Q&A with Delta Dental’s Margaret Trimer

This a follow-up conversation with Margaret Trimer, Vice President Strategic Partnerships, at Delta Dental. It provides a deeper dive into the unique challenges and opportunities of fundraising during this unprecedented time that we didn’t have time to cover in the original webinar entitled, Fundraising During COVID-19: A Corporate Perspective. To view the original discussion, click here.

Rachel: Early on, Delta Dental established a specific emergency fund by allocating $600,000. Have you done anything since then that's been specifically focused on the COVID crisis?

Margaret: The $600,000 was dedicated by the Delta Dental Foundation. I live on the corporate side, but we work in tandem with the Foundation and devised the strategy together. Typically, the Foundation gives exclusively to oral health, but given the crisis, we expanded to include food insecurity, which granted almost $300,000 to nonprofits like Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest.

On the corporate side, we invested in a N-95 mask recycling project out of MSU and Sparrow Hospital. Both are our big customers and we worked with them to invest in recycling projects so that we could put more masks into the healthcare community. That was a significant investment and it has been extraordinarily well received.

We also recognized that when Midland flooded there were other disasters that needed our attention. We made a significant investment from the corporate side into the Midland United Way flood relief effort. That was a high need in a community where we have some very big customers that are struggling.

And then the racial unrest in the country surfaced. So, we saw great need to begin investing in things that we are categorizing as economic justice. We view those as tangential, but related to COVID because COVID showcased health disparities and how low income and people of color died at a much greater rate.

Prior to the pandemic--and even more now—we were putting a lot of energy in trying to empower and put capital into minority entrepreneurs and communities that have high potential but are underestimated. It's a pretty simple pivot for the corporate side, we build healthy, smart vibrant communities. If we are going to really stand for vibrant communities, that must include economic justice.

When we look at building healthy, smart, vibrant communities, our corporate outlook is not about just doing charity. It's also about building prosperity. I really want to look at not just giving a community some fish, not just teaching a community to fish, but making access to the big boats possible. People need to be able to fish in the deep water, where the really big fish are and not just cast a line from the shore. So, conceptually that's how we're framing it.

Rachel: You spoke briefly but very candidly during the webinar about how you prefer to be communicated with from your nonprofit partners. Can you elaborate on that and talk about what nonprofits are doing well and what they could be doing better?

Margaret: Before COVID hit, before racial unrest hit, some nonprofits we support were struggling with what it means to build a relationship with a donor. Too little communication was the big problem.

Then, when COVID hit, all of a sudden we're getting calls from those very nonprofits that weren't reaching out when times were good. They were starting to scramble when times turned tough and it was obvious. That’s a lack of sophistication and it's lack of development acumen. If you failed fundraising 101 in good times, it's just not possible to make amends in the bad times. I think the lesson, and it's a painful lesson for some, is if you didn't have a solid donor relationship framework built when times get tough, you're going to lose. It's a cold hard truth.

However, there are other nonprofits who looked at the crisis as an opportunity to take what was already a good relationship and use us as thought partners to build out next steps. We didn't expect everybody to pivot beautifully, but we expected to be part of the conversation and part of the brain trust that our partners used to put together the next stage of events we were sponsoring and the next phase of grant work that needed to be done. Where we were included on the front end, it was seamless.

Rachel: That’s what I've been telling my clients when they are making decisions, like we're thinking about doing 'this' with our event. The first thing I ask is did you call your presenting sponsor last year? What do they want to do? Or is it too hard to do and would it make more sense if you canceled the event and find out if they want to give to you in another way?

Margaret: Exactly. Make us part of the dialogue, don't just pitch us with a new idea.

Rachel: Many nonprofits rely on sponsorship funds associated with their annual fundraising events. What's your recommendation on how nonprofits can still solicit those funds if the event was canceled or switch to virtual?

Margaret: When I spoke for the webinar, what was front of mind was a conversation I had just had that week with a non-profit that had to cancel their big gala in March. We were the presenting sponsor. When it was cancelled they came to us and said we're still giving you visibility because we put our program online. They never asked us what we wanted or needed.

And we definitely had other ideas, like doing a video and putting that on their website. When you have a video opportunity, you can also piece that out on social. People actually are paying attention to a lot of those things right now because they are online more. It’s an opportunity that offers more to your sponsors, rather than just your logo in an online program. They didn't engage with us and that's where a lot of nonprofits miss the boat.

