Stewarding New Donors in Unusual Times

Posted on 05/06/2020

Even under normal circumstances, getting alumni to donate for the first time is no easy task. You have to look for unique and clever ways to capture their attention, make a clear and compelling case, and offer them a convenient way to transact. That’s why special challenges, giving days, and crowdfunding can be effective tools for donor acquisition. 

And when circumstances aren’t normal, like in times of crisis or trouble, acquiring new donors remains important. Many institutions are finding that the current COVID-19 pandemic is inspiring alumni who haven’t donated before to make a gift for the first time. Some have been compelled to support students and faculty in need through special relief funds. Others, feeling reflective during their time at home, may now be realizing how important their alma mater is to them. And then there are those who are simply looking to help out in some way.

Whatever the reason, institutions need to pay attention. It’s not enough to simply “acknowledge” first-time gifts, you also need to keep these donors engaged. It’s a great opportunity to be innovative and think beyond your normal efforts. With that in mind, here are a few creative ideas for stewarding donors that set the stage for their continued support:

  • Ask them for feedback: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sends a survey to first-time donors to reinforce their connection to the institution and show that their opinion matters. The survey is prioritized as the first communication that new donors receive, and it helps the annual giving team gain insight to inform future solicitation strategies, such as preferred communications channels and ease of giving. The survey also serves as an additional touchpoint for the team’s multichannel approach to first-time donor stewardship.
  • Highlight that they’re part of something big: Stony Brook University used their annual report to highlight the number of new donors that made gifts during a recent campaign. This special recognition provides a way for the entire community to celebrate the first-time donor group.
  • Offer some guidance: The University of Iowa goes beyond the traditional first-time donor welcome package by creating a special instruction manual for new donors. Recipients are given a step-by-step guide on what to do as a new donor, including sharing their giving story and pictures of their new tech tags on social media. The last step in the manual encourages donors to continue their support. The inspirational messaging is not designed to be a solicitation disguised as stewardship, but truly a way to get donors excited about maintaining their commitment in the future.

A first-time gift is always something special, but it can be especially significant when times are tough. The experience alumni and other new donors have in the weeks and months after making their first gift will either deepen their relationship with the institution… or it won’t. Being proactive and getting creative go a long way towards ensuring that a donor’s first gift doesn’t end up being their last.


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