One thing has become clear during these trying times is that donors want to help. Planned gifts most often come from loyal donors—not necessarily big donors. That means your most important task is to pay attention to donors in a way that inspires and justifies their loyalty.
If anyone tries to tell you that we’ve been through this before, don’t believe them. That is, don’t believe that the crises all of us are facing these days are the same as those we’ve weathered in the past. The present layers of stress and uncertainty are almost too many to count, from the pandemic and the deeply damaging recession we are enduring, to the historic struggle against racism and the political turmoil we are experiencing, to the impacts of climate change we are witnessing—the hurricanes and wildfires each more savage than the last. Trying times, to say the least.
The good news for those of us in the nonprofit world is that our donors want to help. They want to support the organizations they’ve always believed in, and they want to fund those that are successfully meeting pressing needs. This includes many donors who may be promising candidates to make planned gifts.
In fact, there are certain aspects of the present moment that favor planned giving. Having seen that unexpected crises can suddenly pose an existential threat to the organizations they care about, more donors are now open to the idea of supporting an endowment or another gift that is clearly focused on your organization’s long-term sustainability.
This then, can be a time of opportunity. As someone with a perspective spanning four decades in fundraising, I believe the key to seizing that opportunity lies in effective stewardship. It’s all about making sure you don’t lose donors during this time of crisis and ensuring that you are doing everything you can to actually strengthen your level of connection and engagement.
As I am fond of reminding my colleagues, donors are like grandparents: They want to know how you are doing. They want to know you care. And the worst thing you can do is have them feeling left out. An intentional, sustained program of stewardship is your way of responding to these feelings.
Remember, planned gifts most often come from loyal donors—not necessarily big donors. That means your most important task is to pay attention to donors in a way that inspires and justifies their loyalty.
So how do you put your commitment to stewardship into action? I have three pieces of advice to share.
1. Make your plan for donor engagement; and follow it — Any priority as important as stewardship is at this moment deserves careful forethought. Start by focusing on your donor records. Make sure your data is good, and take the time to do your homework, reviewing your prospect pool thoroughly. The more you know about the individuals you are seeking to cultivate, the more personal and individualized your approach can be. You should also look to identify donors who are new to your organization who have stepped forward in response to the crisis. Remember, we are looking to acquire donors not gifts. While the donor’s motivation for giving may have been transactional, an effective stewardship effort can create a strong planned giving prospect.
Next, think about your points of contact. How many can you manage and how can you focus your limited time most productively? My advice here is that it’s generally smarter to choose depth over reach—in other words, plan for more frequent and meaningful contacts with a smaller number of high-priority prospects than trying to engage with everyone. Remember that to be effective, your stewardship will need to be sustained, and biting off too large a prospect audience makes it less likely that it can be.
2. Revisit and refine your messaging — Your organization’s message to donors must always begin with your mission and the reasons it matters. However, some of those reasons may be different today than they were a year ago. It’s important to explain how, connecting your mission to this moment. It’s also important to share updates on how you’re doing, to explain how the crisis may have changed your organization, and to communicate the solutions you are putting in action.
As you do so, I would encourage you, more than ever before, to adopt an attitude of transparency. This is no time for spin (if there ever was one). It is a time for honest and open concern and sharing. The starting point for our connection with donors is very basic; it comes from the fact that in these recent months, we have all found ourselves newly vulnerable and are eager for any chance to help and support each other.
3. Choose multiple channels of communication — To get and keep donors’ attention and nurture a meaningful conversation with them over time, you can’t rely on any one form of contact. In fact, you need to do exactly the opposite, tapping the full range of outreach channels available, from mass mail and email to hand-written notes, personal calls, and Zooms. There is no single medium that is right for this moment; instead, you should look to combine tried and true old-school methods with the newest ideas out there. As part of the mix, I strongly suggest exploring video. In these days since in-person encounters have grown so difficult and rare, simple, sincere video messages, even recorded on smart phones, have shown their power to connect with people.
One last key point: your stewardship communications need to be two-way. Donors not only need to hear from you, but to know that you are hearing them.
In closing, I’d like to share one piece of advice that transcends the tactical steps I have recommended. It is to remember the essential importance of hope. Donors may love your organization and believe in your cause. However, they won’t give in a significant way until you’ve made them feel secure about the future. This, of course, is even more true when it comes to planned gifts than other forms of support. Planned gifts are the ultimate long-term investment.
This means that in our stewardship, we need to work intentionally to envision better days to come. We need to think about the part our organizations can play in getting there. We need to focus on positive outcomes.
I don’t often find myself quoting Napoleon, but on this point he was correct. “A leader,” he said, “is a dealer in hope.” Right now, we need to pitch in to lead the great nonprofits that we all count on back to a point of strength and stability, and planned giving will be essential to our success.