But, there were also others that did a very good job of engaging with us, like Playworks and Ele’s Place. Another good example is Samaritas. They are rock stars. We are excited for the Drive-In event in late August. They pivoted beautifully and we are so glad that we were part of the conversation and part of the brain trust that built a new mousetrap. When we're all in it together it feels like a partnership.

Rachel: How are you guys keeping your employees involved in the community while still being mindful of social distancing?

Margaret: There's not been an easy answer to the virtual volunteering question. We’ve been testing things. We started inside the company.

What do our own people need? Do their kids need tutoring help, especially in the math area? We're a company full of mathematicians and actuaries. Math is their life. So, we were able to offer online tutoring and coaching for our own staff’s families. That helped us see what it would look like to volunteer in an online environment. Is it easy? Does it work?

We tried to get 211 to work with us and they were super excited. We have call center people, who were down for a period of time, who are familiar with responding to people in crisis. So 211 initially was so excited but the training for 211 was so deep and long and complicated so we were off and running with that and then it just didn't play out.

Ultimately, I’ll say virtual volunteering is tough. We could read books for kids, but everybody was doing that. There was nothing very unique, nothing very special. Our volunteering has definitely taken a hit.

Rachel: If there have been gala events where you'd normally have a table to fill with your employees, are you encouraging them to attend virtually?

Margaret: There are people who like to be in the social aspect that comes from in-person events and sitting at a computer is just not the same. On the flip side, I know we’ve had staff attend virtual fundraisers that maybe wouldn't have driven to Detroit to attend an event. It’s been a mixed bag that way. But, to date, we’ve participated in 38 virtual events.

We also give away backpacks. We shop for the supplies and stuff the backpacks and then send them to communities and schools, particularly in the Lansing area. So this year we're going to pack differently. We're going to have people take however many backpacks they can stuff with the dollars they’re willing to spend. They will pick up the backpacks and we'll have an ice cream truck outside where they can get a free ice cream. Then, they will take everything home and stuff them individually and drop them in our lobby.

Rachel: The last question you have already touched on a bit. Nonprofits are constantly looking to find new donors and sponsors, what's your advice on how to approach companies for financial support if they don't already have an existing relationship?

Margaret: I've got at least 100 nonprofits that we support. If you're one of those, and you're not already talking to me, don’t call me now that you’re hurting. It’s disingenuous.

However, I am open to new organizations that aren't in our portfolio saying, “Hey, did you know we exist, and we do this.” Not everything has to be directly tied to COVID or racial justice. There are things that are staples of a healthy community. Don't fabricate a COVID connection.

For example, if you are the Humane Society, there's a COVID connection. The animals are falling as a priority for people to support with all of the other issues happening. And since human and animal interactions can provide mental health support, I can see that connection. But I couldn't see the Humane Society and racial issues, connected. So, don’t stretch where it doesn’t make sense.

There are still opportunities to meet face-to-face. Having conversations in person is still best. Maybe I’m unique in this space but I don't like a lot of formal, contrived, rigid communication. I want to know - Who are you? What moves and motivates you? Where's your passion? That's how I do the matchmaking for our organization.

If the vibe is not authentic and that vibe is not powerful, I’m a little less excited about the partnership. Let's find the chemistry and the connection first. Don't overwhelm me with data and numbers. I want those because I want to see that you're effective. I’m just a big relationship person.

Rachel: I agree. There's usually a blend of both, a focus on seeing the data, stats and financials and a focus on the relationship and communication.

And that does it for my questions. Margaret, thank you for participating in this conversation. The time, resources and support that Delta Dental provides our community a shining example of what it means to give back. And, I know the candid insights your provided today will be very valuable for those working in the nonprofit space.

Visit https://buildingbrighterfutures.com and Delta Dental Foundation to learn more about how each entity gives back.

About Rachel M. Decker

Having spent nearly 20 years in the nonprofit sector as an effective and strategic fundraising and foundation executive, Detroit Philanthropy Founder and President, Rachel Decker is passionate about helping others, making meaningful connections, solving problems and, most importantly, creating impact in our community. With the founding of Detroit Philanthropy, she turned that passion into a commitment to champion philanthropy throughout metro Detroit as a philanthropic advisor, fundraising consultant and speaker.

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