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Rethinking the Future of Donor Visits

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a “new normal” throughout the nonprofit sector, as it has for many other sectors. Many nonprofits, including schools and universities, traditionally conduct business on campus and/or in an office each day. Frontline fundraisers in particular spend many hours traveling and meeting face-to-face with donors. The recent transition to remote learning and working has prompted many fundraising offices to pivot and learn how to conduct business by way of phone call or Zoom.

Having spent nearly ten years as a frontline fundraiser, I know my way around many airports, can easily navigate myself to the tram or the bus or the car rental facility, and have memorized the fastest route to the closest eatery after a long-haul flight. I have spent countless hours flying, driving, and taking public transportation to conduct donor visits. I’ve enjoyed the hours spent face-to-face with donors: understanding what makes them passionate about a certain organization and how they want to effect change through their philanthropy.

Travel and in-person meetings are central to major gift fundraising. In our new socially distant world, what will the future hold for frontline fundraisers? Will they now have their opportunity to achieve long-term flexibility? Will organizations have more options for making hiring decisions if candidates are no longer forced to relocate and could maintain the remote work lifestyle?

We expect to see three changes in major gift fundraising:

A shift in metrics

With frontline fundraisers essentially “grounded”, there comes a major shift in how institutions gauge their functionality. How many phone calls are gift officers making each week? How many virtual meetings have they conducted this month? Without the hassle and time spent traveling, gift officers have the opportunity to be more assertive with their outreach. This is an excellent time to focus on stewarding current donors, qualifying potential donors, and maintaining a strong relationship with those who have a forthcoming ask. Organizations will have to reevaluate their visit and pipeline metrics for the time being, but have an opportunity to pivot their focus on laying imperative groundwork for post-pandemic success.

Broader acceptance of virtual and phone visits

Nonprofit organizations are known for operating on an “in-office” basis: a lunch with a donor, followed by more work at the office. As the pandemic-induced restrictions gradually ease, many will still be inclined to conduct business virtually – or as socially distanced as possible. Digital work has become more widespread, and donors who might have “required” an in-person visit might be more receptive to a Zoom or Facetime meeting.

This is an excellent time for frontline fundraisers to become more comfortable making check-in phone calls and suggesting virtual meetings with donors, because this trend may not go away. Fundraisers should also embrace various forms of virtual meetings, from Google Meetings to Microsoft Teams. Being donor-centric also means following the donor’s preferred choice for meeting attendance. We allowed donors to choose to meet at the diner. Why not also let them choose the virtual meeting spot of their choice? This also has a profound impact on the budgets of organizations. Gift officers and frontline fundraisers no longer need to conduct every visit in person, saving organizations thousands of dollars each year on meals, flights, hotels, and transportation.

Embedded staff positions in different regions

Perhaps the pandemic will become news of the past, and the way that we conduct business will begin to look more like it did in February 2020. Or maybe it won’t.

Either way, we may see more restrictions ease regarding the hiring of staff members in various territories as it relates to their job functions. Now that most organizations know they are able to hire and manage staff on a virtual basis, this gives them the flexibility to hire best-fit candidates without the worry of relocating them. Small, rural schools and organizations may have the chance to hire frontline staff who already live in New York, Washington, or Los Angeles to cover those geographical areas. This not only gives frontline fundraisers more flexibility, but it also gives organizations an opportunity to hire their preferred candidates.

In many ways, this is a win-win scenario for hiring decisions. This could also lead to less turnover in major gift staff and inspiring a greater ROI. When organizations retain their fundraisers for longer periods of time (instead of having to fill those roles every two years), those individuals create stronger relationships, net larger gifts, and ultimately add more value to organizations.

As the fiscal year-end quickly approaches, now is the time to begin having these conversations with staff and to start thinking out of the box for the fiscal year-end in 2021.

In the near term, keep in mind our four top tips:

  1. Re-evaluate metrics for the year. Allow fundraisers the chance to add phone calls and virtual meetings to their scorecards indefinitely.
  2. If they are not comfortable with technology or picking up the phone, invest in training. The reliance on technology is here to stay.
  3. Do not discount the ability to qualify greater numbers of potential donors. This is an excellent time to use this new normal as an opportunity to uncover new donors or to touch base with cold donors.
  4. When thinking of filling vacancies, get creative. Post jobs in other metro areas, network outside of your region, and lean into the remote nature of the socially distant environment. Hiring the most qualified job prospect is no longer limited to region.

Cassie Mesko is Senior Consultant at Graham-Pelton.