How Our Nonprofit Managed Donor Outreach During a Virtual Year-End

As the season of thanks and giving approaches quickly, fundraising thoughts turn to stewardship and that final push to the year-end goal. Many of us have gone back to the post-lockdown office in recent months, and it can feel like there is so much to do and not enough hours to do it. We risk pandemic burnout – it’s a thing! – and yet we press on because that December 31 deadline looms large. Is there one thing we could do differently or better to engage our donors without overtaxing our departments or ourselves?

This piece by Paul Ross, published by AFP, offers a look at how the pandemic has changed our sense of community. One point encapsulates what we know is the key to solid fundraising relationships: more than ever, people are interested in deepening relationships and personal touches. I can hear you all now saying, “that’s not new or different,” and what I have discovered is that “deepening relationships” and “personal touches” now must go beyond a mail-merged letter and a phone-a-thon call.

How Our Nonprofit Managed Donor Outreach During a Virtual Year-End

As we all interact more and more with electronic devices as our sources of news, entertainment, and personal connection, their influence upon our interpersonal relationships grows and becomes the norm. It’s everywhere, from the classroom to one-click shopping to bedtime social media “surfing.” Charitable giving has also embraced technology, and it’s now possible to reach donors – and have donors find you – with a sweeping email or clever social media post. What can we do quickly and efficiently to make our organizations stand out in this virtual cacophony?

Navigating Virtual Engagement with Donor Outreach

We’ve all seen reports that underscore such virtual engagement spurs unhealthy mental health habits. Practical wisdom tells us that such contact, located solely in the digital space, is less authentic than “old-school” outreach. Our organizations can put a fine point on this by embracing one old-school, tried and true, easy and inexpensive technique: the handwritten note. At one organization I volunteered for, we sectioned current and LYBUNT donors (“last year but not this year”) into manageable segments and then committed to handwriting a note to those folks. The notes were on foldover cards (so they were not lengthy) and essentially thanked and reminded the addressee of their prior gift (either “last year” or “in recent years”) and asked them to consider renewing their pledge or gift for the coming year. The note also said, “I would love to call you to discuss all the wonderful things going on around here on [day/time], and I hope you’ll be willing to pick up the phone!” The note was then put in a hand-addressed envelope.

Our organization utilized our bench of volunteers, who had not been a part of active donor stewardship work before. An invitation was sent to dedicated volunteers, asking them to join us in the board room for a light dinner before assisting us with a stewardship activity. Each volunteer wrote notes to a short list of names (no more than 6-8, although more were available if anyone wanted more). They were then asked to write a note in their own voice (rather than a script) and incorporate their personal style. These same volunteers were asked to take home the addressees’ telephone information so that the volunteers could make the calls mentioned in the notes. We provided a short script for that follow-up call (and since the call was “scheduled,” many of the addresses did answer!). Although jokes were made around the board table about handwriting and the old-school approach, volunteers were pleased to be engaged in meaningful work.

Our Year-End Results

This effort yielded significant results in a relatively short period, and our organization kept it up intermittently during the annual giving campaign. In one month alone, one batch of letters resulted in $10,000 worth of gifts! The ease of this project – simple, short notes – combined with the flexibility of scale means that any size organization can do it. Not many volunteers? Segment your list into groups by prior gift amounts and write notes to the larger donors. Lots of willing help? Segment the list into streets or neighborhoods or some other data point, and find a writer who also fits that category. There’s no wrong way to break down these tasks.

This seemingly unsophisticated project offered us many great wins. Our organization stood out among other similar groups in a very distinct way – our addressees told us this. Our volunteers had personal interactions with prospects and became committed and empowered ambassadors for us. Donors who had previously supported us but who had dropped off were brought back into the tent in time to be beneficiaries of our organization’s year-end season of gratitude. Paid staff were energized with a renewed sense of purpose and success, and the exceptional returns banished any burnout. As you look ahead to 2022, what other meaningful yet straightforward personal touches can you offer both your volunteers, your staff, and your donors to deepen their relationships with your organization?

By Alyson Landers

Alyson has held many positions around the nonprofit boardroom table and enjoys work that allows her to synthesize best practices into components customized for a particular organization. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Published: November 15, 2021

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