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Engaging donors virtually as in-person options return

15 Minute Read

The pandemic froze all in-person donor engagement efforts, forcing a rapid shift for development teams to virtual engagement tactics. With a return to in-person options on the horizon, many development teams are wondering what role virtual engagement should play in their long-term strategy. No development team should pursue a virtual-only donor engagement strategy, but most teams have a significant opportunity to strengthen donor connections using virtual channels alongside in-person efforts. Learn three ways every development team should engage donors virtually, even when in-person galas are back.


Virtual donor engagement amid Covid-19

Development teams responded with impressive speed and creativity when in-person donor engagement was not feasible during the pandemic. This shift was particularly remarkable given how heavily the industry has relied on in-person tactics historically. Many teams were not merely ramping up existing virtual engagement efforts but instead creating entirely new events and processes. These tactics were necessary when in-person interactions were not an option.

Quote: "We thought we'd migrate to [these virtual tactics] in 10 years but did it in three months." - Foundation President

Development teams will need to adjust their donor engagement strategy as inperson interactions once again become viable. Many teams are eager to return exclusively to the proven in-person engagement methods they employed before the crisis. They have fair concerns about the long-term efficacy of virtual tactics that worked in the highly unusual conditions of the pandemic.


The future of virtual donor engagement

No development team aspires to a virtual-only engagement strategy like the one all were forced to use during the initial Covid-19 crisis. However, teams should incorporate a mix of virtual and in-person tactics in their long-term donor engagement strategy for three reasons.

First, virtual channels allow you to reach far more current and prospective donors than in-person options alone (even when you’re able to hold events at maximum capacity). Second, virtual channels can be a lower cost way to educate donors and follow up with them to identify their interests. Third, virtual channels enable you to meet donor engagement preferences. There will always be donors who strongly prefer in-person interactions, but other donors will increasingly expect ways to engage virtually.

Development teams are at an inflection point where they have an opportunity to form a more comprehensive donor engagement strategy not tethered exclusively to in-person tactics. Teams that make use of virtual channels along with traditional in-person tactics will have the best chance of engaging a range of donors.


Three opportunities to integrate virtual channels into your engagement strategy

Through our conversations with dozens of development leaders across the last year, we’ve pinpointed three ways all development teams should use virtual channels long-term:

  • Opportunity

    Designate exclusively virtual events

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  • Opportunity

    Maximize in-person interactions with preliminary virtual visits

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  • Opportunity

    Match donor preferences with virtual stewardship options

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Parting thoughts

Your long-term donor engagement strategy should include more virtual components than it did before the pandemic. How much more will depend on what you learn across the next year.

Many organizations saw a solid return on investment in virtual efforts during the pandemic. We don’t yet know how well this success will translate when virtual engagement is not the only option. The answer is not simply “as well as virtual tactics worked before the pandemic” for two reasons. First, few development teams had made meaningful investment in virtual channels. Second, donors had yet to live through a prolonged period of time when so many routine interactions would become virtual.

The only way to figure out the right proportion of virtual and in-person tactics for your donor engagement strategy is to rigorously track process and outcome metrics. For example, update your definition of meaningful engagements with donors to include virtual visits and track related metrics such as: the number of meaningful engagements conducted virtually, time spent per virtual visit, and dollars-raised-to-goal trends.

Be sure to analyze the host of data generated by virtual engagement to further understand what’s attracting donors’ attention. Look at metrics including the relative open rate on emails, click rate on specific links, registration for virtual events, and actual attendance at those sessions.

If you regularly survey your donor population, ensure you are using the opportunity to understand when they would prefer to engage virtually versus in-person. Do they still want a hard copy of your annual report? Which events would they like to attend in person?

Expect donor preferences to change and evolve across the next year as we all navigate a return to pre-pandemic norms. Build in regular time to revisit your strategy and adjust it based on your data analysis.

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