Turning One-Time Donors into Lifelong Supporters After Going Viral

During the presidential inauguration in January, 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman transfixed the country when she delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” – a call for national solidarity and equality as a polarized United States begins to recover from a once-in-a-century pandemic. A few weeks later, Gorman became the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl.

Gorman spoke with the poise and self-confidence of an artist who has been performing her whole life, but just a few years ago she was a shy teenager who was apprehensive about sharing her work – a “skinny girl with a speech impediment who needed a mentor,” in her words. Those mentors were provided by WriteGirl – a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that gives girls an opportunity to work with professional female writers. After Gorman’s performance, WriteGirl received an influx of donations and national attention, which executive director Keren Taylor described as a “pivotal moment” for the organization.

Most nonprofits operate outside the spotlight, so moments like Gorman’s speech don’t come around often. But when they do, organizations need to be prepared to leverage them as much as possible. By sustaining the momentum generated by inspiring and galvanizing events, nonprofits will put themselves in a stronger position to maintain relationships with new supporters and scale impact over the long term.

Maintain Open Lines of Communication with Stakeholders

According to an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, WriteGirl promoted Gorman’s performance well before she took the stage: “In the days leading up to the Inauguration, WriteGirl used a newsletter, social-media posts, and individual emails to encourage people in its network to watch the reading.” Anticipating the attention Gorman would receive, WriteGirl prepped some follow-up plans in advance:  – they created a strategy to distribute a special printing of Gorman’s poem as a special fundraising campaign.

While these may sound like short-term strategies, nonprofits will be in a much stronger position to capitalize on rare opportunities to mobilize donor support if they already have the communications infrastructure in place to reach out to a large number of stakeholders at a moment’s notice. This means building a network of contacts and maintaining consistent communication with them through regular newsletters, events (virtual or otherwise), social media interactions, and other forms of engagement.

A 2020 BDO survey found that 62 percent of organizations cite maintaining donor engagement as one of their top challenges – a proportion that surges to 72 percent for smaller organizations. This isn’t just an issue because it can lead to donor attrition, which means organizations lose meaningful relationships and billions of dollars in support every year – it also means the organizations that struggle to engage donors aren’t equipped to leverage one-time giving opportunities.

Show Potential New Donors Why your Organization Deserves Support

Nonprofits have to be capable of demonstrating impact  if they want to take full advantage of one-time giving opportunities. Potential supporters may be drawn in by a single event, but they’ll still want to know about an organization’s mission and whether or not it has a demonstrable record of effectiveness. This is particularly true as donors (especially larger grantmakers) increasingly seek data showing impact and achievement.

This has historically been a major issue in the sector – while more than two-thirds of organizations consider measuring concrete outcomes important, just one-fifth say they’re very effective at demonstrating those outcomes. Technology can be a powerful tool for tracking impact and reporting it to donors, which is why two-thirds of nonprofits say their digital investments should assist with fundraising and social media.

Donors can be inspired to give by a crisis in their community, the recitation of a moving poem on the steps of the Capitol, and many other singular events. But to build and maintain long-term relationships, nonprofits need to continuously show impact and keep partners engaged.

Unprecedented Opportunities

The past year has been painful for many organizations – especially as demand for services has increased, even as nonprofits have faced revenue shortfalls, layoffs, furloughs and even permanent closures. However, according to data from the Blackbaud Institute, overall giving actually increased by 2 percent between December 2019 and December 2020.

As we build back from COVID-19 and continue to have one of the most consequential national discussions on inequality in decades, the nonprofit sector has an invaluable role to play in bringing communities together around solutions to the most pressing problems we face. Shared adversity generates solidarity – a fact amply demonstrated by the Americans who increased their donations to vital causes in the middle of a pandemic.

Now is the time for nonprofits to use all the resources at their disposal to maintain the momentum around addressing our urgent problems, and remaining deeply engaged with supporters – new friends who have discovered our work, as well as those legacy relationships who have brought organizations to the current moment. Whether this means reassessing how they engage with donors or improving their capacity to communicate impact, nonprofits should remain focused on turning one-time donors into lifelong supporters and advocates.