donors ask how they are doing. Show that you genuinely care about them and their loved ones. Try to establish a human connection. Use your MarketSmart dashboard to see how they previously answered survey questions and where they’ve been clicking online. Then personalize your communication, so it’s highly relevant (without being creepy — in other words, don’t mention that you can see their online activities).

Step 3: Offer an opportunity for them to express their feelings. Once you have shown empathy, listen to their concerns. With the current fears around health, isolation, and the economic downturn there may be some things they want to get off their chests. The most important thing you can do is listen and gauge their mindset at this time. As I noted earlier, don’t be surprised if the well-being of your organization — their beloved nonprofit — is top of mind for them. Make sure that if they have supported your organization in the past, you thank them for that support. Especially for your major donors, frame your conversation around thankfulness for their past contributions which have made your organization more sustainable and better equipped to handle a situation like this.

Step 4: Offer information. Before reaching out to supporters, first ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is your organization doing to address the pandemic or problems caused by the pandemic?
  • What are your organization’s urgent needs?
  • How are you trying to meet those needs?
  • What will happen if these needs are not met?
  • What financial resources are needed to meet these needs?

Depending on the nature of your mission, you might want to tell them the answers to the questions above. And, if you sense that the time is right, you may want to mention the resources your organization needs. Every single vertical in the nonprofit space is feeling the affects of this crisis. Don’t underestimate your donors’ fondness for your organization or institution. 

Step 5: Offer a menu. If you haven’t already done it, I strongly recommend you develop a menu of giving options for your donors to consider. If you don’t have one, I think you should quickly collaborate with some major donors to create one. Then, I bet they’ll end up giving to support one of the items you place on it together.

Next, as the opportunity arises during each conversation you have with your donors (or at the end of your meeting or call), ask them:

“[Supporter name], we worked with some passionate supporters to develop an impact menu to make it easy for folks like you to consider ways you might want to help. Would you be interested in seeing that?”

Then, send it to them via email while they are on the phone — not after you hang up! Wait for them to open up your file and let them take a look at it. 

IMPORTANT: Keep quiet while they’re reviewing it! If they are silent, it’s likely that they are reading and thinking. If you speak you’ll ruin your chances for a gift for sure. So keep your mouth shut. Wait for them to utter the next words. There’s a good chance they’ll simply select a giving option so they can be a hero. Let them do that! Don’t interrupt their consideration process because you can’t stand the silence.

Here’s a make believe zoo’s menu:

Notice that after a clear and compelling case for support was made, the donor was offered a menu of giving opportunities, along with specifics regarding exactly how their money would be used. 

Put names to the need. Stories are the single best way to convey information and emotion. Be sure to tie real stories to the statistics. The human brain is not wired to retain facts for very long. In a study at the Stanford School of Business, students were asked to craft 1-minute long pitches and present them to their class. Only 1 in 10 used stories to convey their key message and most relied on more traditional pitch strategy, citing facts and figures. When asked to write down everything they remembered from each pitch, 5% of the audience cited a statistic, but 63% remembered a story.

The science behind this is clear: The brain is made to retain stories. In fact, our capacity to absorb stories is so remarkable that when we read a particularly engaging story our brain experiences it the same way it would if we were actually living through the events transcribed ourselves. So, be sure to make use of this very powerful tool as you build your case. 

Bottom line: Ask for permission to offer them information on a few urgent areas of need for their review. Doing so will give them the opportunity to take control of a situation that is very chaotic and unpredictable by supporting your cause.

Step 6: Offer reassurance. It’s human nature — no one wants to feel like they are supporting a lost cause. Don’t be shy about outlining your challenges at this time, but assure donors that you have a plan in place and that your whole organization is committed to seeing it through. 

Be sure to tell them about other donors that have stepped in to help and any creative fundraising tactics you are using to maximize the impact of giving (think matching gift challenges). Also, tell them about contingency plans that are in place to make up for any shortfalls in anticipated revenue. These may include cutting back on any nonessential programs, tapping into an endowment, applying for grants, or revisiting the budget. Also highlight the resiliency of your organization and its proven history of navigating other crises (with the help of outstanding donors).

6. After they give, ask again

Yep! You CAN do that, but ONLY if you’ve reported back to them about what you did with the money in a way that made them feel awesome, like a hero. Donors feel good when they find meaning in their lives. Giving helps them do just that. So, if you report to them, they’ll feel great… and will likely want to do it again. Seriously!

7. Keep talking about legacy… in the right way

What is the primary reason nonprofits invest in a legacy giving program? Sustainability. Legacy gifts ensure that nonprofits have a reliable stream of income long into the future. They bolster the organization financially, often building endowment and fueling operational expenses so that when disaster strikes you can weather the storm.

Well, we are living through a disaster. Go thank your legacy donors. 

Pick up the phone and call your legacy society members. Write a letter to the family of a donor whose gift has been realized. Get your CEO on Facebook Live and have her speak to the power of legacy gifts and the impact they are making for your organization right now.

Most of the questions we have been fielding have been from the legacy giving community, asking how they can talk about legacy giving when death feels so imminent for many donors. The reality is, if all you have to offer your donors right now is legal documents and conversations about death, you are not taking the right approach — even under the best of circumstances. Your number one priority should be to engage people about the real impact of legacy giving, which is playing out in sharp relief all around us. Take advantage of it and thank the people who have made that commitment to supporting the organization through future crises. 

Here’s what you should be saying…

  • 1,500 animals are being fed right now, because of legacy donors (like you).
  • Kayla and Sophie didn’t go to bed hungry today, because of legacy donors.
  • Our performers, like Tamara and Stephan, are employed right now, because of legacy donors. 
  • We were able to make up for the shortfall in medical supplies, because of legacy donors. 
  • We saved someone’s life today because of legacy donors. 

Your supporters need to answer the ‘why’ before they consider ‘how.’ So tell them and show them why they should consider a legacy gift that benefits your organization or institution first. Then when they take action they’ll be much more likely to include your cause in their plans.

Interestingly, if you use GoogleTrends to conduct an analysis of Google search terms such as “how to make a will” and “making a will,” searches for those terms are at an all-time high right now (March 30, 2020). 

donors are considering planned gifts during the covid-19 pandemic

When faced with significant life events (like the one we are all experiencing right now), estate planning often becomes a priority for many. However, this is not the right time for a terse legacy giving appeal. Instead, it is a time for you to:

  • Report on impact 
  • Thank your donors profusely (especially your legacy society members) 
  • Offer opportunities for your supporters to engage with you and your mission (including taking a survey)
  • You might also offer estate planning information but only for people who are actively considering such a gift 

In Closing… 

I hope you are feeling a bit more optimistic about the future (I know I am!). I have lived through several of these “black swan” events before including the dotcom bubble, 9/11, and the Great Recession. 

And, one thing is for certain: Nonprofits are resilient. You take on some of the world’s toughest challenges every day, and you do it fearlessly. If you are agile, open-minded, and focus on helping the donor be a hero at every turn, you will get through this and you will come back stronger than ever. 

Greg Warner

CEO & Founder

If you still have questions or concerns you can reach me at or 301.289.3670 X174.

Also, you can download the entire series in one, complete white paper here. Plus, on that page, you’ll find a recording of some insights I shared with our wonderful customers along with the slides from that presentation.

Be well.

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