3 Champion Engagement Tips to Garner Support During Crisis

COVID-19 Resources

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This is a guest post from Aly Sterling, founder of Aly Sterling Philanthropy. Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute.


Now that we’re a few months into the COVID-19 crisis, you’ve probably encountered challenges with engaging supporters. Like your nonprofit’s team, your donors are encountering a public health and economic crisis, and they may be less responsive to your efforts because of it!

However, successful supporter engagement is crucial to position your organization to remain strong despite the current crisis. The difference between meeting your goals in six months or not may very well be a few highly-engaged donors.

Through this guide, we’re going to discuss three tips for engaging your organization’s most ardent supporters—nonprofit champions—during a crisis. As you’ll soon learn, you should:

  • Maintain a consistent campaign mentality.
  • Cultivate your “donors-next-door.”
  • Recognize the value of digital engagement.

Nonprofit champion engagement builds upon the donor engagement and retention strategies your organization uses each and every day. However, it does take these strategies a step further. So, before we dive into these strategies, let’s explore what exactly a champion supporter is and how engaging this supporter goes further than general engagement.

What is a nonprofit champion?

Put simply, “champion” refers to your organization’s biggest supporters. These aren’t one-time supporters; they’re the ones that are giving on a regular basis, volunteering to participate in activities, and sometimes giving in large amounts. They’re interacting with your organization across multiple platforms and showing their support far-and-wide.

“Champion” goes beyond dedicated supporters, however. What’s truly unique about this subset of your supporters is that they take their participation to the next level, going out into their own communities and “championing” your organization to their network of peers. They’re passionate about your organization and mission and therefore share it with all who will listen.

In doing so, they effectively fundraise on your behalf. During a time when your donors’ giving capacity may be limited and when your nonprofit may not have resources to discover new supporters, champions of your organization are invaluable.

A donor’s motivation for championing your work stems from their relationship with your organization and cause, and you need a strong donor stewardship strategy to build this kind of super relationship. As you explore the following strategies, consider whether bringing on a fundraising advisor would be helpful to your organization in creating these processes. If so, check out this Aly Sterling Philanthropy guide to fundraising consultants.

Maintain a consistent campaign mentality

If you’ve ever held a major fundraising campaign—whether a capital campaign, an annual fund initiative, or even a dedicated year-end fundraiser—you’re familiar with the intensive planning and motivation needed for success. The energy fueling your team during a major campaign is palpable!

You may end up hiring a capital campaign consultant or sending your case for support through multiple rounds of edits, understanding that your team and its materials need to be operating at the highest level. Eventually, after plenty of preparation and with decisive minds and momentous energy, your team achieves what may have seemed insurmountable—raising every last penny that your organization needs.

When your team is fueled by campaign energy and values, you’re able to achieve goals considered impossible during normal operations. Do you see where we’re going with this?

How does this impact your engagement efforts?

COVID-19 has created a fundraising engagement landscape that feels impossible to succeed in. Your donors are facing a public health and economic crisis unlike they’ve ever faced before, and it can be a challenge to connect with donors who are down on their luck.

But here’s a dose of happy news: successful champion engagement during the pandemic is possible. However, you may have to try a bit harder and challenge your team to achieve more than ever before.

Maintaining a consistent capital campaign mentality simply means upholding the motivation and momentum your team has during a major campaign year-round. Your team will be laser-focused on your goal (in this instance, connecting with champion supporters) and more effective at fundraising overall.

When your team is focused and efficient, they have:

  • Clearly outlined roles and responsibilities.
  • Active board engagement and defined leadership.
  • Increased, efficient communications.
  • Improved messaging and with it, donor cultivation.

Do you know what happens when your team is especially successful? We’re about to connect this to champion engagement.

Put simply, nothing is more inspiring than an organization that’s putting in the needed work for success.

To inspire your organization’s most ardent supporters, you need to champion your organization yourself. Your team needs to be operating at its highest potential in order to inspire others to take their support to the next level and advocate on your behalf.

