Time to Hit the ‘Refresh’ button on Donors?

I learned an important lesson during the current shutdown that I think could be useful for fund-raising in non-profits that are now facing unprecedented revenue shortfalls. Sitting in my home office with more time on my hands and less structure than is usual for me (sound familiar?), I decided, with a bit of trepidation, to reach out to a long-time friend whom I hadn’t contacted in, well, let’s just say a long time. Adding to my discomfort was the fact that she has big responsibilities running her own business, as well as my recollection that our last interaction was an informative email from her.  The ball had been in my court…and I had dropped it. Suddenly, the day’s “to-do” list grew more attractive.

Keeping it Alive

But before rejecting the idea of awkwardly restarting our conversation, I thought, “Why not? Maybe she also has some extra time these days, and a LOT has happened since then! (Besides, she was interested enough to reply before, when she was crazy busy.) Why not let us both catch up?” So I wrote her a brief email, inquiring about the things she had mentioned in her last message, before mentioning a few developments on my end. And—boom!—within an hour or two, a warm, entertaining response arrived in my inbox. More back-and-forth allowed us to catch up and even make “post-reopening” plans for later this year.

Thinking back on the fundraising I’ve done, here’s the lesson that I drew:  there are no “stale” donors, only “stale” relationships.  And those relationships can often be refreshed. I‘ve known early-stage donors who were active in the exciting start-up phase of an organization, but whose interest “mellowed” over time as new donors entered, as the organization matured and stabilized, or as the donor simply moved on to other more compelling causes. Does your organization have donors who were particularly supportive in the creation of new facilities or programs, but have moved on to other interests?

Starting a “Reconnection Campaign”

I am often surprised that organizations I’ve supported in the past, with significant donations of funds and time, seem to have forgotten me entirely. I may have become distracted by new causes, but I haven’t lost interest in their mission. They’ve lost interest in me!

These unprecedented times call for you to reconnect to every donor, no matter the history.  Here are a few steps that may help make for a successful “Reconnection Campaign”:

  1. Build on a template. Make sure the key messages about your current situation and funding priorities are concisely summarized. What do you want? Why is it important now? Don’t sound desperate—no one wants to fund a hopeless effort—but be candid and compelling in describing your needs.
  2. Personalize your appeal. Re-engagement isn’t routine. Take time to mention something specific to your relationship with this donor—how valuable or timely their prior support was, how much the staff appreciated the donor’s engagement –anything that shows that this is not a form-letter appeal.
  3. Use your staff, volunteers, and current donors. Your current circle can provide welcome anecdotes and details that may be unknown to the executive director or senior staff. Perhaps the appeal should be signed by someone who has a more personal relationship with the target donor. (All outgoing appeals should still be reviewed by the ED or staff, of course.)
  4. Go deep.  If you have incomplete donor records for earlier years, look at other records (invitation lists, photos from events) and question your veteran staff and volunteers to identify people to target.
  5. And finally, keep the focus on what is at stake.  These “stale” donors supported you when your organization and your impact were smaller. You have a bigger role to play now, and the Covid Crisis may have put even more of your mission at risk. It’s time to reach out and rekindle those relationships that have fed your success.

I hope these simple actions can help you re-connect with your donors and re-ignite their excitement about you and your mission.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel, HBS Class of 1998.

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