Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash
December 9, 2020

How do you convert crisis donors into regular givers?

Is your organization looking for innovative ways to convert crisis donors into regular givers? In this episode of the Smart Communications podcast, Big Duck’s Sarah Durham and Farra Trompeter explore ways to attract and retain new donors.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham. I am your host, and I’m also the CEO of Big Duck and I’m joined today by my fabulous business partner, Big Duck’s Chief Growth Officer, Farra Trompeter. Welcome back, Farra.

Farra Trompeter: Thanks for having me again, Sarah.

Sarah Durham: So we are recording this from our remote locations. It is September 2020 at the time of this recording. If you like us are still living in a part of the world where things are somewhat locked down, you’re probably still very much navigating the impact of the pandemic on your work, on your life, and on your organization. And for most of us, the second quarter of 2020 really felt sort of like a crash landing into this new reality. And there’s been a lot to figure out along the way, Big Duck, and Advomatic have seen a lot of clients pivoting really quickly, but also doing some really excellent and innovative work, particularly engaging donors in real-time as things shifted. And so that’s what Farra and I wanted to unpack a little bit today. We wanted to talk about how to get those crisis donors as people who gave because of this particular moment to stick around. So let’s dig into it. Farra, what have you seen that you have found interesting or impressive?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of organizations have just had the first pivot, anything they were doing in-person to online. So we’ve seen lots of galas, lots of walks, lots of events that were already on the schedule, either canceled or moved to an online event. For example, one organization, we work with the Ms. Foundation transformed their annual Gloria Awards into a virtual feminist block party, and really kind of took the medium on and how they engage people using video and texting in the event to keep the spirit as much as possible in-person for an online medium. I’ve also seen organizations recently, an organization, The Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance that we work with. They had a really fun, Hot Wing Challenge where they had their Executive Director and their head of research ready to go. They had hot sauce. And if you donated the more people donated, the hotter, the sauce was that they had, and this was all through Facebook Live and they raised, I think, close to $5,000 from people. And I don’t know how many of those who gave were crisis donors or existing donors, but I think just really taking this moment and trying to figure out what are the best ways to engage people and try new things and really be open to experimentation.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And I think we’ve seen some of those experiments happening not only in public forums like galas or virtual events that you’re describing but also in some private forums. One example that I thought was really impressive was a client of ours who had a series of calls already that were regularly scheduled with board members and major donors. They were going through some organizational changes already in 2019, a change in leadership, and some other things. So I think they were having these kinds of monthly open houses with major donors. You know, these calls where they’d get on and invite donors to ask them anything, they’d give them updates on their leadership transition, things like that. And one of the things they did that I was very impressed with was they just kept those going and they pivoted them into talking about the impact that COVID-19 was having on their staff, on the community that they serve, on the organization in general. So kind of evolving an existing donor communications framework that worked well pre-crisis into something that could be actually leveraged in a crisis. It seems also that one of the big challenges is that it’s not just the organizations in crisis. It’s also the donors, even though some donors are stepping up, it’s been really hard. What are you seeing Farra?

Farra Trompeter: I mean, that’s just it. And I think you spoke about that organization. You were just giving an example of it sort of depends on how prepared they were or were communicating with their donors before March 2020 to really look at what they’ve been doing these past few months. I think the organizations that had strong donor communications that were getting support from different sources had relationships with individuals that went beyond events. They were ready to go. I think organizations that mostly have relied on events or in-person admissions if they were in an arts and cultural organization, for example, or ticket sales. I think those are the ones who’ve been in some ways the most flustered and the most overwhelmed by this change because their relationship to donors were key toward in-person experiences that they couldn’t do. So I think those are having the hardest to adjust and similarly their donors if they’re used to going to a museum or a garden to experience their organizations, or they’re going to the theater or, you know, attending an event to meet people that are like them.

Farra Trompeter: And now they can’t do that as fluently than the appeal to be on yet another Zoom can be hard to sell for people who are on Zooms all day to then ask them to come on a Zoom or a Facebook Live or anything like that in the evening. Normally when you might have some of these events. So I think it’s been hard and overwhelming both for organizations and donors. I also think we’ve seen a difference in response, depending on how much organizations are on the front line, particularly those impacted by COVID-19 and some of the other crises that have since emerged or how visible they were beforehand. I think organizations with strong brands and strong approaches to communications had strong relationships. There are also organizations who maybe weren’t as well known and all of a sudden, because they are on the frontline, they’re getting an influx of new support. So it really has been quite different along a number of different variables.

