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Stewarding disaster donors for lasting support

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David Lamb

David Lamb

David Lamb

[Publisher’s note: This article was provided by Blackbaud, a maker of fundraising software. Blackbaud is a PJ business partner.]

In the wake of a disaster, many people who do not regularly donate to nonprofits are moved to assist with one-time gifts. New donors flood into nonprofit databases.

What can be done to kindle that spark of compassion into a flame of philanthropy? In a word: stewardship.

Retaining disaster donors is not a trivial challenge. Giving to disaster relief is often an emotional decision. It is impulse philanthropy.

Technology has dramatically grown in its ability to facilitate donations for disaster relief: cell phone text giving, web donation, multi-media publicity (including traditional media plus Twitter, Facebook and other social media).

Spurred on by the heart-wrenching images from disaster scenes, hundreds of thousands of new donors use these technologies to lend their aid.

However, retention of these disaster donors usually falls off precipitously in the months after the disaster.

A disaster donor’s connection to your organization is tenuous at best until he or she becomes a repeat donor.

The clear answer – and the challenge for donor stewardship – is to convert impulse donors who respond compassionately to an emergency into long-term donors who help the organization to prepare for future emergencies.

However, experience from past disasters suggests most of them will not become ongoing supporters of these nonprofits.

They are mostly one-time donors – or periodic, disaster-only donors.  Nevertheless, an effective post-disaster stewardship plan may help convert some into repeat donors who would otherwise fall away.

Here are some steps you should consider building into your disaster donor stewardship plan:

  • Acknowledge new donors as soon and as personally as possible.
  • When practical, respond to them through the same channel (social media, direct mail, phone call) they used to reach you.
  • Let your stewardship materials tell the stories of those who were helped.
  • Use stewardship materials to expand your message beyond the immediate crisis to a description of your larger mission.
  • Engage new donors as partners in that mission.
  • If you can’t provide the same level of stewardship to all constituents, prioritize prospects based on gift size or criteria you establish through data mining and modeling.

The most important step in building a stewardship plan is preparing it before the disaster strikes. Disasters will come. Gifts may begin to come in almost immediately.

Make key decisions ahead of time so that your donor response is as effective as your relief efforts.

Have letter, email and website templates ready to go so that you can quickly communicate with your new donors without having to compose copy from scratch.

The messages in these templates should focus on your organization’s mission, with blanks where you can insert language specific to the emergency at hand.

By following these recommendations, you stand a much better chance of retaining more of the large influx of donors that give during a crisis.


David Lamb is a senior consultant with Target Analytics, a Blackbaud Company.

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