COVID-19 and Donor Travel: Your Top 10 Questions Answered

Last month COVID-19 cases hit the United States with full force and I pivoted my content strategy. I took a break from providing new tools and content on my newsletter and instead sent out an offer to have a free 30-minute strategy call with anyone who felt they needed one.

Many of folks took me up on that offer, and it is them whom I have to thank. Their questions were a gifts that I want to share with the rest of the world. May they serve you in this time of uncertainty.

Fundraising Communications


1. Should we keep asking for money?

Yes. And if you haven’t begun already, you will soon need to. This is not a tragic event that has ended, whereby you can just postpone a few communications to show your sensitivity. This is, to some extent, the new normal. This is weeks and months of significant change in our daily lives, followed by an eternity of talking about it. It will not go away, so you need to adapt. All your communications you wrote prior need to be scraped or heavily edited to reflect our new reality.

2. How do we deal with upset or afraid donors?

Listen to them. Validate their feelings without amplifying their fear or making it about your own suffering. Put them at ease by letting them know what they don’t have to worry about (programs are still running, people are continuing to get the support they need from your organization). Put them further at ease by offering a benefit (you will call the airline on their behalf if their donor trip gets rescheduled, you will automatically issue a refund if the trip is cancelled). Commit to the variables you can control (offer to call them back in two weeks for an update, and commit to that time exactly).

3. How should we be sensitive in our communications?

First, every major donor, corporate sponsor, and foundation program officer needs a phone call right now. Not everyone will get an ask, and that’s ok. It can just be a check in. The Varga Group wrote a great piece on donor stewardship and can be used as a template for making these calls.

Second, all communications should explicitly reference COVID-19 and clearly state how your organization has been impacted.

Third, increase your organization’s value by helping others right now. Shares electronic resources with donors. Offer programmatic support virtually is possible. If you have hard goods that could be utilized in this crisis, make those available to local groups in need of those materials. This is not the time to brag about how you are helping – this is the time to use your network and channels to ask who needs help, and to help them. Helping others will keep you relevant in this crisis when your programmatic work may have ceased or shifted, and keep you valuable to others who will want to see you success in the longterm.


Virtual Engagement


4. How do we keep our supporters engaged virally?

First, offer one-on-one calls. By phone. Not everyone wants to be on video. Respect their privacy if they don’t want to do their hair and give you a virtual home tour.

Second, offer Ask-Me-Anything sessions with your program staff or charismatic leaders. This could be a webinar format, chatroom style, Facebook Live, etc.

Third, host interest groups, connect like-minded supporters to one another over video conferencing. Maybe they are all member of your planning giving program, or ambassadors, or council members. If they haven’t already met one another, now is the time. Bring them together with a purpose and theme. Make the theme timely and relevant and let the discussion unfold.

5. Could that meeting have just been an email? (Not an actual FAQ, but I wish it was).

Probably. Defiantly. Undoubtably. I have long been advocating for Elon Musks’s rules of meetings, and this would be a good time for you to take them up.


Donor Travel


6. Should we cancel or postpone our trip?

Tour operators are pushing heavily for postponements right now. While I want to do good by my friends, I also don’t want to put nonprofits and their donors at greater personal and financial peril. While the belief that “life will return to normal by June” was optimistic two weeks ago, today it is delusional. So how do you plan in uncertain times?

Focus on what you can control.

Write down all the variables that determine whether or not a trip can proceed. Don’t take anything for granted. Are the planes flying to that location? Are the borders open? Will park tickets be available? Does the tour operator have capacity on their calendar? Are your staff available? Are your donors alive and healthy?

Look at how many variables you can control. The more you can control, the greater your chances will be of successful postponement. The less in your control, the more I would advocate for cancellation and to reassess once the future becomes easier to predict.

7. If we postpone, when?

Anything later this year is dicey. You should call all your travelers first to get their temperature on this idea. If your travelers feel optimistic and want to move forward with a fall trip , and your partners and operators have the ability to move the date, go ahead and postpone to later this year – but make sure you have all your ducks in a row:  flexible cancellation policy, emergency protocol and evacuation, insurance and liability, etc. (If you are wondering how those will need to change, check out my article here).

If you plan to move the trip back a year, make sure you allow your registered guests to cancel by a certain date, in the event that the new trips dates won’t work for them.

8. How will this affect the future of travel?

Not surprisingly, the experts have contradictory predictions, but since you asked me, here are mine:

  • We all agree that domestic travel will recover faster than international travel. Domestic travel is easier, cheaper, and less-risky.
  • Some say business travel will recover faster than leisure travel but I disagree. For one, all but a handful of business have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, so they will be looking to save money wherever possible. Second, now that we all got used to video conferencing with colleagues, clients, and donors, it’s getting harder to justify the cost of traveling to meet them in person.
  • We all agree that small group travel (less than 20) and solo journeys will recover faster than mass travel (mass travel may actually never recover, particularly cruises).
  • Some argue that travel will get cheaper, and it certainly is at this moment.  But I predict that it will actually get more expensive after the crisis is over.
    • For one, many budget companies who have always operated on low margins will go out of business (they don’t have the cash to withstand such sustained revenue loss, and their target market of low-to-middle income folks has been crushed by unemployment).
    • The companies who survive will have to offer very flexible cancellation policies, for which they must raise prices to offset the costs of potential future cancellations.
    • All companies will have to dial up their sanitation and safety protocols heavily, which also account for increased expenses that must be offset in increased revenue.

9. Should we still have a donor travel program?


This pandemic has changed a lot about daily life, but it has not changed your donors’ values, aspirations, and their reasons for traveling.

A look at the travel trends above will show you that the outlook for small-group donor travel is positive.

As far as donor travel’s position in the fundraising landscape, I am also optimistic. To quote myself  in the forthcoming Impact Travel Handbook (hey, as Alan Weiss says, “if you don’t toot your own horn, there won’t be any music,”) which will be published by the Center for Responsible Travel:

“One trend that suggests growth in Donor Travel, is, ironically, the increasing digitization of fundraising. While almost all forms of donor engagement have moved online, from social media campaigns to virtual events, offering Donor Trips is a differentiator for an organization’s fundraising program, and provides a coveted opportunity for human connection amid a crowded and noisy virtual space.”

10. How will this pandemic specifically affect our donor travel program?

I’m so glad you asked. That is exactly the topic of my next article….


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