Sarah Durham: There’s research that we see every year from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. There’s great research done by Penelope Burk at Cygnus Research, about why give and how you get people to continue to give. And, and all of that research year over year kind of reinforces this primary idea that oftentimes people continue to give because of communications. They either stop giving because they were never thanked. They were never engaged. They never got follow-up communications, or they continue to give because they’re so pleased with the way the organization has shepherded them as donors through the relationship. And that’s, I think especially true now, it’s always true, but it’s particularly true. And Farra, just to layer the crisis piece on that, I want to ask you about a term I’ve heard you use before you have sometimes use the term “crisitunity” so what does that mean? What’s that all about?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I wish I made that term up. That term actually may have originated on a Simpsons episode. I can’t even remember, but this idea of organizations who’ve been able to turn a crisis into an opportunity, again, for the groups who have seen new supporters come in for their work. I mean, a lot of organizations have seen an influx of support through crowdfunding pages for their staff, for example, or other communities impacted by COVID. And I think taking this moment to say, yes, you came in during a crisis, for example, here in New York, we saw this a lot with hurricane Sandy back in 2012, how do we then bring you in and stay involved in our organization beyond this moment? Because we know people will move on to another crisis or something else will catch their attention. And I think there’s only a few that you will be able to hold on to, to that point about donor retention, donor retention is particularly hard, probably the hardest with crisis donors, even more than those first time donors. So if somebody is giving to you because they feel they’re responding urgently in the moment, or because they know that there’s an immediate need, that’s great. We should acknowledge that. And in fact, acknowledge that we might only be able to hold on to 20% or so of them and really focus on what we can do to convert those one-time crisis donors into ongoing supporters.

Sarah Durham: I’ve been reading Steven Shattuck’s new book Robots Make Bad Fundraisers, which I really recommend. One of the really interesting things in his book that I never knew is that apparently the larger, the first-time gift, the more likely that donor will hang around. In other words, if somebody makes a gift, I think that he uses $250. Those are oftentimes the easiest people to retain and the harder people to retain can sometimes be the smaller donors, which I thought was really interesting. Farra, how do you recommend that organizations move donors from one-time crisis giving toward ongoing support?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, first of all, I think that research makes sense because the more that somebody invests in you, the higher up the food chain, your organization must be in their list of priorities. It’s one thing for me to respond to a $10 request, I guess, depending on your bank account, I would have to really check if I can make a $250 donation. So if I am making that gift, then I think I must be really more invested in your organization. So again, I think sometimes you can map, right? You can look at by giving level and most organizations, maybe they call a donor. If they give a thousand dollars or more, maybe $250 is actually more of the magic bullet to Steven’s book. And you call those donors, especially during a crisis. And you go out of your way. I think anything you can do to connect to a crisis donor as soon as possible in a way that acknowledges their support in this moment and really brings them into the organization.

Farra Trompeter: We talk a lot about a good donor communications practice is creating something called a welcome series so that when somebody first either signs onto your list or makes a gift, they get a series of messages that welcome them to the organization, trying to find out what they’re passionate about, perhaps through a survey, invite them to take a non-donation action over a series of emails that might transpire over several weeks. Those are things that you could think about and think about, should you have a different welcome series or alter your welcome series? Really, if you’re not sure why someone’s giving and just really focus on new donors for the rest of 2020, treating them like crisis donors, because likely many of them are coming in that way. And I think the more we get to know these new donors, whether that’s inviting them in through a welcome series, having a special webinar or conference call, like you mentioned earlier, anything to really get to know who they are and find out what motivates them, and then use that information to keep cultivating them.

Sarah Durham: One of the resources we have on our website, and we should link to this in the show notes for you. So you can download it, is a thank you script for thanking new donors. And this comes out of a lot of research that says that actually, if you thank a donor very quickly, like within 48 hours of making the gift, they are much more likely to feel connected to the organization. And I actually love it when organizations kick it up a notch and have that, thank you, be a personal phone call from a staff member, from a board member from a volunteer, whoever it can be. It takes, I think some logistical organizing to do that. But boy, is it powerful when you make a gift to an organization you’ve never supported and you get a voicemail or you get a phone call from somebody who says, thank you, here’s what your gift means to us, et cetera. So again, we’ll link to that script, which might be something you can share with your staff or your board, and think about how to make that a regular process, sort of the converse of this question about how do you get one-time donors to continue to give is what goes wrong? Why do organizations fail to engage new donors who turn up in times like this?

