3 Tips on How to Engage Donors When Face-to-Face Isn’t Possible

Face-to-face donor meetings are on an indefinite hold.

This means major and planned gift officers across the country are finding themselves indefinitely grounded from the thing they love to do most: visiting one-on-one (in-person) with donors. 

Even after we’re all allowed to go back to our “normal” lives, it’s highly unlikely that a donor (specifically older donors) will be inviting anyone into their living rooms or kitchens any time soon. 

So what does that mean for gift officers? If you were able to attend our webinar on the CARES Act and marketing during Covid-19, you’ll know that my word of the year for 2020 is pivot. (You know, like that iconic “Friends” episode.)


Before sharing my three tips on donor engagement from afar, it’s important to understand and be aware of all the communication your donors have been seeing from you and your nonprofit. Given the fluidity of this situation, there’s been a flurry of activity and content coming from your individual organizations. Here are a few of the communication phases we’re seeing people in right now:

PHASE #1 – “Here’s what we’re doing to ensure the work we do will continue. Your donations are furthering the mission you care about.”

PHASE #2 – “We’re here for you and thinking about you. Please let us know how we can help.”

PHASE #3 – Now what?!

The “Now what?!” phase is where a lot of fundraisers may be finding themselves stuck right now.

So where do you go from here, to continue to engage your portfolio, extend your donor discovery or even identify new individuals for cultivation?

1. Stewardship, Stewardship, Stewardship

Stewardship is at the core of planned giving, yet we all know we don’t get to do enough of it… Now’s your time!

You’ve probably already personally called your Legacy Society members, or perhaps emailed them or sent them a card. You’ve also likely worked your way through your individual portfolio; if not once, maybe twice. Now what?

This is our chance to be creative. It’s important to note that stewardship during trying times looks different than stewardship during good times. This isn’t about the events you hold to honor planned giving donors, or even recognition. It’s about the chance to truly stewardship relationships and show your humanity.

Some ways to steward your donors from afar:

  • Engage known planned gift donors—Make personal calls and send notes or even videos. Check out the video we made for our clients—that they loved! (Tools like www.thankview.com or www.loom.com, can help make your video creation process easier.) 
  • Become part of their new day-to-day life at home—Try virtual coffee breaks or meetings.
  • Setup virtual “town halls” with key administrators—Keep loyal, long-time donors in the know about how your organization is holding up.
  • Send out content from archives—We’ve seen this work well for theatre organizations, but it can apply to other verticals as well.
  • Be a resource and offer assistance—Provide resources that can help them, when they’re ready, with any planning questions.
  • Put them at ease—Send personal letters to CGA annuitants reminding them that the current market turbulence will not impact their payments. 
  • Share stories of the great work your organization has done—When appropriate, highlight examples of the investment donors, like them, have made in the past that are paying off now.

Above all, now is not the time to be silent. Your donors are expecting and waiting to hear from you.

Stelter has been polling nonprofits across the country with established planned giving programs to learn how the pandemic is affecting their efforts. Here’s some first-hand feedback from one of our clients on their stewardship efforts:

I’ve been calling donors and prospects to see how they’re doing, leaving messages and sending follow-up emails (where appropriate). People are very appreciative. AN UNANTICIPATED POSITIVE OUTCOME is that this has given us an opportunity to have discussions with prospects in a “non-threatening” (non-solicitation format) and that’s allowed us to build on these relationships for the future.

For more fundraising trends, takeaways and ideas, download our first Planned Giving Pulse Survey and Planned Giving Pulse Survey #2. Searching for even more info on stewarding donors right now? Check out this blog.

2. Make Your Outreach Personal

The framing of your messages and appropriate context continues to be critical. Messages commonly used a month ago may appear tone-deaf today, for example, “Plan for the Future,” “Importance of an Updated Will,” etc. (Find more words to avoid here.)

Context is important, and varies by vertical, and acknowledging the current environment is expected—but don’t dwell! Acknowledgment and empathy go a long way. Be mindful of how your messages are framed but remember your No. 1 priority: Making it about them.

Life has slowed way down for many people, allowing us the opportunity to really connect. Try these content best practices when communicating with your donors:

  • Act with cautious confidence—Be authentic and ask questions.
  • Simplify your message during this time—Messaging needs to be narrow, succinct and focused.
  • Provide value—Serve as a resource, provide tools others have found helpful and use social proof.
  • Be transparent— It’s time to be honest. Consider using transparent messaging like, “As of today, we’re down 20% year over year,” or “Due to the closure of XYZ Program, we estimate 50% of people won’t be served and/or we anticipate a $50k in lost revenue.”

3. Extend Typical One-on-One Discovery Through Surveys

As I’ve mentioned before, I truly think there are going to be some good things that will come out of all this (outside of the copious amounts of family time). 

We are all going to be—and many already are—looking for new ways to connect with our family, friends and donors. Going forward, how can we facilitate donor conversations and cultivate these relationships? This is where we’ve already seen the idea of surveying donors play a huge role.  

Even after restrictions are lifted, it’s understandable that older donors won’t be accepting many visitors in their homes anytime soon. This means that face-to-face meetings are obsolete for the foreseeable future.

While Zoom calls have become the norm in the business-to-business world (I’ve lost count of how many video calls I’ve had the past month), this is only part of the equation, as this technology may not be a viable option for some donors. So what does this mean for your discovery process?

A survey might just be that non-physically invasive solution to replace those discussions that can’t happen now.

Recently, Stelter has seen a definite uptick in survey responses, in both print and digital. In fact, during these initial four weeks of the crisis, we’ve seen new life in responses to survey programs deployed in early 2020—that we previously thought were complete—especially in the print channel.

Part of this success, as we’ve long said, is because surveys should be written as an extension of your one-on-one discovery. So it’s not surprising that at a time when gift officers can’t be in the same room with their donors, surveys are the solution to continuing your discovery process.

At the end of the day, not only do we have fewer distractions, as travel and activities have come to a halt, but so do our donors. “Time” seems to be the one constant in our current ever-changing lives. Donors are finding themselves with more time available to complete surveys, and it’s providing them a mechanism to express themselves to you which is even more important in unsettling times.

DON’T FORGET: Surveys are not just effective for planned giving officers’ discovery, as your major gift and principal gift officers are undoubtedly looking for ways to engage with people, too!

Interested in creative ways to use surveys during this uncertain time? Interested in learning more about surveys? Find out How to Make Your Donor Surveys More Successful.

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