8 ways to steward new planned giving donors in a crisis

Magda Cychowski
November 20, 2020
min read
8 ways to steward new planned giving donors in a crisis

Despite the economic challenges of the pandemic, donors have actually been more charitable in 2020 than in the years before. On FreeWill, we’ve seen both an increase in wills during the pandemic, as well as a huge increase in bequests. In fact, in March alone, there was a more than 445% increase in wills with bequests made on our platform over the same time last year. And a survey from Fidelity Charitable showed that 25% of donors plan to increase the amount they give this year.

But if you’re a planned giving officer, you might be wondering how you can engage all of these new donors when traditional avenues like events are off the table. Legacy donors can drive fundraising growth across your organization, and stewardship will be essential to cultivating them into annual and major givers.

Here are eight tips to help you build lasting relationships with your planned giving donors during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

1. Connect with new planned giving donors on the phone.

Donors that leave planned gifts are typically older, and, in a time when many older folks may not be seeing their families, a phone call could help ease feelings of isolation. With shutdowns and quarantines, more people are staying at home and eager for human connection. This means you’ll probably find that they’re answering their phones at much higher rates than before, creating a perfect opportunity for you to engage with them in a meaningful way.

Phone conversations are a tried-and-true strategy for connecting with donors. You can thank them for their gift, chat about your mission and the impact they are making, and check-in on their wants and needs from your organization. When we surveyed nonprofits earlier this fall, nearly 22% of respondents said that their top stewardship strategy was donor phone calls.

2. Show empathy in your communications.

Like many people this year, your donors may be going through a hard time. Whether they're working from home while schooling their kids, or just missing their families, you can be a point of empathy and connection for them. Your new planned giving donors took the time and care to support your mission, and you can return the favor with them by leading with empathy and kindness in your communications.

In addition to empathy and kindness, it’s important to make sure that your written communications are:

  • Clear and concise: since 50% of emails are now read on mobile phones, the ideal length is about two to three paragraphs or 50 to 125 words.
  • Persuasive: A study from the University of Pennsylvania shows that telling the stories of an individual over a group increases gifts to charitable organizations. Highlighting a new donor can be a great way to incentivize loyal supporters to give this year. Additionally, emails that convey positive or happy sentiments receive 15% more responses and moderately negative emails receive 13% more.
  • Drive home the impact of their donation: Your job in writing will be to get your supporters to understand what is newly possible with their help. To do this, define the present situation for your organization, the problem you’re facing, and the solution.

With effective storytelling, you can keep your mission top of mind and encourage them to keep the momentum going.

  • Personal: Always address your supporters by name in your emails and subject lines. Hearing your own name triggers greater brain activation, particularly in the parts associated with social behavior and long-term memory.
  • Contain social proof: When people see that someone else has taken an action, they often assume that action is correct and are more likely to copy them. To use social proof in your writing, you can invoke other donors and how they gave.

3. Create a legacy society to build stronger donor relationships.

Set up a legacy society for your donors for them to connect with your organization and with each other (plus, it's a great marketing tool). In a webinar we held on effective donor stewardship, Claire Meyerhoff, the President of The Planned Giving Agency, emphasized the importance of legacy societies. Inviting your donors to join your legacy society will make them feel appreciated for their gifts — and it may even encourage them to give again and in larger amounts.

To highlight your legacy society members, you can feature them on your website or send them a pin or other small gift that allows them to proudly display their support.

4. Build relationships between long-time supporters and new donors through volunteer opportunities.

During the pandemic, people are at home and looking for meaningful ways to give back. In our stewardship webinar, planned giving expert and founder of ThinkGiving, Cathy Sheffield, suggested asking current supporters to connect with new donors. For example, volunteers could write postcards or even call your donors to thank them and show appreciation for their support. If you have a lot of new donors this year, this can help you scale thank-yous while also providing meaningful moments of personal connection.

5. Enlist the help of your board or executive team to welcome new donors to your organization.

Ask a member of your executive team or board to introduce themselves to new donors and welcome them to your community. Recording a simple one-minute video from leadership can be a great way to share organization updates, or words of encouragement. In this video from charity: water, organization founder, Scott Harrison, delivers a genuine message to supporters that acknowledges the current moment and reminds them why their important work must continue during this time.

6. Survey your new planned giving donors.

Survey your new planned giving donors to understand who they are and how they'd like to engage with your organization. Then, you can use this to inform your stewardship efforts and programming.

The survey should be one of the first emails that your new donors receive (after thanking them, of course). In it, you can ask how they prefer to be contacted and what information they want to receive from your organization. This will give your team insight into what donors are most interested in and who is most likely to engage with your communications.

Here are a few tips for surveying your donors:

  • Be open and transparent about the challenges your organization is facing this year and will continue to face as in light of the pandemic Make your survey email short and to-the-point
  • In your survey email, lead with gratitude and how this survey will help the donor
  • Include a clear CTA (i.e. “Will you tell us what’s on your mind these days so we can serve you better? Take this 5-minute survey so we can help.”)

7. Host a virtual event for new planned giving donors.

Organize virtual events, like a trivia night or auction to introduce your donors to each other and to your team. The goal for your stewardship events should be to build meaningful connections with and among your donors, rather than to fundraise more money. More than 82% of nonprofits have started hosting virtual events in order to connect with their community.  

To help you navigate this new virtual world, we held two webinars earlier this year addressing many of these challenges. The key takeaways included:

  • Make sure your events have a clear objective. How will you know if your event is successful? Be clear about whether the goal is fundraising or strictly stewardship.
  • Have a clear follow-up plan. How will you thank donors or continue stewarding them post-event? Sending a thank-you note is a great way to show your appreciation, update donors on the impact the event had on fundraising (if applicable), and invite them to future events.
  • Include regular forms of participation throughout the event. Virtual burnout is real — as stay-at-home orders progress and more events are being shifted online, it’s important to have moments of interaction spread throughout your event. Consider adding trivia, Q&A sessions with panelists, or breakout sessions over the course of the event to keep attendees engaged.

If you need help hosting a small, fun event to steward new supporters, we recommend starting with a trivia night. You can use this template, and adapt the questions and answers to align with your mission and goals.

8. Highlight new donors in your annual giving report.

Celebrate your new legacy donors by highlighting them in your annual report. This will make them feel appreciated and recognized for the impact that their gift will have on your mission both now and far into the future.

Stewarding donors through a crisis like the Coronavirus pandemic means building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships. If stewarded properly, your donors will emerge with you on the other side of the crisis, and become some of your most loyal supporters.