Cultivate your “donors-next-door”

Because the largest proportion of your organization’s total gifts will come from a handful of donors giving in high amounts, many nonprofits focus heavily on major donor acquisition and forget to steward the all-important middle ground. However, those that cultivate the often-overlooked “donor-next-door” will reap immediate and long-term rewards.

It’s important to remember that “champion” donor classification doesn’t only occur at the top. Middle-tier donors can be strong, valuable advocates for your organization as well. These aren’t the donors who are making major gifts to your organization, but rather those who stay comfortably in the middle segments of your donor population.

Did you know that donor retention rates are significantly higher for donors who make mid-sized gifts when compared to other demographics? This higher retention rate means that middle-tier donors have a higher likelihood of showing consistent support for your work. Because they’re already aligned toward supporting your organization on an ongoing basis, these “donors-next-door” are perfectly poised to champion your organization.

How does this impact your engagement efforts?

The first step to engage your middle-tier donors as champions is to run an analysis of your organization’s donor data and discover those who made mid-sized gifts recently. After doing so, contact those donors and ask them a few questions about their involvement with your organization. For example, would they like to be involved with your organization in another manner, such as volunteering?

When asking these questions, keep the limitations presented by the current crisis in mind. Understand that these middle-tier donors may not be able to give much more than they already have and that you might be better off presenting engagement opportunities that don’t involve giving financially.

For example, you could ask these donors to:

  • Advocate for your organization publicly. As we’ll soon discuss, social media and other digital platforms are crucial for connecting during times when you’re especially distant from donors. Ask your champion, middle-tier supporters if they’re willing to advocate on behalf of your organization on social networks, perhaps by participating in a video testimonial.
  • Contact their personal networks. These supporters may be interested in spreading the word to their friends and families and encouraging them to give. How can you help? For example, just as you might use fundraising letter templates during a major campaign. In a similar vein, are there any resources you can provide to these supporters to spread the word? Something as simple as graphics and educational materials can go a long way.
  • Seek out matching gift opportunities. Many organizations are increasing their matching gift programs in response to COVID-19. If your middle-tier donors are interested in increasing their impact on your cause, encourage them to contact their employers and see if they’re match-eligible.

Because they already have a higher likelihood of giving to your organization again, these donors may be interested in championing your organization further. And, if you need assistance stewarding mid-level donors, consider bringing in a fundraising consultant to formulate your strategy.

Recognize the value of digital engagement

There is no replacement for in-person, face-to-face interactions. Whether used to steward major donors or even discover new supporters for your organization, the value of these interactions is immeasurable.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered these efforts virtually impossible—for the foreseeable future, at least. So, while we’ve discouraged nonprofits from relying too heavily on digital connection in lieu of in-person connection in the past, this strategy may need to change for the time being.

To continue engaging champion donors, it’s time to bring your efforts to the digital sphere. But, it’s going to require much more than offering a digital donation form.

How does this impact your engagement efforts?

With a bit of careful planning and creative thinking, you can use digital platforms to engage champion supporters and remove some of the barriers caused by COVID-19. Consider the following ways to engage champion supporters digitally:

  • Holding virtual events. If you planned any major fundraising events for 2020, you may not have to cancel them. Instead, you might be able to simply pivot them to the virtual sphere!
  • Contacting existing supporters. Take notice of people who frequently support your organization on social media—these are champion supporters! If they’re already advocating for you on social platforms, would they be interested in increasing their engagement in other manners?
  • Speaking with supporters face-to-face. With video conferencing software, you can replicate the face-to-face conversations you would have had before. Contact them, ask them how they’re faring, and see if they’re interested in championing your cause further during the crisis.

While digital platforms can’t replace valuable in-person platforms, they can empower you to engage champion supporters during challenging times. Whether discovering champions within your existing supporter base or holding events for them to participate in, digital platforms are key during COVID-19.


Donor engagement is especially crucial during a crisis, but it can also be more challenging than ever before. However, maintaining a campaign mentality, cultivating “donors-next-door” and using digital methods of engagement can certainly help.

With these three tips, you’ll not only engage supporters, but you’ll engage those most committed to furthering your cause. Good luck!

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