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The 3 C’s of Donor Engagement in the Era of COVID-19

Donor engagement has always been important, and prior to COVID-19, few in the non-profit space were doing it as effectively as they could be.

Just before Valentine’s Day 2020, TNPA launched the #Tell Us What You Love campaign. Driven by a surge in privacy laws (remember those?), ours was a clarion call for non-profits to ask, collect and reflect. To buckle down on improving our relationship-building and enhancing our two-way engagement with donors.

Two weeks later, COVID-19 overturned all the tables.

Three months later, we have more time to engage with donors, but we’re less certain than ever about how to do it. Understandably, some nonprofits have been reluctant to ask donors for much of anything during the pandemic. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been lost. Anecdotally at least, many seem to have found their way to this reasonable formula:

Phase 1 – April 2020

  1. Tell donors we care about them, but don’t ask for a gift
  2. Explain what we’re doing and why our work is still important, but don’t ask for a gift

Phase 2 – May 2020

  1. Repeat #1 and #2
  2. Ask softly for a gift

Phase 3 – June 2020 and beyond

  1. Repeat #1 and #2
  2. Ask more strongly for a gift

Based on conversations with a few organizations, direct mail and digital returns have been performing better than expected. So the formula is working, at least in the short term.

But this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Even as restrictions are lifted in some places, nothing will be the same, and the script has been flipped on us. We no longer have the luxury of asking donors to tell us what they love about us. Donors are now asking non-profits the question:  #Tell Us Why You Matter.

Just as the magical train platform for Harry Potter was #9 ¾, perhaps the journey to better donor engagement in the era of COVID-19 begins not with a direct route to Phase 3, but with a Phase 2 ¾: one that adds a few magical ingredients to the donor engagement mix. We call them the 3 C’s: 

  1. Collect
  2. Curate
  3. Communicate

Collect

Reach out to your donors and ask them to share their stories. They’re still mainly at home and still likely to be flattered by your interest. Collect any data you can about donor preferences in short surveys: During months in lockdown, donors’ preferences might have changed in ways that they (and you) didn’t expect. Select topics for your blogs and articles for your newsletters as if your donors need to learn about you all over again, because they do. And if you don’t yet have one, add a function to capture relevant comments securely online. Open your comment mail and read it. You’d be surprised by how many diamonds you find amid the rough.

Curate

Gather all of your great content in one place and curate your collection. Label each piece to fit the organization and its processes. Your system might look like this:

–Green: Approved for use in all donor communications or only specific ones, such as current donors, monthly donors, mid-level donors, acquisition prospects.
–Yellow: Use only after obtaining permission from specific staff or teams.
–Red:  Use for thinking/background only.

Share a link to your content library so everyone on your fundraising team, including external consultants, can see and work with it. Keep it fresh by periodically cycling content in and out.

A content calendar can help you track what you’ve used and which donor or mission impact it featured, so you can avoid duplication and reduce imbalances.

Communicate

Look at your mail and digital calendar to find openings for additional donor engagement, then put the curated content in front of your donors. You don’t have to include a hard ask or even a soft one, but you do have to add a donate button (or a reply form and RAE). If you have a blog on your website, email each new installment with a personal note. This creates a touchpoint while making it easier for your donors to engage immediately with your content. If you already send an impact update to your donor base, increase the frequency. If you send it monthly, consider making it biweekly. If you send it biweekly, try once a week. If the content is fresh and relevant, it likely won’t hurt and it could help donors engage with you in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Since the February launch of the #Tell Us What You Love urging non-profits to ask, collect and reflect first party donor data, the world has changed. But the benefits of engaging with your donors are more valuable than ever. When you use the 3C’s to answer the question of #Tell Us Why You Matter, you will:

  • Build trust with your donors and stakeholders
  • Improve communication with your donors
  • Create brand evangelists
  • Increase commitment and retention

What’s not to love? Whether you agree or disagree, please tell us your thoughts in the comments below, or email us today at membership-at-tnpa.org.

Amy English has spent 20+ years in Direct Response Marketing, working alongside some of the most influential non-profit organizations in the country and is the Regular Giving Manager at the INTERNATIONAL FUND FOR ANIMAL WELFARE (ifaw), where she manages the cultivation strategy for the organization’s sustaining donor file.

Lisa Selner creates donor- and data-driven copy for direct mail and digital fundraising. During a 30-year career that spans agency, freelance and client-side roles, she’s helped develop the creative strategies behind some of the nation’s most successful non-profit direct response programs. Her partners and clients include voluntary health associations and hospitals as well as environmental/wildlife, veterans and animal welfare organizations.

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