How to Get Real With Donors in This Virtual Age

We’re people people.

Many of us, I suspect, thrive off the energy of others, finding our umph in the little moments with donors that lead to big change. One-on-one coffees, lunches, phone calls, facility tours or meeting scholarship recipients for the first time. It affects us and urges us on in our work.

Now, however, there’s a barrier to that connection. Much like the plastic see-through “walls” at store checkouts these days, virtual interactions with donors and prospects have added a new, sometimes foreign layer to the process. We’ve quickly adapted, but it’s still odd, uncomfortable.

Can we see past it? Absolutely.

We’re already an adaptable lot, well-suited to having to quickly think outside the box, adjusting to new conditions on the turn of a dime. We can do this.


First, put yourself in their shoes. The Golden Rule of donor outreach. Think through why you’re reaching out, how you’ll say it (the tone, the words) and the impression you want to leave. Make what you say meaningful, to the point and, if the news warrants it, a cheerful break from donors’ days.

Developing personas helps you become more donor-centric and “talk” to donors in formats where they are most comfortable.

TIP: See a donor you’ve interacted with in your head as you write, edit or speak. Imagine yourself talking to them. What topics and takeaways would resonate, especially now?

Make it easy for them to connect with you. You don’t always have to think big, as in big Zoom meetings. Baby boomers (’46–’64) prefer Facebook or Pinterest, for example, while Generation X (’65­–’80) gravitates toward video, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter*. Connect with them where they already are.

Pay attention to their lifestyle too. Is your donor a late riser? Best to wait until after lunch to call him. When you’re on the phone, refrain from sounding impatient to end any call.

Consider pausing your outcomes or annual financial goals. Hard to do, we totally understand. But this is the time to throw out the script and try to connect human to human. Don’t worry about the answers you were hoping to get; focus on donors’ needs and how they are feeling.

Everything we do right now—from sending emails to making calls to sending texts—is more important than ever. How we make people feel now is going to linger longer than these turbulent times.

—J. Kelly Hoey, networking expert and consultant

Reach out in small bites. A lot’s going on in the world. So don’t unload the truck on your donors. Pick one or two programs, achievements, videos or bits of good news and showcase only those in one virtual outreach.

Getting personal is OK too. Outreach doesn’t have to be limited to “work.” If you and a donor share an interest or hobby, find a way to connect through that by sharing an article, podcast or social media event, for example. A just-thinking-of-you note to accompany the gesture shows where your heart is and helps build a bond.


Likely you have prospects in varying stages of making a gift. Key to your success, whatever the case: Keep connecting with them. Research shows that donors’ decisions are nearly 60% complete before ever reaching out, or connecting, with you. You’re not serving your nonprofit if you put prospects on pause.

Virtual outreach may even work to your advantage right now. (More ideas for connecting with donors right now can be found in our Short-Term Guide for Marketing Planned Giving: A Plan for the Next 90 Days.) Who doesn’t want to connect for important causes these days?

Send updates—and show demonstrable success—about how your nonprofit’s responding to recent events. If your food pantry or community center held a successful community food drive, for example, tell prospects via video with stats on how many people you can now feed in the community. College and universities can share “coming-together” stories or other notable student/administration success.

Keep talking about their future (gifts). In light of the pandemic, people are thinking about the future and getting their estates in order—and what they want their legacy to be. Maximize that momentum by sharing information about the easiest types of planned gifts to make: bequests (adding a line in your will is all it takes!) or beneficiary designations to life insurance or IRAs.

Be direct. But ask prospect’s permission to make the ask. “Would you like to know what’s going on at our organization?” or “Would it be alright if we talked about how our organization is preparing for future needs?” Key: Bring the conversation around to how the organization is proactively changing to meet current and future needs.

Get a donor-to-donor conversation going. An existing donor can be your best spokesperson for a planned gift. (Choose spokespeople wisely.) While they can’t offer financial advice, they can share their positive personal experience in the gift-making process.

Set up a three-way video or phone call. Then, plan your agenda for the call, review it with the existing donor and share possible questions the prospect may ask, so the donor can prep. It’s also wise to practice getting online with the donor ahead of time if he or she isn’t familiar with the process.

In search of more? Here are 3 Tips on How to Engage Donors When Face-to-Face Isn’t Possible.

Let’s keep connecting: Any virtual outreach tips or stories you can share? How will virtual and face-to-face work together in the future?

* Sumac article, March 25, 2020.

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