How small shops can steward new donors

At roughly the same time that the pandemic forced much of the country to shut down in March, a number of relatively small shops—including my own at Excela Health, a nonprofit health system that is the sole provider of health care in Westmoreland County, Penn.—had to rapidly mobilize to acquire personal protective equipment and other related items to ensure that our health care workers could effectively combat the novel coronavirus.

At Excela Health, we rapidly moved to seek in-kind gifts from members of the community, such as distilleries to make hand sanitizers, companies to manufacture 3D-printed face shields and surgical gowns, and restaurants to donate bottled water. (You can watch a webinar in which I detailed that pivot here.) At the same time, we created a pandemic response fund that opened the door for cash gifts to the effort.

The concerted effort paid off, as we attracted roughly 600 new donors who gave due to our efforts to alert to our critical mission to keep health care workers safe.

Now that the initial needs have passed and we’re several months into the crisis, development shops are now at the point where we need to find ways to engage those first-time (or lapsed) donors with our institutions. That requires advancement shops to look inward to evaluate the best paths to steward them, cultivate them, and convert into annual cash donors. To help you navigate that process, I’ve detailed the path that Excela took—and that my GG+A colleagues and I are recommending to our clients.

First steps

To be frank, the first few steps are rather obvious. You should begin by adding the new donors to your database, screening them, sending them thank you notes (those may be accompanied by marketing materials), and find other ways to acknowledge them. For example, we recognized those donors in our health system report to the community on COVID-19.

I’ve also found tremendous value from sending them a survey to find out important information such as what got them connected and how they found out about needs, as well as logistical details such as if they thought they received a thank you note fast enough.

Beyond those initial steps, there are a number of questions that institutions need to ask themselves before they develop their plan. Those questions include:

  • Who are these donors? This type of information can help you determine what types of outreach they are most likely to respond to. We’re located in western Pennsylvania where the average age is north of 50. We know that demographic is likely to read our digital health system report. And, to ensure that our donors see it, we printed the report and mailed it to them. A significant number are also on Facebook, which makes it a great channel for engagement with prospects and donors.
  • What drove them to give? If you understand the emotional hook that a donor responded to, you can attempt to recreate that hook (or a related hook) in your follow-up interactions. For example, if they responded to a call to help keep doctors and nurses safe, you can see if that donor is willing to participate in a program (either in person or virtual) featuring a doctor or nurse who can talk about their experience dealing with COVID-19 patients.
  • Where are you/they located? There are significant differences in COVID-19 infection rates throughout the country, as well as state guidelines for gathering in groups. In Western Pennsylvania, we can have groups of 25 gather, if they are socially distanced and wear masks. That’s why we’re examining donors’ comfort with small gatherings in various neighborhoods with our CEO or a physician who can present in a donor’s home or yard for roughly an hour. That type of gathering would enable us to thank donors for their support, while also updating them on what is going on in the hospital right now—with COVID-19 and with all the institution’s other initiatives. For example, we might discuss the major cardiac initiative that we’re in the midst of launching or we might explain how we’re working to keep you safe in the midst of the pandemic. Of course, many areas (and donors) won’t be ready to attend in-person events, virtual events can serve many of the same functions—and may be more comfortable for many.
Virtual events

When I worked at the University of Pittsburgh, my goal was always to get donors on campus where, depending on their interests, they could meet students, the latest equipment, or a leading surgeon. While you can’t do that with COVID-19, you can recreate some of those elements in a virtual meeting.

Once you understand the donor’s interest, you might group them with others who share that interest. For example, at Excela we might show donors one of the 100 new isolation rooms that we built across the hospital when the pandemic hit. While there are many ways to structure such a session (my colleague Jeff Nearhoff discussed several approaches in this article), the proven format that has worked for many clients involves a doctor or nurse talking about the space being shown, along with a discussion of the challenges of dealing with the pandemic.

Depending on your institution, there will likely be a seemingly endless array of ideas for potential virtual events. For example, you might offer a COVID-19 update on what’s going on in the region that includes an opportunity to ask questions, or an exploration of non-COVID-19 issues—such as how to know if you should go to hospital instead of take care of it at home, a discussion of whether it is safe to have non-essential procedures done at this time, or a session on how new family medicine physicians are being trained in world of COVID-19.

For major gift prospects you can replicate the leadership dinner that they would typically be invited to in the hospital, a patron’s home or the CEO’s home. The experience offered prospects and donors an intimate experience where they could engage with organizational leaders. While that type of event is likely off the table for the foreseeable future, you can replicate elements of it by planting the leader in his or her home and holding a video conference call with a background similar to that which the prospects and donors would experience if they went to the executive’s house.

Looking ahead

With so many dynamic variables, the current moment calls for experimentation. The specific tactics are less important than the outreach. As many of my GG+A colleagues have noted throughout the crisis, it is important to continue to engage donors at difficult times.


Would you like help thinking about how to engage donors? You can reach Al, by clicking here.  

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About the author

Albert J. Novak Jr.

Vice President

Albert Novak Jr., Vice President, brings over 40 years of experience in development and advancement offices at higher education institutions. As part of the firm’s Teaching + Coaching practice area, he coaches clients on the core competencies of major gift fundraising and provides both group and individualized feedback to bolster…