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I mean the biggest thing that goes wrong is the organization goes silent. They don’t put those new donors into the list of getting the newsletter or hearing the latest of what the organization’s up to. They don’t let that donor know how they can connect with them on social media or other things that they’re doing that may be because they don’t have ongoing communications or they just leave them out of that cycle. So I think going silent and continuing to stay on their mind or what, you know, often likes to talk about generating mind-share. I think that’s a huge challenge. Another one you mentioned, thank you. So, you know, whether we’re calling our donors or maybe even sending a handwritten postcard, I’ve seen that I’ve even gotten them from groups. I’ve done a $1 test donation and somehow weeks later I got a handwritten postcard. It’s incredibly impressive. And in fact, you know, using the mail these days could help you stand out. But when you don’t acknowledge, or what I call a more generic acknowledgment, right? I just get the receipt over email. A lot of times our donation processing systems do have to send us here’s the receipt, your gift was tax-deductible, et cetera. But I think I’ve seen organizations either personalize that note or maybe 12 to 24 hours later, send another email. That’s a little more personalized, a little warmer, and sounds more like a human wrote it and less like a robot. I think that can really help you engage those new donors.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. One of the, I think really great points in Robots Make Bad Fundraisers that Steven Shattuck talks about is the fact that frequently organizations take new donors and they drop them into a kind of one size fits all way of communicating. I think Stephen calls it a bucket of communications where all of a sudden having never supported this organization before they’re getting your regular newsletter, which kind of speaks to them as if they know something about the organization and they’re not getting any kind of personalization or segmentation, anything that reflects their point of view. My sense of why so many organizations communicate in a one size fits all way is that it has a lot to do with staff capacity, that the ability to segment to send different messages to people based on their connection to the cause or their passion around something that’s happening in a moment like this takes people who can write and produce very nuanced, personalized content, which is a challenge for many organizations, but that one size fits all bucket, I think is such a great point and something that I think organizations should try to avoid as much as their capacity allows them to personalize.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, my only caveat there would be like, I agree the one size bucket, it starts feeling like you’re not considering who that donor is and where they came from or acknowledging their relationship or lack of relationship to your organization. But I’d rather see an organization do that than do nothing.

Sarah Durham: Totally.

Farra Trompeter: Yes. I think if you can even just think about what you’re sending, send a slightly different version to those newer donors than you do to the rest of the list that can really go a long way.

Sarah Durham: That’s such a great point as you were talking Farra, I was picturing in my mind a spectrum where one end of the spectrum is we don’t communicate at all. You know, somebody makes a gift and we barely get out a gift acknowledgment to them in months and months and months, they never hear from us. The other end of the spectrum would be highly personalized, lots of touchpoints with key people, things like that. Most organizations are not on either end of that spectrum. There’s somewhere in the middle. And the key thing is communicating. I think you’re absolutely right.

Farra Trompeter: Right, and maybe that’s one thing you could do as a result of listening to this podcast is think about where your organization exists on that spectrum and ask what it takes to move a little bit more over to a, I don’t know, the right side. I was imagining when you were drawing that stuff.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. You’ve written and talked a lot about how development teams and communications teams should collaborate. You had a great talk at fundraising day in New York, a couple of years ago called Cats and Dogs. I think where you talked about that.

Farra Trompeter: And the podcast.

Sarah Durham: That’s right. We’ll link to that podcast in the show notes too, but give us the cheat sheet. How should development people and communications people collaborate so that those crisis donors don’t go away?

Farra Trompeter: The biggest thing is really to talk to each other, right. I think what we see happen in a lot of organizations is that they’ve become what we call these turf wars or silos between development and communications and this feeling of I own this relationship or I own this communication channel. So I own Facebook. I’m not going to let you put any fundraising appeals on it, or I own email and you can’t send anything out about X. I think donors don’t care. What department writes the email or the Facebook posts, or who sends what message they want to know what’s going on with the organization. So I think the more development and communication staff can come together and look at what goals they have for different audiences in particular, what goals those audiences have with the organization, and really think about what motivates them and what type of communications would really move that person to more deeply connect to the organization, whether they’re just a program, participant a volunteer, a donor, and really look at how they can work together. It may be at the end of the day that they own certain relationships or certain channels, but having that conversation and looking at how they can schedule content in a way that works together. And instead of seeing it as us versus them really looking at ways they can communicate together. And I’ll flip it back to you Sarah. I know in working on The Nonprofit Communications Engine, you thought a lot about the area of teams as one of the dimensions and the framework. We have an ebook on the topic. And I’m just curious where you see this come through?

