March 13, 2020


The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 an official pandemic and the ways in which we go about work, life, and interacting with our donors will change in the coming weeks. Now is the time to create and/or assess plans for your major giving program so that your donors feel like partners and you’re positioning yourself to maintain major giving revenue. 

Here are four ways that we at Greater Public recommend you move forward.

1. Communicate Now

This time period is absolutely critical. The sooner you communicate your station plans to your donors, the more they will feel like a trusted member of your team. If your portfolio is small enough to send a personal email to each of your donors, choose that option. If you have hundreds or thousands of members in your $1,200 gift club, a group message will suffice.

What should you say? 

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  • First, let the donors know that your station is proud to be a vital member of this community and supporter of the public health response.Detail the ways in which you provide a service to the community. This is the time to really use your mission-specific language about how you are making the community smarter, safer, more informed, more peaceful, etc.
  • Let them know about schedule changes to your programming.If you plan to break into programming to broadcast press conferences with public health officials, replace a syndicated program with a local call-in show, or change programming because you’ve asked non-essential staff to work from home, explain these plans now.

    You don’t need to go into deep detail here but it is important to demonstrate how you will adjust to the new needs of the community.

  • Reassure your donors that even if you (major gift officer, director of development) are working from home, you will continue to stay in touch and to help them when they need it.

2. Stick to Your Plan, But Be Creative

Many organizations thought the “safe route” during the 2008-2009 Great Recession was to disengage with major donors and prospects because the economy was poor and they felt uncomfortable asking for gifts. This was a mistake that led to lower revenue and weakened long-standing relationships. 

To avoid that now, continue to follow your carefully created plans for each major donor. Realize also that many of the contacts you’ve planned will need adjustment in light of this global upheaval.

Larger donor events will be canceled and station tours will become unattractive to donors, for example. Instead of relying on these face-to-face interactions, you’ll need to be creative in your engagement.

  • If you know that your donor cares about your education reporting, send them a link to your coverage of the school district’s decision to close (or not close) schools.
  • If you have to cancel a major donor concert, send the invited guests a link to the last performance in your studio.
  • Hold a phone town hall with your general manager and news director to explain how your station thinks about reporting in a fast-changing environment. 
  • Send a “break from the news” email with videos or links on topics you’ve covered that give your listeners/viewers a breather from the stress.
  • Offer to talk with a donor via video conference to present an update on a program they’ve funded.

Do not put off asking your major donors for a gift because you are worried they will say no due  to public health and stock market disruptions. Instead, remind your donors that the valuable contributions from the station require financial support even more urgently right now. 

Richard Perry from Vertius has this recommendation “During a crisis like this it is easy for donors to be distracted so reminding your donors there’s still a need is really, really important.

3. Be Heartfelt

Major donor relationships should be foremost built on trust. Donors trust you to help them do good in the world by bringing fact-based journalism to everyone, preserving artistic traditions, and creating community through music. Honor that commitment by being honest and attentive in your communications with donors. Check in with them. Ask how they are doing. Your donors are bound to have personal connections to this public health and economic situation; asking how their business is faring or if they have a plan for social distancing shows you are aware and value their experience. 

This is an important time to remember that you’ve built a relationship with donors and you still want to be of service to them.

If a donor who’s previously given $10,000 annually comes to you and says she only feels comfortable giving $5,000 with the uncertainty of the stock market, accept that gift gratefully but don’t hesitate to ask her if you can check in with her in six weeks to reassess if she feels more comfortable to return to her previous giving level. 

4. Reach Out for Help

The public media community is a creative and determined one. Sharing ideas and strategies with one another is built into our deepest traditions. This new challenge gives us another opportunity to help each other. Likewise, at Greater Public, each advisor is ready to be a sounding board for you, talk through strategy, or just be a friendly ear. 

As always, Greater Public members can contact our major giving advisor for advice and support on specific questions.

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