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Communicating With Donors During Crisis



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Before doling out advice on what to say to donors during times of crisis, I want to be sure you know the one thing you shouldn’t say . . . NOTHING! Historically, nonprofit organizations who went silent during a catastrophic event fared much worse once the crisis had passed. Unless the core reason your organization exists has been eliminated, your loyal donors are still loyal. While they may need to redistribute their finite charitable dollars, empathy is still in endless supply. People don’t stop caring!

You need to keep communicating with donors and asking for their support. Every donor deserves to be asked! They’ve shown by their past support that they care and will welcome the opportunity to step up when needed.  Donors will only know what you need if you tell them. Don’t wait! Stay in touch.

For your donors, concerns about how your organization will be navigating changes in charitable giving is real and understandable. Now is the time to thank your donors for their loyalty and past support. They’ll want to know how your work is being affected. Ask them to continue to stand with you to carry out a mission they’ve shown is important to them.

So what do you say to donors?

First, don’t abandon the cardinal rules of any donor appeal:

  • Write to one person, not a group.
  • Make it about them, not you.
  • Express your gratitude/thanks at least twice.
  • Share a story that’s relevant and emotional.
  • Have a clear call to action/ask.
  • Make it easy to reply with a donation.

Before you begin writing, think about where you left off in the conversation with your donor. A lot has happened in a very short time. How you pick up the thread of that conversation can serve as a reminder of why you’re connected. For example, if your last correspondence was about your upcoming event, let them know if it’s rescheduled or become a virtual event, so they know how they can still participate. If it’s canceled, acknowledge the disappointment and offer them an alternative way to help. You can always start with a simple reminder of your shared commitment to your organization’s mission and why it’s important to your donor. If your last correspondence was to reach out to make an ask to help you through the onset of the coronavirus, give them an update and let them know how and why they should help your organization NOW.

Even in these unprecedented circumstances, people’s reasons for giving are intrinsic. People don’t give because of a crisis. They donate for the same reasons they do any other time.

One or more of these reasons is why your donor first gave and will give again now:

  • To help someone in need or change someone’s life
  • To not feel powerless in the face of disaster
  • To feel closer to their community
  • To feel important, be a leader, or to belong
  • Giving is an expression of their faith
  • To give back or help those less fortunate
  • To leave a legacy
  • Because someone’s story moved them
  • To honor a loved one

So, write a heartfelt letter to one donor. Just like you would to a friend who has helped you before and whose help you still need. Be grateful. Be honest. Be authentic. You know they care about what your organization does, that hasn’t changed. How that work is being carried out may have changed. Perhaps it’s even on hold for now. But your donor will want to know what steps you’re taking to get back up and running as soon as possible. Let them be the hero of the story for those you serve. Ask for a gift. Tell them exactly how to do it. Make it easy to take action. Photos and personalization can be powerful, use them.

The architecture of your appeal letter can and should vary a little each time. But here are the basics that should be included:

  • An attention-getting lead - often the perfect place for a powerful story
  • Thank your donor for their past giving, loyalty, generosity, etc.
  • Tell them why you’re writing to them now
  • Ask for a gift – if you have a specific need, say so, use specific gift amounts
  • Organization information they will care about, no more than a few relevant statistics
  • Tell the rest of that powerful story or remind them of their role in the happy ending
  • Ask again for a donation
  • Show more gratitude
  • Sincere close that ties the beginning and the end together
  • P.S. with a clear call to action/reminder of why you’re writing to them now.

Before you send that letter or email out, be sure to have fresh eyes proof it. Preferably have someone else read it. Ask the reader how the letter made them feel. Is it clear what action you want to happen, when, and how? As a final check to be sure your letter is donor-centric, simply count the number of times it says “I” or “We” when it could be saying “you”.

While the coronavirus pandemic and the unrest in our country have all of us feeling overwhelmed, your letter can be a ray of hope for your donors. An organization and a cause they care about still need them and want them to continue to be part of something good. Something that they cared about before the world was turned upside down, that they can count on when we come out the other side . . . together!