The reemergence of another wave of COVID-19 and additional stay-at-home recommendations signify the ongoing importance of productive virtual donor visits. Unlike in-person visits, virtual visits require additional preparation and thoughtfulness to truly replicate the in-person experience.
Despite the extra preparation, virtual meetings save organizations a lot of time and money. Just think about how many visits a gift officer can conduct a week without travel! Some believe virtual meetings will remain popular even as social distancing measures ease because both donors and organizations recognize its efficiencies: it is convenient and saves time and money.
Since virtual meetings are here to stay, here are creative measures to “snag” either a first-time visit or even a solicitation, followed by best practices for reliving the in-person experience in a virtual format.
Step 1: How to snag that virtual visit
For now, gone are the days of calling a prospect to tell them that you will be visiting Florida in two weeks and you would like to grab lunch. Whether you are planning to meet with an engaged donor or you would like to qualify a new prospect, organizations across the country have been employing creative tactics to reach donors. Similar to pre-COVID times, it is best practice to send an email and follow up with a phone call either the same day or within the week. We are all inundated with telemarketing and junk email these days, and a follow-up call demonstrates that you are both a real person and serious about meeting.
Many donors may feel Zoom fatigue at this point or be reluctant to accept a virtual visit with someone they have never met before. Creative ways to spice up your request include:
- Send an institutional mug or pint glass to the prospect with an invitation to “coffee” or an “adult beverage.”
- Some organizations have holiday traditions where they either sell or bake a regional treat. This is a great way to invite a donor for a scone and send it in advance (if feasible).
- Send a wrapped tea bag, small bag of coffee, or hot chocolate packet to the prospect with an invitation to meet.
- Try a regional approach to outreach. Set up a “trip” to Southern California where you are spending two or three days “meeting” with prospects in the area and couple the meetings with a virtual event hosted by a local donor. This event could be a speaking engagement with a faculty member or donor who is an expert in their field or a happy hour-type of event.
It is important to maintain donor-centricity, even with the virtual meeting medium. As in the past when you asked a donor where they would like to meet for lunch, ask which technological medium they prefer to use for your virtual meeting, such as Zoom, Skype, Teams, or even FaceTime. Even when social distancing eases, many donors may continue to choose a virtual platform for the sake of convenience.
Step 2: Today is the big visit(s)
Whether soliciting a donor for a large gift or meeting with a prospect for the first time, there are many ways one can have an in-person experience virtually. The key is to plan ahead.
- Make sure you are in a private place. While it has become more acceptable for your children or pets to make a surprise appearance during colleague meetings, it is important to avoid such interruptions while meeting with a donor. Find a private space with a closed door to show your donor you respect their time and the privacy of your conversation.
- Lighting and sound quality are important. Make sure you are in a well-lit space (with the light in front of you, not behind you) and that your sound quality is strong. Consider using headphones instead of the computer audio and do a dry run with a family member or colleague.
- Bring your whole self to the meeting. When you are in person and listening intently, you often lean in and pay attention to what your prospect is saying. You should do the same virtually. Body and facial expressions can be read over a screen, too!
- Share organizational updates. Donors are curious how organizations are responding to the pandemic, its impact in recent months, and what is on the horizon.
- Don’t be afraid to share stories of the exciting gifts donors have made during this time! This reassures donors that others are meeting with the organization virtually, too.
Step 3: Conducting the visit
Making a virtual ask is just like making an in-person ask, with some minor tweaks. Keep these strategies in mind during the call:
- Confront the virtual format of your meeting at the top of the call: thank the donor for meeting with you virtually and confirm the amount of time they have available to meet with you.
- Begin by reminding the donor how this meeting came to fruition and then move into organizational updates.
- Create slides to talk through the proposal virtually. Take advantage of screen-sharing capabilities! In fact, you may consider sending the printed proposal in advance so that the donor has a hard copy. Consider next-day shipping to limit the amount of time the donor has with the content before you sit down to discuss.
- When it is time to make the ask, secure eye contact with the donor and ask for a specific amount for a specific purpose and timeframe. (That said, we believe the time is right to ask for unrestricted support. Here’s our three-part series on the topic.)
- Don’t forget to pause and wait for a reply. Whether conducted in person or virtually, it is important to allow the ask to sink in.
- Once the donor shares their reply, reiterate your thanks regardless of the outcome.
Step 4: Follow up!
Following up your visit with promised materials, a gift agreement, and a thank you note in a timely manner is more important now than ever before. Some things to consider:
- Send a quick email immediately after the meeting. Since there is no getting into a car, post-meeting distraction, or whatever the case may be, send a note right away.
- Snail mail a card! While many of us are at home, visiting the mailbox and checking the mail has become a welcome ritual.
- Invite volunteers to send a thank you or to make a call. Many Board members and volunteers may have more flexibility now and could use creative ways to maintain their engagement with your organization.
Sincerity drives outcomes, and you should always believe in what you are asking donors to invest in. Whether virtually or in person, maintaining authenticity will generate many major gifts or even first-time visits.
While many of us yearn for the day when travel will become more common and we can dine inside again, making the most of the virtual donor experience will continue to be important for fundraisers and organizations. After all, your missions do not pause and need does not cease during times of uncertainty.
Cassie Mesko is Senior Consultant at Graham-Pelton.