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Donor Visits in the New Normal of Covid-19

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

Let’s face it, the majority of donor visits have occurred for years via in-person, face-to-face rendezvous.

As you were coming of age in the wide world of philanthropy, recall how you may have gotten nervous going into a donor meeting, even if it was only for cultivation or stewardship purposes and not for the ask itself? Remember how you may have tried to send an email or pick up the phone instead of having to meet in-person with the donor? Taking the easy way out, huh?!

Well, remember about a year later how you grew to love those in-person meetings with a donor or a prospective donor? Recall how you would look forward to seeing Peter, getting to catch up on his seemingly otherworldly career as a business exec and learning about his newest grilling conquest? (To this day, I still count his grilled shrimp recipe the best and my go-to crustacean recipe bar none.)

Well, all of those in-person donor visits at the power breakfast restaurant, the afternoon coffee shop, the cocktail hour martini, or the “whoah, this must be a big ask!” evening dinner are suddenly upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whether due to company policy warning against seeing donors in-person or inside a building, or due to the donor’s own preferences, many development professionals are turning their eyes to other opportunities to meet with their donors in new ways.

No doubt, we’ve all had our share (and then some) of Zoom calls. And you know what, Zoom calls can be terribly effective, but zoom fatigue also is real. It is real, real, real!

But what other options might be out there to connect with your donor - - minding both scientific guidance and your employer’s rules?

  • Walk and Talks: Remember those signature Aaron Sorkin scenes from The West Wing when CJ and Toby would talk as they walked through the corridors? Might you consider a change of pace and take a masked-up walk outdoors through your local park with your donor?

  • Front porch: There’s nothing more personal than your (or your donor’s) home turf. It shows that the relationship between you and your donor is genuine after all. Might you feel comfortable hosting your donor for a mid-morning coffee on your front porch, socially distanced, and donning your chic masks? She brings her favorite chai tea, and you sip on your homemade cold brew amidst the sights and sounds of your stomping ground.

  • Other technology: When it just isn’t advisable to meet in-person, even if outdoors, try using existing technology in different ways. Have your staff film a brief video message to your donor, and it doesn’t have to be polished or professionally edited. This is a chance to build a personal, genuine relationship, maybe introduce them to your four-legged friend turned officemate. Or simply send a “thinking of you” text message, just to remind them that you’re here, you’re available to lend a hand, and that you were thinking of them. Off the cuff can be really authentic!

  • Old fashioned phone: I’ve taken to using the old school idea of a phone call. I turn on my AirPods, fill up a coffee tumbler and try to get my steps in walking around the neighborhood while on a call or two each day. Could you and your donor each be in physical sympatico, taking your respective walks and covering the matter at hand all without Zoom and the video camera?

And one final thought: Be the outsider.

I was that person in high school who is involved in both choir and band. That made me both the choir nerd and the band geek! To my classmates in choir, I was viewed as the band kid who also came and sang in the choir, but could read music “like an instrumentalist” (I was told). And to my band friends, I was the choir guy who knew an entirely alien canon of vocal repertoire. I was an outsider, and I loved it!

If other non-profits in your community (or in your sector) are zigging, try zagging within reason. If all of your peer organizations are inundating your donors - - many of whom are shared donors no doubt - - what can you do to set your institution apart?

Instead of scheduling gobs of Zoom calls with donors, order 50 postcards featuring sites from your community, a goodly number of stamps, and write postcards to your portfolio. Or maybe this is the time you pick up the good old fashioned phone, and everyone in your organization divides your donor base (and don’t forget LYBUNTs and prospects in addition to current donors) simply to introduce themselves as a member of the team and say thank you?

Donor visits aren’t the same in this new landscape, that’s certain. But building meaningful relationships with donors and continuing the points of contact is far from elusive. In this time of social and cultural isolation, even the seemingly smallest of gestures is apt to be welcomed.

As a bonus: Peter grew to become a great friend, mentor and passes along a gem of a recipe every few weeks too.

Michael Pettry


Cape Fletcher Associates

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