Renewing focus on donor engagement

Todd Cohen and Ret Boney

Across all fundraising disciplines, the recession has brought development officers back to one of the bedrocks of successful fundraising — donor engagement.

To reach donors and supporters, the Chicago Community Trust, the second-oldest community foundation in the U.S., has launched an effort to educate and involve donors.

So far, the Trust has held three Impact Chicago meetings, during which donors learn about a particular issue affecting the community.

About 80 to 100 people attended each of the first three meetings, which focused on early childhood education, youth violence and the paradox of hunger and obesity.

“We’ve been using that as a way to educate donors and as a way to further engage current and potential donors,” says Jamie Phillippe, vice president of development and donor services. “Now there’s more value to their involvement with the Trust.”

The Trust also is the lead sponsor of  Cause & Effect, a television show piloted in Chicago last fall, that looks at a particular cause and the effect nonprofits or volunteers have had in that area.

There are plans for seven additional shows, and if enough sponsorship comes in, that could increase to 13, she says.

“The whole goal is to raise awareness of the nonprofit community,” says Phillippe. “And hopefully to increase awareness of the Chicago Community Trust.”

Rethinking engagement

To help cope with the continuing economic downturn, the American Diabetes Association is “looking for donor engagement in a broader way,” says Vaneeda Bennett, executive vice president for development.

That has meant mergers of functions within the organization with the goal of better understanding and serving all types of current and potential constituents, whether they are donors, patients, family members or the subscribers to the association’s journal and magazine.

“We need a 360-degree view of those people and how they can be engaged with the organization,” Bennett says.

It also means increasing the level of engagement for participants of the association’s Step Out walks and Tour de Cure cycling events.

“We’re inviting our event participants to get more involved with the organization,” says Bennett. “And as an organization, you try to make sure you’re cognizant of what you’re offering to whom and when. We don’t want to overload our donors with opportunities.”

Adjusting traditional strategies

In a tough economy and massive shift in demographics, including the retirement of Baby Boomers and the technological sophistication of younger generations, nonprofits need to adjust their traditional approaches to fundraising, experts say.

“We’re up against generations that communicate very differently than the old school, maintain relationships differently, many not even reading [traditional] ‘snail’ mail,” says Randy Shaw, vice president for development and alumni relations at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

So in annual giving, for example, nonprofits should “look at your constituency in terms of segments, what works for which people,” he says.

And while they may opt to take a less aggressive approach to asking for gifts during the economic downturn, nonprofits should adapt to donors’ heightened caution and scrutiny by focusing on building relationships and providing as much information as they can about their finances and needs.

“Have as much transparency about your financial model as you possibly can,” Shaw says. “Be forthright and tell the importance of each source” of revenue.

In fact, he says, those approaches are important in any economy.

“Whether stormy weather or good, remember how important the relationship is,” he says. “Don’t lose sight of the long-term relationships you’re trying to forge for the short-term impact. You need to be thinking about this in terms of the long haul and what’s best for the institution and what works for your donors.”

Cindy Clark, vice president for development at Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region in Charlotte, N.C., agrees.

The key to effective fundraising, particularly in a tough economy, she says, is “staying in touch with your donors, cultivating the relationship with them, and letting all your donors know why you need their support, how their dollars are used, and the impact they have on the organization and on the community at large.”

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