Stories of How Nonprofits Are Engaging With Donors and Volunteers
One of the most relevant issues facing development professionals today is how to engage with donors and volunteers. I just attended a kickoff event for Christmas that my organization hosted. Last year, this event drew at least 500 opening night attendees and another 200 or so in the auditorium. This year, using social distancing protocols, we might have had 50 attend the program and only a few other non-program attendees.
It was a wonderful event, but the pandemic certainly affected the personal visibility of the event. We did engage with donors that attended, and they knew what we were dealing with as they are dealing with the same challenges. I wanted to share several other real-time stories of how a variety of current organizations are creating unique ways to engage with their donors and volunteers.
The Indianapolis Zoo was closed to the public for 12 weeks. Many families, especially the children, felt the loss of the zoo in their lives. The animals were very intrigued and engaged in different ways as they were always ready to experience the public. One of the orangutans missed the public so much that he would stop whatever he was doing and tap on the glass to call people over to visit with him. It was a very emotional time for donors and staff. Everyone realized how important the zoo was to the community.
The zoo leadership decided to host a zoo activity that was only for major donors and key volunteers to show these key partners how the zoo was coping with the pandemic and how the zoo was preparing to reopen to the public. This led to several unsolicited significant gifts and a reminder that the zoo’s major supporters loved the organization. They also had the opportunity to see the zoo “behind the curtain.”
The Salvation Army Indiana Division decided to create a variety of unique engagement opportunities. Lawn visits with donors and volunteers at their yards proved extraordinarily successful. Bags of goodies were hung on many donors’ and volunteers’ front doors with a card of appreciation. Previous special in-person events, such as “Coats for Kids,” became a drive-through event. Groups of volunteers were given home tasks to write thank-you cards to their peers.
Church services were now shown online. Communications increased through social media outlets. Donors and volunteers were given masks and gaiters with The Salvation Army logo on it. Many development staff members personally took flower arrangements to major donors and left them on the front porch just to brighten a family’s day.
At the Stetson University College of Law, approximately 40% of Stetson’s Law School annual giving funds are raised in the spring through the “We Are Stetson” campaign. Because of COVID-19, Stetson’s Law College board of overseers felt the appeal should be suspended. Leadership decided to pivot and change the narrative to focus on the dire needs of their students directly affected by the pandemic.
They created a “Stetson College of Law Emergency Fund” using videos, emails, personalized letters, special appeals and challenge gifts. This appeal generated $162,000 whereas a typical effort would secure $100,000 through a traditional annual program. The success of this effort was due in part to proper planning, a creative staff, an engaged board and a compelling case. The Dean and staff also secured a non-planned anonymous $10 million planned gift for student scholarships because of this focused appeal.
Kid’s Voice in Indianapolis is still serving clients during the COVID-19 pandemic while practicing social distancing. The organization provides services to children who are abused, neglected, at-risk and have special needs. They usually hold an “NFL Monday Night Madness” fundraiser face to face. This year, they moved the event and made it a “Sunday Funday” virtual tailgate party before an Indianapolis Colts football game. Volunteers and donors were asked to purchase a variety of tailgate packages that included food, Colts swag and access to the online program.
The one-hour program was livestreamed from the Vogue Theater in Indianapolis. A local on-air Fox TV 59 celebrity was the emcee. Music was played and Colts players and Tampa Bay Buccaneers players, as well as coaches, shared videos and testimonials. A silent auction was held virtually. An invitation was sent to Kids’ Voice donors and volunteers. The public was also invited to participate. The goal was typically $100,000. This year, the event generated $50,000.
The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir created a series of virtual events this year. They secured virtual choir sponsors. Donors were asked to be producers of the project. People who typically attend performances in person were asked to attend events virtually. Donors' names were included in the credits at the end of videos during the performances so they could feel they made a difference in the actual product.
Donors began taking unique naming opportunities such as executive director, associate producer and supporting cast. The virtual choir, over time, went beyond just special performances for an audience of donors and volunteers. They focused on wider audience performances. The organization also asked for donations, but at lower-than-usual price points, feeling that the pandemic is reducing incomes for many individuals.
Bloomerang highlighted several nonprofits’ unique COVID-19 fundraising success stories. One of these organizations was the Peace Community Center. They transformed an in-person event into a multi-touch email campaign that generated more than $118,000. Rather than hosting a traditional event at a specific date, they rolled out this event virtually over a two-week period. This education-oriented organization deals with historically underrepresented students.
Instead of having the scheduled in-person event, videos were taken of the speakers and the videos showed what the event program would have been like in person. Over a period of time, the organization sent these videos to the population that planned to attend the event in person. Instead of saying, “This in-person event is cancelled,” the emails said the event format would be changed. The revenue was greater than the traditional event generated. Volunteers and table captains were responsible for generating this attendance. Additional attendees watched the program videos and supported the activity.
We all could share unique stories of how nonprofits, including yours, are planning to survive and thrive at this time. The pandemic, for now, is not going away. Special events and organizational calendars continue to be turned upside down. I strongly suggest that you continue to contact your colleagues and see what is working for them, including having a hybrid of limited attendance/virtual events. Keep engaging donors and volunteers in unique ways. These supporters understand what you are facing and appreciate the fact you continue to interact with them. Frankly, you need revenue more than ever before and have no choice but to communicate in different ways. Keep a positive spin, personally, professionally and organizationally. At this point, you have no other choice.
F. Duke Haddad, EdD, CFRE, is currently associate director of development, director of capital campaigns and director of corporate development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition, he is also president of Duke Haddad and Associates, LLC, and freelance instructor for Nonprofit Web Advisor.
He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the past 13 years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis on education administration, master’s degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University in business administration, with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also done post graduate work at the University of Louisville.