For decades, we’ve known that face-to-face meetings were the best way to raise major gifts. Talking directly to people. Taking them on a tour of the project. Being in the same space as the donors.

Meeting face-to-face is so important, most major gift officers’ job performance is measured by how many in-person meetings they have, in addition to how much money they raise.

But face-to-face visits aren’t possible in a pandemic. So what is a fundraiser to do?

Some fundraisers are struggling

Some fundraisers seem to be really floundering. Not only have they lost the tool of face-to-face visits, now they have sorts of “free” time. The “free” time that used to be consumed with planning travel and confirming appointments and actually traveling to places. Now they’re in their home office. Or office office. With lots of time to stress out about not being able to do their job of meeting with their donors.

Is it any wonder that some of these fundraisers have had four months of lurching between long times of inactivity and bursts of trying to get every donor in their portfolio onto a Zoom call?

It’s ultimately about raising funds, not the meetings

As we’ve seen in during the pandemic, some major gift fundraisers are flourishing. These fundraisers have remembered that their work is ultimately about relationships and fundraising, not meetings.

Meetings are one tool for building relationships. But not the only one. And in a time where meeting together could mean risking infection, meetings are not the most reliable tool to use. These fundraisers are using many other tools to build relationships including:

  • calling,
  • writing,
  • emailing,
  • mailing,
  • video chatting,
  • texting.

Successful major gift officers are meeting their fundraising goals the way they always have, by connecting with donors and asking them to invest in a part of the nonprofit’s mission the donors care about.

But we’ve already called everyone multiple times!

At the time of this writing, mid-August 2020, many of the successful major gift officers are saying they’ve talked with their assigned donors more in the last five months than in the previous couple years. The conversations have been amazingly meaningful and donors’ generosity has been astounding.

But now major donor officers are asking, “What’s next? I’ve already called all my donors three and four times. Do I call them again?”

I’ve been telling people to

  1. Call other people – past donors, donors of different amounts, and even people you’ve been meaning to call.
  2. Call program people – now that we’re not traveling, we can use some of that extra time to build relationships with the program people who are making the impact stories.
  3. Set up study groups – we should be taking courses, reading books, and talking to people that help us grow, both as fundraisers, and as people.
  4. Review your strategy – we’re often so busy executing our strategy we don’t take time to review it. Now could be a great time to take a look at our strategy.

I’ve been saying these four things so often, I wondered if I were missing some other obvious things. So, I turned to some experts and asked them how they’d answer the “What do I do with my time now?” question.

Here’s what they said.

What do I do with my extra Major Gift Fundraising time?

Mel and Pearl Shaw are experienced fundraisers and the leaders of Saad & Shaw – Comprehensive Fund Development Services. Their answers were:Mel and Pearl Shaw - Saad & Shaw

Pearl: “Look at how you can grow the pool of prospective major gift donors. Take time to review lists of donors who have given consistently over the years – especially those with an increase in giving or frequency. Give a call or send an email. Structure your call or email around a question. For example, ‘I’m trying to figure out how to proceed with our annual gala. It won’t be ‘in-person’ but I want to find a way to recreate the community aspect of the event. What are your thoughts.’ Or, ‘We’re restructuring program x, and I would appreciate learning your thoughts on how we should proceed.’ One thing I wouldn’t recommend – too many contacts with donors who are not responding. Remember: there’s a lot going on right now. Just because a donor respond to a call doesn’t mean you are not a priority. This may just not be the right time.”

Mel: “Three points:

  1. Have you given your major donors a status update to let them know where you are today? Not an ask, but an update.
  2. Make sure the data you have on your major donors is up to date and correct.
  3. Take time to talk with those who are accessible to learn their priorities.”

Heather R. Hill is an experienced and successful major gift fundraiser. She’s also the Chair of Rogaré, a fundraising think tank. Her thoughts were:Heather R. Hill

“The things that instantly came to mind were:

  1. Write (as in compose handwritten pieces) personal, thoughtful thank you notes. It’s such a basic thing, but one that often gets compromised when things are busy. We’ll still hand sign the letter but use a printed letter…or, worse, a standard letter with just the name and giving details changed. Let the donors know their gifts are valued and how important they are to the mission. Consider including an insert that further underscores that sentiment–maybe a photo of the initiative or program they made possible or, if permitted, a beneficiary whose life they changed.
  2. Call your program staff colleagues. Ask them about their work. Ask them what they get excited about, what gets them up in the morning. Ask them what keeps them up at night. Ask them to share stories. Ask questions about the stories to get better stories. Write the stories down. Establish a story bank, if you don’t already have one. These questions are the questions donors have. They want to know how your mission comes to life through the work. They want to hear about those the mission directly touches. They want to know how their gift makes that happen. To use an analogy from Ghostbusters, you might be the Gatekeeper but your program colleagues are the Keymasters and you need them with you to truly unleash your donors’ passion for your mission.
  3. If you need a third, it’s clean up your room! I mean, clean up your data. 🙂 Are records up to date? Basic demographics current, relationships (internal & external) noted, interests recorded, all recent activity and contacts tracked? Did you note those four phone calls and the handwritten note in their record? If you’ve been procrastinating on spending time in your database/CRM, there’s no better time than now to get to work! If you’ve been on top of it (congratulations and I love you), then use the time to learn from your data and look for patterns. Do certain donors seem to give at specific intervals? Do your major donors have any shared characteristics or behaviors that might help you identify the next wave of donors who may potentially succeed them?”

Marco Corona is also a nationally recognized fundraiser and the Chief Development Officer at One80 Place. Here’s what he’s been doing:Marco Corona - One80 Place

“What I’ve been doing is scheduling a monthly email (not through an email marketing client, but my personal email) that serves as a tiny impact report. Given that it is a personal email, I have the opportunity to empathize with the donor—these are tough times for everyone—and include messaging that lets them know what their donations have been doing in the previous month. In order to get donors to read, I spend time crafting a good subject line, like ‘It was quite month. You’ll want to read this.’ Or ‘You’re not going to believe this update!’

“We also had a great Zoom presentation with a major donor. She said she was used to meeting on Zoom these days and was very appreciative to be presented a report on what her prior donation was able to accomplish.

“During this period, before the giving season and in a pandemic, my team and I are hyper-focused on stewardship. I recommend this approach for others as well.”

Calvin A. Moore is an experienced fundraiser and has been the CEO & President, Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa for the last six years. He recommends:Calvin A. Moore - Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa

Find other ways to connect with your donors. Send a birthday card, a personal note, an email with good wishes, or a washable face mask with your organization’s logo. Tell them you are thinking about them and hope they are well. Clip an article or a mention of your donors in the local newspaper. Laminate it and send it to them. People love to be recognized. Your donors will be more likely to pick up the phone when you call afterward because they know you care about them. Don’t forget, donors are human beings and are feeling the same anxiety, and uncertainty as you are.

What would you suggest major donors do with the time they have?

One thing we’ve seen during this pandemic so far is that donor generosity is astounding. So there is plenty of work for major gift fundraisers.

You’ve seen what we suggest they do with their time. What would you add?

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