By Michelle Chambers

We’re now over a year into a COVID response that has seen lockdown rules force the temporary closure of nonprofit offices and require home working of staff wherever possible. Besides disrupting the planned fundraising calendar, with external events and recruitment activities cancelled, it has also fractured the usual supporter care processes that are a core part of delivering good stewardship to the very donors that organizations now rely on more than ever.

Hopefully your organization has not managed not only to put an initial stop-gap process in place to ensure things like post sent to the office is collected, read and managed accordingly, but also to design clear processes, with owners and escalation points, for key communication routes used by supporters. If you feel like you are still in the stop-gap phase then you are likely not alone; but your organization’s fundraising program, and in particular your retention goals on existing donors, means that you need to be not just barely functioning but instead functioning well.

How on earth do you do that you may be asking? Here’s our top five tips on how to ensure you are managing all the right areas as we continue to work from home, and hopefully move into the split office/home rota environment as we start to transition back to the office:

1. Map Out Your Incoming Communications from Supporters.
Grab a piece of paper, or do this via a team conference call, and use the online whiteboard functionality (learning new skills as we go!), and literally map out all the different routes to how supporters get in touch. Mail, email to info@, email to name@, phone to reception, phone to direct lines, online chat, etc. For each one check what still works and what doesn’t. For those that don’t work, figure out how to make them work; and for any that can’t work, figure out how you reroute them — e.g., if your main phone number goes to a now unstaffed office, then can it be rerouted? Can you put an appropriately worded (i.e., with mention of COVID and the fact that staff are working from home) message on it to ask callers to leave a message and that their call with be returned within 48 hours? Avoid simply switching all routes to send people to the website, as not all supporters are digitally literate, and some may have already looked and still need help. Aim to connect them with a human response as soon as possible. You may need to do this exercise twice — once to cover for an empty office and all staff at home, and again if you transition back to office working with a slow part-return to the office of some staff. Think about what situation you and your team are in, and plan accordingly. Be ready to test, learn and innovate on your processes.

2. Ensure you Have Clear Responsibilities, Policies, and Escalation Points.
Usual office-based processes are covered by long-standing and understood procedures and policies, and people know who to go to with a query or problem. Your team, and the wider teams your work with, are now fractured across many locations, without the usual touch points. Some team members may unfortunately no longer be in position due to redundancies, sickness or other absence reasons. Put together a quick reference guide to the key processes (you could use tip one as a starting point) covering what the process is, how it now works, who is responsible, and who is the escalation point. This will be one or two sides of paper ideally for ease of reference and include any key considerations such as security or health and safety e.g., if a staff member is taking cheques to the bank. Don’t forget the importance of data protection at this time, with a clear policy on how to handle supporter data at home, appropriate electronic management, and the secure destruction of any paper related to it. Get advice from the relevant team or person as needed.

3. Keep Those Wider Team Relationships Tight.
Supporter care and the delivery of stewardship work best when the team responsible has a great relationship with other related teams. This is typically the fundraising/philanthropy/advancement team — the designations differ dependant on causal area — but the underlying activities are usually the same. Ensure that you continue to manage and maintain this relationship, and schedule clear briefing and updates to ensure everyone knows about current activity and any changes to plans. In an office environment these conversations can often happen ad hoc in person, when grabbing a coffee, or in the elevator, and so you may need to make time to create space for them, perhaps with a fortnightly call between supporter care and fundraising. Work out who your key touch points are for the supporter work you service, and who in turn supports you, and ensure communication lines are open at all times. Finance, IT and marketing are likely to feature in the list too.

4. Keep Your Team Tight.
Supporter care can be a hard job when staff is often dealing with ad hoc queries and sometimes complaints from supporters. Home working conditions have made the job even harder now as the usual immediate support from the physical wider team is removed, and perhaps trickier queries are coming in, e.g., if a donor can temporarily suspend a monthly gift due to financial hardship. Make sure the team has regular touch points together, perhaps with a dedicated weekly call at the start of the week to set out the run of the out, and a mid-week virtual coffee for more of an informal chat. Regular catch-ups should be in place for each team member with their line manager, virtually replicating the office approach, and everyone should also know how they can reach their manager in case of urgent need. Perhaps consider a team WhatsApp group or similar for chatting and sharing, outside of work concerns. A separate channel can help keep work and social aspects apart and give space for the sharing of fun items and connection on a more personal level.

5. Don’t Forget Your Situation – and that of Your Supporters.
A key thing to remember during COVID times is that we are all in this together. Everyone is experiencing disruption on a level never experienced to this timeframe or scale, and we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, worried about when and how this will end. As such be kind to yourself during the challenges currently faced, as well as to your team. And don’t forget that your supporters too are experiencing unwanted change, will be juggling wider life/work priorities, and yet amongst this do still want to support your cause as something that is important to them. Be mindful of that when crafting responses to queries, when planning stewardship with wider colleagues, and especially when dealing with problems and complaints. The golden rule of great communications — right message, right time, right audience — still stands; and perhaps just needs a bit more of the amazing donor care that you can offer.

The above is not of course an exhaustive list of everything to think about and action during this phase of COVID response, but we think it’s a good start to highlighting the key areas to examine. Always remember that people are at the heart of all we do, whether they be staff, donors or beneficiaries. Keep that at the centre of your focus as we all move through this period, and we’ll come out the other end still standing. And maybe even stronger.

Michelle Chambers is a director of Think Canada. Objectives and results orientated, Michelle combines strategic thinking skills with operational delivery, applying practical implementation to the creative idea.

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