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Relationship fundraising is stronger than social events

The coronavirus pandemic has delivered a double-whammy effect to many nonprofit organizations. At the same time that people need their services more than ever, a large source of revenue has instantly disappeared: fundraising events.

Even before social distancing mandates became commonplace nationwide, many social events were canceled or postponed, leaving organizers scrambling for ways to replace the lost revenue. As public discussion begins to turn toward “reopening America,” it’s becoming clear that large-scale social gatherings may not be coming back soon.

That leads us to the big question: How can nonprofits replace this lost event revenue in the short term?

The answer is by shifting their philosophy into building deep relationships and away from the transactional nature of social events – at least for now.

Nonprofits should focus their attention on connecting with their mid-major donors. To do so, we need to start with the basics of relationship fundraising.



The reason social events have been such a successful form of fundraising is because they provide a solution for the needs that mid-major donors have:

A meaningful relationship: These donors are deeply committed to your mission. They want to form a connection, a bond with your organization.

A chance for access: Oftentimes, mid-major donors want to gain access to more information or an important person in your organization. Their goal is to learn more about what the organization is doing.

A special feeling: They want to understand the impact of their donations and feel good about the difference they’re making.

A connection with others: Mid-major donors typically seek out others who share their passion for the mission.

Here’s a quick example of how a social event addresses these needs:

A potential major donor to a children’s hospital attends a black-tie gala. The donor is excited to dress up for a big night out and spend time with others who share her passion for this mission, and she’s also relishing the opportunity to speak with the doctor who is leading the research for a disease cure. During the course of the evening, she engages in a conversation with the doctor and forms an understanding of the progress being made and how donations are helping.

The donor gains access to an important person of influence in her field of interest, which leads to a special feeling of how she can help, which deepens her relationship with the nonprofit. Then, she not only provides a major gift, but she also introduces others to the organization out of her excitement.

How can we replace this and still fulfill our donors’ needs during this pandemic? Here  are three solutions nonprofits can employ:


This is the simplest solution to implement right now.

If you’ve built up a committed group of volunteers, they’re probably sitting on the sideline right now. They want to help, but they’re stuck at home.

It’s time to activate these volunteers to provide some human contact to your donors. You can do this with wellness checks.

Each program might look a little different, but here are some basic steps to get started:

  • Organize the right group of volunteers who can communicate well by phone
  • Provide them with a set of talking points (not a script) and some guidance on your objective
  • Give them a list of contacts to call
  • Create goals for reaching out to donors
  • Provide tools for tracking which donors they’ve contacted

The idea is to give each volunteer a sense of ownership over this task. These calls set the stage for fundraising outreach and bigger donations later.


Unless you have an army of volunteers, it might be difficult to reach everyone in a timely manner with wellness calls. This is where automation and segmentation come into play.

You can set up a series of cultivation messages to send out to a wider group of donors to spark a conversation during this time of isolation. The aim here is to provide an opportunity for people to respond and speak to another person.

Here’s how you can get started:

  • Determine the right channel in which to reach out (email, text, etc.)
  • Break up your donor file using segmentation to filter the right messages
  • Create simple, personalized messages to connect with people
  • Provide a phone number to call back
  • Schedule the messages to be sent out

If executed properly, these technical tools reach a broad audience to set up a two-way conversation in the short term and a deeper relationship with your organization down the line.


Finally, for your most important donors, you need to provide an extra level of service. Since most mid-major donors crave access, you can deliver with a call or video chat from a key person at your organization.

This can be difficult to execute – especially during this time of increased need – but it makes the donor feel special and important. It also sparks a meaningful conversation and establishes a long-lasting, deep relationship with your organization.

The most important aspect to remember is that these calls need to be similar to the wellness checks. These are not fundraising calls.

If the donor guides the call toward a discussion of fundraising, then it’s appropriate to express the extra need that your organization is facing. And this will happen organically in some of the calls.

When it does, now is the time to be bolder than ever. The person calling should be ready to discuss some options for donations, like a large gift or virtual giving drive.

Ultimately, the aim is to stay relevant and demonstrate the impact that donors can make. Each of the strategies detailed in this post will help maintain connections with your mid-major donors during this time of uncertainty.

We will gather in person again, but for now we all need to focus on safety. In the meantime, nonprofits need to stay connected to the people who care about their work.

Building a strong foundation on relationships will bring in donations in the short term while also strengthening the connections needed for your organization’s long-term success.

Karla Baldelli

Karla is an elite nonprofit fundraising executive with a 25-year career in mid-level and distinguished donor fundraising, engagement and stewardship for major nonprofits. Her experience includes transformational roles with JDRF, Coast Guard Foundation, American Heart Association, Arthritis Foundation, The Salvation Army and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. While at the American Heart Association, Karla built the first-ever mega-donor event, Honored Guest Day.  She designed the campaign architecture for the $100 million Mission Lifeline Campaign and conceived the AHA’s National Giving Society, Cor Vitae.

Karla brings strong leadership and strategic counsel for thoughtful, year-round donor experience strategies integrated throughout campaigns and giving channels. Her expertise is changing the culture of major donor programs, including educating staff with her proprietary training, the Power of the Donor Experience.  Since coming to RKD, she has implemented a holistic program - leading with data insights and centered on the donor experience and organizational execution - that results in more inspired giving and increased revenue.   

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