3 Critical Factors Impacting Donor Mindset Today

The only constant is change.


I think we can all agree that this sentiment has never rung more true than it does today. Whether it’s change we plan for or change we don’t plan for, change is the only constant.

The COVID-19 pandemic, corresponding economic impact and the sweeping national reflection on racial inequality have created a once-in-a-lifetime scenario wherein every industry is being impacted in one way or another—and planned giving is no exception.

What I think will be interesting to watch evolve is this adjustment we’re all making to our outreach. Is this a temporary pivot or is this an opportunity for true long-term change?

Only time will tell, but we’re already seeing signs that point to some real, positive change in legacy marketing. I for one am confident that we will all find great new ways of doing business as a result of the pandemic.

Today’s blog provides a brief glimpse into a new presentation I was asked to create by the Chicago Council on Planned Giving for their first-ever Virtual Learning Days entitled “Planned Gift Marketing During & After COVID-19: A Chance to Pivot or Truly Change?”. In building this presentation, I combined recent data and reports from over a dozen different contributors and paired that with Stelter’s 50+ years of experience and learning, that’s come from working with thousands of nonprofits across the country.

If you’d like to see this new talk in its entirety, I’m giving an encore presentation tomorrow, June 18, 2020, at Noon CDT. You can register here to attend the live webinar and/or receive a recording as soon as it’s available. As always, this free presentation will be archived on Stelter’s website here.

What I’d like to focus on today is really the foundation of any successful planned giving marketing, especially during a crisis: Understanding your audience. Let’s dive in.


With the continued uncertainty around our health, our finances and our future, donors are battling a variety of emotions and anxiety—leaving gift planners struggling to find the right messaging for the moment.

Here are 3 things to keep in mind as you engage your donors:

1. Navigating the Unknown

Everyone is being impacted differently and at different times, depending on variables like age, health and location.

When navigating various emotions you and your donors may be experiencing, it can be beneficial to reference the 7 Stages of Grief. Identifying what and why we are feeling the way that we are can sometimes help us work through it.

7 Stages of Grief

In today’s environment, people may be experiencing varying degrees of these stages. It’s important to keep this in mind when working with donors so you can identify and navigate accordingly and empathetically.

2. Need for Connection

The feeling of connectedness is one of the three fundamental needs we have as humans. And, after months of social distancing, there’s no time like the present for connection. People are looking for—and are in need of—ways to connect.

Prof. Jen Shang, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy and the world’s only philanthropic psychologist, recently shared some results from a study on how the pandemic is impacting our wellbeing.

Unsurprisingly, she found that individuals’ wellbeing had significantly worsened during the first six weeks of the pandemic. Specifically, people were feeling less connected. This is where organizations and fundraisers can play (and are already playing) a critical role.

First, it’s key to discern that helping donors feel connected is very different from actually connecting with them. It’s about the feeling opposed to the formality.

She went on to explain that the need for connection is not just a physical need, but more so a need for security and comfort to feel truly connected. To genuinely meet people’s needs to connect, we must first take steps to interact with them. Continue to create two-way conversations that leave your donors feeling heard, understood and cared for.

One simple method that we’ve seen, and experts like Dr. Russell James and Michael Rosen have echoed, is the use of surveys to connect and create two-way dialogues with donors.

Since March, The Stelter Company has been polling nonprofits across the country that have established planned giving programs to learn how the pandemic is affecting their efforts. According to findings from these pulse surveys, we’ve seen an uptick in survey submissions—with response rates up 38% compared to pre-COVID-19 rates.

We aren’t just talking about digital surveys either. For print surveys, we typically see a response window of one to two months. Now that we’re all working, and living, from home, we’ve seen that window increase to four months or more! The takeaway: Donors are looking for ways to connect with you, they simply need the right opportunity.

3. Impact of Uncertainty on Trust

Given varying reports and information available on the impact of COVID-19, people may not know whom or what to trust.

Now more than ever, there’s an opportunity for nonprofits to be there for their donors as their trusted advisor.

Recently, I read an excellent article from LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions Blog by Heidi Andersen around the role of trust in today’s environment. Here are some strategies she suggested:

  • Show up and do your part. Organizationally and individually. After all of this is behind us, people won’t remember what you said, but what you did. How are you and your organization making a positive impact right now?
  • Don’t act alone. “For a time, we should work to set aside the competitive differences inherent to the business arena and explore opportunities to unite for the greater good.” Are there opportunities to collaborate with other nonprofits or businesses to do good in your community? Think outside of the box!
  • Solve problems that need solving. Even if you’re working towards a specific goal (like a certain amount of CGAs or legacy society members), resist the urge to push products (i.e. gift vehicles). Instead, connect on how you are solving today’s problems (e.g., student relief funds) and how planned giving can make a difference.
  • Communicate with emotion. “Combining compassion and facts will be the sweet spot… ‘Now’s the time for leaders, from the CEO is all the way down, to be people-first. This is a humanitarian moment in time.'” As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no one-size-fits-all communication strategy. Avoid trigger words and topics. And above all, show your human side.

I hope this information helps provide some context to how donors are feeling—and perhaps gives a little insight into better understanding your audience’s frame of mind.

To hear more on the role of marketing and the importance of planned giving in a crisis check out my complimentary webinar tomorrow, starting at Noon CDT. I will be covering:

  • The complexity of emotions donors are being faced with and what that means to your marketing
  • The subtle art of adjusting your planned giving messaging during the pandemic and economic downturn
  • Which of these adjustments should inform your outreach and program goals going forward

Can’t make it? We’ve got you covered! Sign up and we’ll send the recording straight to your inbox as soon as they’re available.


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