How to Talk to Donors During the COVID-19 Crisis

stewardship ideas with lynne

We hosted a special edition RAISE podcast and live Q&A with Lynne Wester, the Donor Relations Guru, on how to engage donors during the coronavirus pandemic.

We tried to highlight the most important themes from her discussion with our CEO Brent Grinna below. But you should really watch the full webinar for more — they answered dozens of questions on all kinds of topics and it was an hour of pure advancement gold.

Don’t sit on your hands

Brent kicked off the session with a call to meaningful action.

“We feel strongly that you shouldn’t sit on your hands and wait for someone to create a plan,” he said. “The number one thing we all need to do right now is take care of our existing donors.

“Stewardship and donor relations needs to be forefront,” said Lynne, reflecting back to the 2008 financial crisis. “After the 2008 crash, advancement shops that invested in donor relations professionals were up 19% in total fundraising, while those who invested only in frontline fundraisers were down 9%. You can’t just ask. You have to nurture relationships, check in with donors, ask about health and well-being… We have to turn into what fundraising really is: a relationship business, not a transactional one.”

Yes, there’s anxiety, uncertainty and the entire world is reeling. We’re all reconfiguring plans. But the worst thing advancement can do now is nothing. Connecting with alumni and donors now is perhaps more important than ever. And with tools like email, video chat, and social media at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever to connect with donors one-on-one or one-to-many in authentic ways.

Get virtual events going

Two-thirds of advancement teams on the call had yet to plan a single virtual event. Less than 2% said they’ve created more than five events.

“We have to have a plan and we need to start taking action to put together these events, while also making sure our people are ready to hear from their school or university,” said Lynne.

And when you start bringing alumni together, Lynne said, it can’t just be because they’re all graduates from your institution. It has to be “alumni and” — for example, an event for people who are alumni AND interested in homeschooling kids, alumni AND missing sports, alumni AND interested in starting a business. Every event should serve a need.

This crisis is an opportunity to test digital events. Brent suggested starting small and using virtual events to strengthen relationships with your prospective donors. “What if school leadership hosted a live Q&A and shared what the university was doing to keep students safe during this crisis? Start with a small group of your most-involved alumni or donors and broaden it from there,” he said.

Make every communication personal

Both emphasized the need for personal communication. They encouraged school presidents sharing updates to do so via video and be willing to be real and go off-script. Everyone’s been inundated with COVID-19-related emails, so your organization has to stand out as authentic, personal, and helpful.

It’s the same for advancement. Gift officers should take advantage of using video (Thankview is a great resource) to reach out to prospects and share institutional updates — but also fun snippets from their home office as a way to be real with donors.

“Stay highly active, interact with every person in your portfolio, and do it using the Golden Rule — treat others the way you want to be treated,” said Brent.

“We have to embrace video and direct communication more than ever,” Lynne said. “What I’m not seeing from universities is the face-to-face communication. No text-only email can replace the chancellor, president, or gift officer’s voice and face. I don’t care if you record a video and text it, but by all means go and use video.”

Do your research before reaching out. Lynne cited a statistic saying 1 in 5 households has a person who’s unemployed due to COVID-19 — it’s a rough time for small business owners, restaurants, and bartenders. (Though business is up for delivery apps and video conferencing.) Check social media and career history before contacting a prospect to try and understand what they might be going through. When you get them on a call or video chat, listen to what they’re going through and just be present.

“Think about the people who need extra love. Planned giving donors, long-loyal donors — we have a lot of people who could use a video. Ask about their well-being,” said Lynne. “Connect with parents who are now living with their student and ask about their food supplies. Ask each other if we’re alright and offer resources.”

Thank twice, ask once

Deliver instant impact if you’re going to ask for a gift. Show how the money is used.

Brent said that this is an opportunity for higher ed to show instant impact when sharing student relief funds. Lynne cautioned saying that if we’re going to do that, we have to also demonstrate that the gift is meeting real, immediate needs — something higher ed has historically struggled to do.

So when fundraising resumes, it’s more important than ever to share the results of the gift — in real-time as much as possible.

Both Lynne and Brent talked about the need to see students represented in appeals for student support. Most institutions have put out student relief funds, but there are very few student stories that are part of those appeals. That has to change.

Colleges should also share how they’re supporting the staffers who are no longer working or have reduced hours. Those workers are part of the community and as brands like Patagonia and REI close stores and continue to pay employees, organizations also need to share how they’re supporting their staff and student employees.

This could also be a good opportunity to ask for monthly recurring support instead of one-time gifts — both due to need, but also to give the donor flexibility to give a gift in increments.

Whatever you do, Lynne closed with a great piece of advice: “Thank twice before asking once.”

Be flexible

Things are changing every day. Now that we’re all working remotely and embracing digital, we’re trying to figure out what works in the new normal.

It’s a tough time — but it’s also a tremendous opportunity for innovation.

Use funds budgeted for suspended events or mailings to test new technology: build video kits for fundraisers, invest in a platform like EverTrue to understand how alumni are engaging with you, or try a text messaging platform.

“Now is not the time to decide things by committee. It’s time for ‘gumption’ — one of my favorite words. We have to be a little bit braver.” Lynne said. “There are two kinds of people: people either shut down or take action. Now is a time to take action. Be a helper and don’t be paryalyzed by inaction. Do anything you can do right now to help your donors.”

Watch the full recording here and sign up to receive notifications of future live Q&As.


Here’s EverTrue’s take on the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact on advancement: We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to learn from each other and share best practices for remote fundraising, working from home, managing fundraisers remotely, and handling uncertainty. Bookmark this page and subscribe for ongoing updates.


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