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9 Ways to Forge Stronger Connections With Supporters

by Drew Lindsay | July 12, 2022 | The Chronicles of Philanthropy


Do the basics to steward small-gift donors. Many organizations can’t invest heavily in such work, but experts stress that small things help. Make sure gift acknowledgments and thank-you notes go out promptly with thoughtful, more-than-perfunctory messages, they say. And spell the donor’s name correctly. “People gave us money and entrusted us to use it wisely, and we can’t even remember their name?” says Jim Greenfield, a former college and hospital fundraiser. 

Don’t overlook average donors. “The average donor, in my opinion, feels marginalized,” says Matthew Lambert, vice president for university advancement at William & Mary. In 2020, the university completed a nearly decade-long campaign with three goals: to raise $1 billion, improve alumni engagement, and boost the share of alumni who give to the university.

Lambert says the university’s messaging balanced each of the three goals. The campaign also added events beyond typical reunions and social gatherings to bring alumni together. These included faculty discussions on topical issues as well as career-focused meetings for various professions. The share of alumni who give to William & Mary, which reached as high as 30 percent during the campaign, remains tops for public institutions.

Temper praise for big donors. Boasting about megagifts turns off those who aren’t supporters and those who sacrificed just to give a few hundred dollars, says Harvard’s dean of advancement, Armin Afsahi. “Maybe there’s room for a little humility. What if you flipped it and talked more about the common good for the collective?”

Double down on storytelling. Many groups promote their bona fides as great organizations with enormous impact. That ignores the personal, emotional stories that inspire giving, says Nic Miller of the Fundraise Up consultancy.

The success of the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, which showcases the personal appeals of individuals, is a reminder of what works, Miller notes. Consider the GoFundMe fundraiser by the individual seeking donations for a desperately needed surgery. “That’s a lot more compelling than the hospital saying, ‘We serve millions of people around the world, and we’re very prestigious and well respected …’ — yawn!” Miller says.

Work with other groups. The public’s trust in individual institutions — including nonprofits — is declining, according to surveys. But when organizations partner with others and make appeals together, donors can more easily see themselves as part of a cause.

Five international development groups have joined a campaign led by the advocacy group Global Citizen, each with a different strategy to reduce poverty. “To be honest, it removes an excuse not to give,” says Mick Sheldrick, Global Citizen’s policy chief. “A donor can’t say: ‘You don’t cover my issue.’”

Seek something other than money. The Share Good giving platform used in six cities is promoted as a one-stop digital hub for giving donations but also as a way to volunteer and “shop for good” using nonprofit wish lists. “There’s a whole middle section of the demographic that isn’t a major family foundation and isn’t ready for a donor-advised fund,” says Marjorie Maas, executive director of the three-year-old Share Omaha, which owns the platform. “How do they engage with their community and start being stewarded toward a more impactful relationship? We want to make that entry point to finding that as easy as possible.”

Share Omaha’s Do Good 2021 day to encourage volunteerism prompted donations of more than 3,500 hours of help, a 15 percent increase over 2020.

Support mutual-aid groups and other informal “doing good” efforts. The crowdfunding platform GlobalGiving promotes individuals and groups that aren’t registered charities because they are often closest to the issues — and often the first who can respond to natural disasters. “We’re trying to step outside the rigid structure where we can only partner with nonprofits,” says Sandrina da Cruz, the group’s director of disaster response.

The organization still works to make sure funding is used appropriately, but the nonprofit world needs to develop new, more flexible accountability measures, da Cruz says. “Are the different accountability mechanisms that we put in place still the best way to go about it? Or is it just that we’ve been doing it the same way for so long?”

Bring people together — online and in person. The pandemic’s forced isolation “made us hungrier for connection,” says Mari Kuraishi, president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, which is funding nonprofit efforts to expand their social-media presence. “It’s a great time to be in that space and say, ‘Hey, we can help you connect in a genuine and meaningful way.’”

Nonprofit leaders report their in-person events are bringing people lots of joy. The University of Central Arkansas launched the public phase of a $100 million campaign in the spring of 2021 with a series of high-energy gatherings fueled by people’s excitement at being together again. “It was important to them to feel part of something and feel part of the campaign,” says Maegan Dyson, assistant vice president of development.

Build communities of purpose wherever possible. Charity:water promotes its monthly donor program, the Spring, as a place for “people like you … giving anything they can to prove how unstoppable we are when we work together.”

“We really need to figure out how to recognize, reward, and engage the everyday philanthropist about the importance of collective impact,” says Keith Leaphart, chair of the Lenfest Foundation and founder of Philanthropi, a digital platform to encourage lifelong philanthropy. “It’s not what we do individually that matters; it’s what we are accomplishing collectively as a community.”

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