Byrne Pelofsky recently shared our Six Steps to a Successful (Virtual) Solicitation. But what happens when you put these tips and strategies into practice? We asked two seasoned fundraisers working in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area – Susan Tideman, Associate Vice President of Advancement at William Jewell College, and Laura Berger, Director of Development at Saint Luke’s Foundation, about what they have learned about virtual major gifts fundraising over the past six months and how fundraisers can keep the momentum going in the age of social distancing.
Susan Tideman, Associate Vice President of Advancement with William Jewell College, had several in-person solicitations lined up when COVID-19 hit. Instead of cancelling and waiting it out, her team mobilized to get the proper technology in place and followed through with three virtual cultivation appointments before the end of March. “It was important for us to show our donors that we still had momentum and focus on our goals, despite the chaotic state of the world at the time,” says Susan.
In April, Susan and her team moved into a “Care and Concern” phase. Using their prospect list for upcoming campaigns, they did nothing but call and check in on their donors and prospects and made no asks during those calls.
In spring and summer, Susan’s team transitioned to small cultivation events over Zoom, where donors and prospects had the opportunity to ask questions, interact with each other and respond to a presentation. Just like an in-person event, follow up is key. Susan and her team informed their guests that they would follow up with an ask, leading to careful conversations down the road about a future gift(s). These small, virtual events have been an effective cultivation tool and Susan expects they will continue indefinitely.
“I often reflect on the things we have learned and the knowledge we have gained since the pandemic,” says Susan. “These virtual events are allowing us to expand to a wider audience beyond the metro area. It’s forced us to try new things and a number of them have worked to our advantage.” And, with more time at home and far less travel, donors are more accommodating and easier to reach. “Some donors used to take three days to physically reach for an in-person meeting,” says Susan. “Now they’re just a click away and eager to help.”
In August, Susan began offering her donors and contacts the option of meeting in person, outside, at the appropriate social distance. Some donors still choose to meet virtually, but appreciate the option. “We continue conversations over Zoom as if we were in the room with them,” says Susan. “And every day we get more comfortable with it. Like wearing a mask!”
Laura Berger, Director of Development at Saint Luke’s Foundation, has discovered that fundraising best practices have not fundamentally changed, but the mechanics of how we practice fundraising have. In the early days of COVID-19, Laura was cultivating a relationship with a first-time major donor. She had never met this person face-to-face and was relying on video conferencing to build a virtual relationship. Laura recalls, “during our first WebEx meeting with this potential donor, we could see this person but they couldn’t see us. There was some troubleshooting in the early days, but now we have a really sophisticated system to connect virtually with our constituents.”
Ultimately, the entire cultivation and closing of the gift was virtual. But the process remained the same. “We spaced out our interactions, but still maintained regular contact without being a nuisance,” says Laura. “When the time was right and the donor seemed ready, we reached out to initiate conversations about a major gift and the donor was very responsive.”
Like William Jewell, Laura and her team have been creative about maintaining face-to-face interactions with their donors and constituents by offering them something special. One of the physicians at Saint Luke’s hosts WebEx forums and invites his patients, friends and colleagues – many of whom are donors or prospective donors. The physician discusses the state of the public health crisis and how Saint Luke’s has been responding to, managing and preparing for the continual onset of the pandemic. “These events have been a great success and have led to a number of opportunities for conversations about future giving,” says Laura.
But, at the end of the day, Laura believes that fundraisers need to make an effort to overcome the challenge of that missing piece of the puzzle – an organic connection that only comes from personal interactions. “Whether I’m asking from my back porch or basement, I’m still connecting philanthropists with an opportunity to make a difference, save lives and impact others,” says Laura. “But at our core, most fundraisers are extroverts and born connectors. We have to be very intentional in our conversations now because we can’t rely on organic queues anymore. But I’m really hopeful about the future of fundraising. This is an exciting time to be making a difference.”