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Dr. B.J. Bischoff
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Dr. B.J. Bischoff

Communicating with donors during the COVID-19 crisis  

There has never been a better time than during this COVID-19 crisis to build meaningful relationships with your donors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean asking donors to step up their contributions to your organization by sending out an eblast to “Donate Now!” Instead, this is the time to let your donors know you care about them and to empathize with the losses they have endured and the fears they are facing.  First of all, it’s important to communicate with donors to inform them of changes in your business practices and how the leadership team plans to operate in this time of crisis. Even if you aren’t sure about how you’re going to manage during this difficult time, still send out a brief message letting donors know that you are building a strategy and will inform them soon.  Last week, I received a great email from Juan Hernandez, the Executive Director of Sonoma-based La Luz Center. Here’s what the email stated: “The board and staff of La Luz Center are working on a plan to best respond to the COVID-19 virus. In the next few days we will be assessing the rising needs of our community and will be putting together a plan to best meet these needs. In preparation for this plan we have decided to re-launch our Crisis Fund. In the meantime, your thoughts and input are appreciated. We will be finalizing our plan in the upcoming days and will keep you up to date.”  The email hits the mark because of the honesty in declaring that the organization doesn’t currently have the answers, but is working on a plan and will inform constituents when that plan is finalized. It also lets us know that we are invited to provide our input to the organization’s leadership regarding what we think they should do. In addition, the email doesn’t beg us for money as a way to build the organizations coffers during this crisis, but instead, it tells us that they are re-launching the already-established Crisis Fund that supports specific needs of our community members during a crisis. It's also important to let your supporters know that you care about them and that you’re there to lend them comfort during this time of great uncertainty. Don’t forget that many of your donors have lost significant funds in the stock market or are no longer getting paid because the businesses where they work or that they own have had to close. They are sheltering in their homes and concerned about the wellbeing of family members, especially their older parents, and their friends and neighbors.  As a way to provide comfort, Amy Miller, Artistic Director of Sonoma Valley’s Transcendence Theatre Company, stated this in a recent email to constituents, “All of us at Transcendence are sending each and every one of you so very much love, positive healthy vibes, hope, and strength during these uncertain, isolating, and anxiety-filled days.” And the email included a link to one of their past performances, saying “We invite you to watch this performance and we hope it uplifts your spirits.” Nowhere is there a “Click here to donate” button. The email is all about us, not about the organization. It’s refreshing because it’s donor-centered, not organization-centered. If you have a fundraiser scheduled in the near future, it’s best to cancel it. According to Bloomerang, a respected Indianapolis-based donor management software firm, “Push your event to late summer or fall. The worst thing you can do right now is cancel your event and then try to scramble to hold it online. From my experience, these quick-fix solutions often look cheesy and the responses are typically small.”  Since your donors are currently sheltering at home, it might be an ideal time to pick up the phone and call them to see how they’re faring in this difficult time. During those calls, let your most loyal donors know how they can help your organization in ways other than by giving you money. Perhaps they can help you make phone calls to your program participants to inform them of how the organization can help them and how this virus has impacted your programs. Or maybe they can deliver food, gift cards, books, or other items in need by those you serve by simply dropping them off at the recipients’ front doors. Finding ways to continue to connect with donors who already support your mission is an excellent way to retain them as future donors. If you find there is a special need for which your organization needs financial assistance, go ahead and ask for donors to support you for this specific need. But this isn’t the time to ask donors to support your general operations. Many of you may have seen the urgent request from the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation on Facebook or via email to purchase grocery gift cards for low-income families of students enrolled in Sonoma Valley schools, which are now closed. The upside of this communication is that the foundation is requesting support for a very specific, tangible need that is low cost. Even though this may be a financially difficult time for many donors, a small contribution to provide a gift card may be affordable for some.  During this pandemic, nonprofit leaders who find ways that aren’t solely financial to engage with their supporters will find that after this crisis ends, those relationships will be stronger than ever. I’m confident that these strengthened relationships will lead to long term donor loyalty and commitment to their organization’s mission.     
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