4 ways to engage major donors during the COVID-19 crisis

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, it was updated on June 1)

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our lives, and it’s essential for fundraisers to adopt new strategies for engaging key donors and prospective supporters.

Face-to-face interactions—typically viewed as the ideal way to connect—are now inappropriate in most situations. Some nonprofits have banned one-on-one meetings with donors. So for the foreseeable future, social distancing will prevent most fundraisers from meeting with donors in person.

However, it is possible to build meaningful connections with supporters and prospective donors even if you are not in the same place.

To navigate this quickly changing terrain, you’ll need to know your donors better than ever and use that understanding to shape your approach. Here are four ways to get started.

Show you care.

Reach out and see how your donors are faring. These initial interactions may help you continue to build your relationship during what may be a significant disruption in your donor’s life.

For example, the crisis has driven nonprofits to cancel events such as award ceremonies and annual summits. Higher education institutions have canceled or postponed their commencement ceremonies. This moment calls for a bit of well-considered empathy. Imagine yourself as a parent who isn’t able to experience their child’s commencement ceremony. Take the opportunity to maintain a personal connection with the donor by brainstorming other meaningful ways to commemorate the milestone. Then discuss how your organization is responding to the crisis.

Enlist your top executives to communicate with donors.

Donors want to hear a president’s or CEO’s perspective on the crisis, as well as her plans for moving forward amid tremendous uncertainty. But it’s important to consider which channel an executive uses to communicate. For example, email provides a formal assurance that your institution is prepared and following precautions, while social media platforms offer a human touch to reassure people that you are taking immediate action and are responsive to their needs.

Some nonprofits may want to craft a specific message for major donors and prospects to give them more in-depth perspective and ask for their thoughts and reactions. Leaders might also consider holding ad hoc “investor calls” with small groups of donors and friends—mainly to update them on your nonprofit’s response to this challenge and to share additional reassuring messages about long-term goals and excellence.

Highlight your nonprofit’s expertise.

Stay close to your donors and prospects by showing them how their gifts support research and other efforts relevant to the COVID-19 crisis. Nonprofits often employ experts and develop resources that are only possible with donors’ support. Gift officers for a museum might share with donors national media interviews that feature their staff members. Fundraisers at an academic medical center might point supporters to resources on the university’s coronavirus webpage.

Capture the essence of physical events in a virtual format.

Consider holding a conference call or webinar with staff, experts, or others involved in your work to let donors see a presentation about a gift opportunity from the comfort of their home. This may require extra coordination, but the value in keeping the conversation moving is immeasurable. For example, a donor who is disappointed about the cancellation of a brunch with a scholarship recipient may appreciate a phone or video call with the student. That type of gesture can help maintain momentum and show that your nonprofit understands its donors’ values and interests.

Without question, we’re in an unusual public-health crisis. Building and keeping strong connections with our donors by crafting clear, thoughtful plans and increasing individual outreach is crucial.
This crisis will end at some point. When it does, the relationships that stem from it will ultimately pay off.


If you need assistance adopting new strategies to engage key donors and prospective supporters, contact Suzanne directly at shilser-wiles@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…