Sarah Durham: You know, one of the things that I really took away from my experience researching for that book and talking to a lot of different people is that certainly with things like donor communications, the communications people work in service of fundraising. The goal in all of this is ultimately to raise money and the collaboration between the two in an ideal world. The way I see it is that the development people have to be the fundraising experts. They have to have some clarity over what the goal is for those new donors. What do you want to do with those new donors? Do you want to invest deeply in trying to get them to give again, to stay connected, to move into a more sustainable way of giving, or an ongoing connection to the organization? Or in some cases, is it actually the better strategy to just say, wow, these people gave to us because it was a moment and we should not over-invest our resources and trying to retain them because the odds aren’t that great, they are going to be retained. So the development people in many ways are the strategists around the fundraising strategy, but the communications people should be supporting that strategy with smart communications strategies and tactics. So the communications people, I think, should be making recommendations about channels and tools and timing and how this communication might integrate into other things you do, or how to segment or not segment. So let the communications people be the communications experts, let the fundraisers be the experts. And hopefully, those two circles overlap in a very happy and loving Venn diagram.

Farra Trompeter: But yeah, we can also link in the show notes to our podcast on that topic.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. The podcast and the ebook would be great resources before we wrap up Farra, what other tips or suggestions would you add today?

Farra Trompeter: Never underestimate the power of a good update. I think a lot of organizations historically, or over the years have spent a lot of time putting together an annual report. We used to work on a lot of those in fact, where you would spend several months to get this report and documents together, then you send that out. By the time it reaches people in their mailboxes, it’s time to start thinking about the next one. What I’ve seen a lot of organizations, besides making shorter annual and digital annual reports. I’ve seen organizations really look at quarterly reports or even monthly reports depending on what your organization is doing. But I think letting people know regularly what you’re up to and it could be very simple, I think is definitely worth thinking about. So thinking about how often do we update our supporters? What are the methods we use to update them? Maybe it’s even a one minute video. It doesn’t always have to be a 20 page PDF. It could be a very simple thing, but I think letting people know what the organization is doing and in-part what their support has gone to can help keep you top of mind and help really build that relationship with the supporter. What about you, Sarah?

Sarah Durham: That idea, I think what I would add is that converting crisis donors to be more regular donors and sustaining donors takes strategy, but it also takes reflection. And so I would very much encourage you, especially if you can get the development people and the communications people to sit down and do this collaboratively to set some goals, really quantify the numbers for how many people gave that you consider to be kind of one-time givers or short pandemic givers, let’s say, and really be clear what you want to do with them. Do you want to convert 20% of them to being sustaining donors or doing something else? And as you map out the plans that you set forth for them, capture some of that in some way, that is quantifiable so that you can go back and measure against it, because this is sort of a snapshot moment.

Sarah Durham: You’re going to be able, I think in six months or a year to go back and look at that data and see how many of those people actually were engaged. And that might tell you a lot about your organization’s potential to move people, to make one-time gifts or to move people to become ongoing donors. So in my book, The Nonprofit Communications Engine, I touch on this in a bit more detail in the section on strategy and the section on reflection. But those are two pieces that writing, that brief, writing it down, taking the time to go back and debrief about it. That organizations often overlook when they’re busy. And particularly now, when you don’t want to have one more zoom meeting, but if you take the time to do it, it can really teach you a lot about what your organization’s capacity and strengths are. Farra, thank you. This has been a really interesting conversation to me. I hope it’s been a helpful conversation for our listeners. We’ve referenced a lot of different resources that we will link to in the show notes. And as always, we welcome your feedback. So don’t hesitate to drop us a line. Farra is [email protected]. I’m [email protected]. Or you could just write us generally and let us know what you think of the podcast at [email protected]. Thanks very much, Farra.

Farra Trompeter: Thanks for having me, Sarah!