How to Convert Donors When the Going Gets Tough

Not to keep harping on 2021, but so far it’s not doing itself any favors.

Only a week and a half into January and it’s mostly the same stuff, different year.

Like most of you, I’m determined to press on, no matter the circumstances, because there’s more good in the world than the commotion would have us believe—as people like you demonstrate daily. Together, and with your donors, I’m convinced we’ll continue to make that good grow.

How? By bringing more donors into your nonprofit’s fold through planned giving. You’ve worked hard to curate a prospect pipeline. Don’t dim its potential now or whenever outside forces seemingly make your work more challenging.

In most cases, it’s OK (read: not inappropriate) to discuss planned giving with prospects during difficult times and work to convert, or acquire, new gifts. Here’s why:

  • Prospects actually may be more inclined to make a gift. They see others hurting or a greater need for what they value to live on. Through their gift, they know they’re doing their part to uphold what’s important to them—even after they’re gone.
  • If you’re not relationship building with prospects, others are. It’s not a competition; there’s many different types of prospects to support many different types of nonprofits. The point is this: Don’t forgo an opportunity to build a bond simply because you fear it’s inappropriate to talk about a planned gift. There are ways to move a planned giving conversation ahead that also appropriately reflect any challenging time we’re in and honor the donor journey.
  • Remember, the nonprofits that best weather economic storms plant seeds years in advance. (Case in point, nonprofits that survived the Great Recession planted planned giving “seeds” years prior.) Planned giving is a powerful, long-term solution that can help your nonprofit not only survive but also thrive during these trying times.

Tips to Continue Donor Conversion in Challenging Times

1. First, know your prospects.

Three core elements recommended by Stelter will help assess prospect readiness for a planned gift:

  • Loyalty/affinity—Prospects have 5+ years of giving or volunteering and 15+ gifts over their lifetimes (5+ for higher education or nonprofits with less frequent giving patterns)
  • Age—Prospects who are 60+ are most responsive to planned giving marketing; 50+ to drive broader planned giving education and messaging. Remember, a well of potential exists in the 50+ group, as the youngest baby boomers are now 56. With several years of legacy messaging under their belt, they’re likely to be more receptive and to react positively about making a planned gift.
  • Recency of giving—Prospect’s last gift has been in last 3 to 5 years

2. Develop marketing that moves prospects at the right pace in their donor journey.

It’s tempting to only push content that converts. (Confirmed/realized gifts substantiate the need and excite on-the-fence staff, leadership and board.) Different stages in the donor journey, however, call for different kinds of messaging. Read “Planned Giving Trends to Watch This Year,” for a refresher on these different stages (hint: A=awareness, C=consideration, D=decision).

Create a two-pronged approach for marketing that converts: 1) Educational messaging to build the prospect pipeline and 2) conversion messaging to secure gift intentions.

Look at both educational and conversion messaging as two building blocks that consistently drip awareness, share stories of impact and engage your best prospects, while also providing timely and relevant offers to give the hand-raisers a compelling reason to tell you about their plans.

3. Drive specific behaviors.

This is a key component of conversion marketing. Each conversion campaign should be designed around one specific call to action, or CTA. Effective CTAs must be clear and focused, and reach the right audience at the right stage in their journey.

The Main Point:

Don’t give up on acquisition.

“For every three donors you don’t acquire now, that’s one high-producing core donor you won’t have three years from now,” fundraiser Jeff Brooks said. “Think of it this way: … an organization that’s been cutting acquisition will stay in its own recession for two or even three more years.”


1. Tweak your talking points.

In last week’s blog, “The Future of Planned Giving: 5 Marketing Trends for the New Year,” I shared how we’re seeing a shift in “planned giving” toward “major gifts of assets” and “asset-based philanthropy.” This rephrasing, or evolution of planned giving, allows donors (and your boss and board) to better grasp the opportunity in front of them. In short, they understand the concept better; the phrasing alone makes the process sound more feasible and inclusive.

THINK AHEAD: Shifting donations from disposable income (cash) to wealth (assets) is the single most powerful way to transform a nonprofit. In his recent Stelter webinar series presentation, “Putting Research to Work in Your Planned Giving Program: Getting Leadership Support and Donor Dollars,” Russell James showcased the impact that asset-based philanthropy can have on an organization.

2. Show need; demonstrate solution.

Studies show that nearly 70% of donors are more likely to give when faced with a specific, compelling need. Provide concrete examples of need; paint a picture that prospects can envision.

For example: “Right now, our homeless shelter is at capacity. We don’t plan to see a decrease in the next six months or year. In fact, we’re projecting that in five years our city’s homeless will grow by 10%. Can I share with you how our organization is planning to be ready to meet that increased need—and how you can be part of our future solution?”

TIP: People connect and respond through stories or invoked moods. Use photos and images that tell the story of your nonprofit’s work. Use infographics for quick-hit numbers or charted information.

THINK: Are there takeaways currently captured in long-form copy (e.g., a report) that could lend itself to an eye-catching infographic?

3. Speak from the heart.

No two donor journeys are alike. Each is unique with its own history and set of obstacles and opportunities. Connect and deliver the message like only you can, because that “aha!” moment when the prospect integrates the “how” of a gift with the “why” is what makes donor conversion so powerful.

4. And always do this one thing…

In every donor interaction, no matter the economic or cultural season: Think of your donors as you.

Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like to be walked through your own donor journey? Visualize beforehand how an important donor conversation will play out—how you’ll open it, what you’ll say to move it forward and how you’ll close the meeting with follow-up steps.

TACTIC: Meet donors’ emotional needs. Everyone has three emotional needs: autonomy (having a choice; being in control of one’s actions and behaviors), competence (feelings of mastery; knowing you’re good at what you do) and relatedness (feeling connected to others; a sense of belonging). Create opportunities to fulfill these needs, like surveys, gratitude reports and hybrid events (a mix of virtual and small-person groups), to help donors feel emotionally connected to—and invested in—your nonprofit.

Keep Moving Ahead

Any tips you can share for continuing donor conversations under challenging circumstances? Maybe you’ve used them before. Feel free to share so we can all confidently move ahead.

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