A 2-part series on virtual donor engagement in times of Covid-19

By Tanja Sarett

In this second of a two-part series (Click here for Part 1) on generation zoom and virtual donor engagement during COVID-19, fundraising professionals and organizational leaders are invited to explore innovative online cultivation opportunities for donors and funders.

It is an invitation to shift from traditional online programs to interactive and engaging virtual donor cultivation experiences that put the donors into the center of the online experience. By embracing innovative ways of being with donors and funders in the virtual environment, we will expand the donor cultivation and engagement toolbox and the opportunities for your organization.

Opportunity 1 Create Donor Communities: Jewish life is all about community, about bringing people together. This core value must guide our work as fundraisers during COVID as well. Fundraisers need to build online communities with individuals and funders who help support change, innovation, and invest in Jewish life in North America, Israel, and the global Jewish community. A community of donors is essential because donors want to feel part of something larger than themselves. They want to belong. Virtual donor cultivation experiences that are engaging and interactive have a unique ability to create a community online. They get people to socialize and connect while social-distancing.

Opportunity 2 Build Donor Relationships & Partnerships: The core of our work as fundraisers is to cultivate relationships and mutual partnerships with donors and prospects. Individual outreach to donors remains critical and helps establish a meaningful bond between donors, fundraisers, and organizational leaders. As Penelope Burke, known for her extensive research on donor-centered fundraising, said: “Donors appreciate the opportunity to meet the people who run the organization – Board, administrative staff and those who make the programs and services possible.” At the same time, donors want to meet their peers, get inspired and validated about their involvement through people they respect and want to be associated with. “Donors also look forward to meeting other donors who support the same cause, especially those they didn’t know before,” states Penelope Burke in “Donor-Centered Fundraising.” Virtual donor cultivation experiences are a perfect vehicle to deepen and expand those relationships and create personal moments online.

Opportunity 3 Increase Donor Loyalty and Affiliation: Thanks to nonprofit world’s diversity and size, many donors and prospects are affiliated and involved with several causes and organizations. They are more devoted to some, less loyal to others in a fluid and ever-evolving way. Times of crisis and uncertainty often impact how donors feel about an organization. They inform future giving decisions as donors question: “Where was the organization during the Covid-19 pandemic?” It is the “loyalty test.” Fundraisers and organizational leaders have a unique opportunity to increase donor affiliation by engaging donors through virtual cultivation experiences. And there is an urgency: organizations cannot wait and hold off until life returns to normal.

Opportunity 4 Recognize & Value Donors: Directly tied to creating donor communities, building donor relationships and partnerships, and increasing donor loyalty and affiliation, is the heart of donor stewardship: donor recognition. It relates to how we, as fund recipients, acknowledge donations and thank donors. It is about valuing every donor and creating individual stewardship moments. In fact, it is pretty basic when it comes to the online space: acknowledge every donor’s presence, put them into the center of the experience, see your donors and let them see others who have joined. Make it as personable as possible before, during, and after the virtual donor cultivation experience. As fundraisers and organizational leaders, we want donors to log off Zoom and say: “That was great, “I am so glad I joined; it was important to be there!” Virtual donor cultivation experiences humanize the online environment and make the experience unique and personable.

Opportunity 5 Expand Reach: The rapid move online during COVID-19 made our world smaller. We overcame geographic boundaries and time zones that usually define how we can engage and meet donors and funders. Jewish organizations quickly noticed that their online programs started to attract new prospects and donors, many of whom have not been participating in in-person events in the past. Online programs sparked the interest of busy and non-event loving donors. Among the many reasons are that webinars have been easy to attend, scheduled conveniently, have been short, and provided value with a focused and exciting program. If you can meet and mingle online with donors who are not your frequent cultivation event participants, this is an excellent opportunity for your organization. Take advantage of this moment in time and design virtual experiences that put those donors front and center. And keep in mind that the personal follow-up is critical here as well. Before the event, develop an immediate follow-up-strategy involving your key lay leaders and staff.

Opportunity 6 Engage Donors in Meaningful Conversations: “Deeper conversation builds trust, the oxygen of society, exactly what we’re missing right now”, said NY Time columnist David Brooks. These conversations are powerful in times of uncertainty and social distancing. People long for moments of genuine dialogue and personal encounters. Virtual experiences charter a new course. They help facilitate meaningful and respectful conversations and build community in the process. Virtual donor experiences, well-promoted and thoughtfully designed, are a perfect venue to convene talks relevant to your mission, help bring people together around issues, and allow for deep listening and reflection. They constitute a meaningful way to get to know your most supportive friends and invite them to co-initiate the future.

Five Steps To Get Started

Remember, virtual donor cultivation events are relatively easy to do. Follow a few steps to get started and launch your first online experience.

Step 1 SayYes to virtual donor cultivation experiences:

Create a virtual donor cultivation event calendar for the first half of 2021; define your audiences and goals. Make it a fundraising priority for 2021. Then dive in, learn, plan, and pilot your first online event.

Step 2 Assemble your pilot and cheerleader team:

Every new program needs a team to plan and launch it. It requires a group of cheerleaders who will enjoy a first test drive and share the excitement with their friends and donors. Traditional in-person events receive a boost through committed lay leaders; the same is true for the online space.

Step 3 Boost your online facilitation skills:

Embrace Zoom to the fullest and boost your facilitation skills to bring engaging and meaningful techniques into the virtual space. Keep in mind, the virtual space comes with its own set of rules. See and learn what works and what does not. Tap into the wisdom of, and learnings from, the facilitation and innovation field, invest in your professional development, and get inspired along the way.

Step 4Explore and integrate online tools:

A wealth of online tools and platforms can support your Zoom experience. Adapt education tools and game-based learning platforms for your virtual donor cultivation events. These include Kahoot or Gimkit or bring in presentation and polling sites such as Mentimeter.

Step 5 Be curious, fail forward, and plan well:

Enjoy the learning curve and the discovery of new ways to engage with your donors. Use your creativity and curiosity and go for it. Yes, fail forward but plan well and be very thoughtful about the kind of experience you would like to create.

I conclude this two-part series here with my invitation to reimagine the virtual space. Never forget what brought you to the Jewish community and the people who make it thrive every day. Embrace the opportunities online to get to know, meet, and spend time with your most loyal supporters and friends. It is never easy to start something new, daunting at times to branch out, but certainly most exhilarating to see the magic that can unfold. Because: Donors and funders want to connect with you and your organization.

Have fun with it – enjoy the experience together.

Tanja Sarett, MA, CFRE, CVF, is a global fundraising consultant, facilitator, and executive coach based in New York / New Jersey. She is the founder of “Synergies Created | Synergies in Philanthropy Consulting” [www.synergiesinphilanthropy.com] and the creator of the “Virtual Donor Cultivation Events” training. Tanja advises nonprofits and funders in North America, Europe and Israel. She is a senior consultant with Amplify Partners and with CARTER.

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