Donor Communications During COVID: Best Practices from a Year of Virtual Work

by Paul Diaz, Vice President Policy, Public Interest Registry

March marked the one-year anniversary of moving to remote work for many non-profits as we all adjusted to pursuing our missions differently during the COVID-19 pandemic. While vaccines are here, it’s clear that things are still not “business as usual” and may not be for some time. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that we must be agile in order to keep up with a quickly shifting global landscape. 


While the transition to remote work has been a reminder of our essential interconnectedness,  the fact of the matter remains that it is more difficult to connect when you are required to stay distanced. That’s why donor communications has become an even more important area of focus for non-profit leaders. When you can’t gather your board around a table, when your banner events have become virtual, and the closest you can get to your audience is their Zoom room or email inbox, you must find ways to make every reach-out count. 


At PIR, we have been cheering on all .ORGs this year and have been amazed by the incredible ways you’ve continued to do your good works throughout the pandemic. Excitement is slowly starting to build as vaccinations spread around the world, but there’s still a long road ahead. So we’ve assembled these donor communications best practices to help you maintain meaningful engagement with your donors as we continue to practice safe social distancing. 


Team Up: Things change quickly during times of crisis, so it’s important that every team member who interacts with donors stays on the same page. This blog post by Wagisha Jah on DonorBox suggests assembling a COVID-specific task force for this purpose. “It’s also very important to establish a protocol for drafting messages, approving them, and releasing them …” Jah writes. Emily Goodstein, founder and CEO of Greater Good Strategy, a digital marketing firm that serves non-profits, suggests donor communications can be strengthened by “gathering the team more often—virtually, until it’s safe—and institute a fifteen-minute daily catch-up, first thing in the morning.” At these donor strategy meetings, you can strategize on the best way to engage directly with those who matter most. That way everyone is, literally, on the same page. Are donor email campaigns working?  Would more creative methods, such as video or live streaming events, be worthwhile? Would a webinar updating donors on your organization’s recent activities help? These strategy meetings are a great way to brainstorm ideas and reach alignment on the best way to connect with your most important audiences. Speaking of which, are you striking the right tone with your messaging?

Tone Up: The one year anniversary of lockdown is a good benchmark for reviewing donor-facing content—including web copy, welcome emails, automatic replies, and thank you notes— to ensure they are projecting the right tone. Ask yourself whether what you’re saying and how you’re saying it still works with those who help fund your cause. Were you more urgent a year ago? Can you interject more hope now? During the pandemic, many non-profits have successfully walked the line between acknowledging what is happening in a thoughtful way and projecting optimism. According to this article by Giving USA, that is a good plan: “Nonprofit organizations and institutions exist to make life better, and in a time of crisis, they can be a respite from fear and anxiety. Sharing positive images and messages of impact reminds people of the good nonprofits bring to the world, and that they will be there for them when this is over.” 

To reach donors best, you’ll need to cultivate your creativity.  

Up the Ante: Creativity has always been important when it comes to donor communication—this past year all the more so. Creative outreach captures donor imaginations, which may encourage them to choose your “donate” button over another. While some typical in-person donor channels screeched to a halt, many non-profits learned to creatively pivot. Hikes, runs, and walks became virtual, as neighbors got moving for causes in socially-distanced ways, rather than at big gatherings. And some events, such as live auctions and galas that werepreviously held in person, successfully moved online. On Think Tanks, a global platform for the study and support of research organizations and think tanks, created an innovative webinar series to stay in close touch. According to Emily Espinoza Lewis in this piece, “These types of events are rich, offering an opportunity for dialogue with different actors and to nourish our academic approaches.”


We hope these best practices are helpful to you as you reach out to donors in another year of COVID-related challenges—one in which, we hope, the challenges diminish. Thank you to so many .ORGs for teaming up, toning up, and upping the ante to change the world for the better. PIR wishes everyone a continued safe and productive year ahead!

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